Lolita. It’s been on my to read pile for a while now. It is a novel that, with reputation and all, stands as one of the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century. Not that I appeal to authority, but given the book’s literary presence, in no way do I think Lolita qualifies as one of the 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century. It’s a good book certainly, but much of its reputation, I have to believe, is due to the controversial subject matter for its day, as well as critics cribbing from one another their overpraise for the book.
First of all, putting the story aside, Lolita begins with one of the absolute worst openings in literary history. It’s right up there with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Don’t believe me? Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. Barf. Two clichés and we’re not even done with the first sentence. Yet, after this burp, the prose is quite eloquent and well written. In fact, Lolita is a very good novel, yet what keeps it from being great is that the lead character, Humbert, is a dull and dirty old man with minimal complexity. So he likes young girls. And? Likewise, Lolita is a rather petulant brat, so it becomes clear that character complexity is not really Nabokov’s strength, as it is with someone like Chekhov, for example.
Yet what is his strength is the eloquence of the prose itself, as well as his pleasant description:
- And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-iliac garland still as brief as a lad’s, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defined with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.
One can clearly see that the speaker (in this case, Humbert) has a natural way with words, and this only assists in conveying his erudite and pompous manner (he sounds like a typical, annoying college professor – you know, the type who enjoys quoting obscure passages in order to sound intelligent). And Lolita is nothing more than an object suited for his own pleasure, referring to her as a “nymphet.” Yet I have to give Humbert credit – at least he’s not misleading the readers into thinking that he actually cares for her.
So here’s some of what happens: Humbert, who is at a personal loss after having his first love die years earlier, ends up renting from a woman who happens to have this really attractive child daughter, Dolores (Lolita). Dolores’ mother is annoying yet Humbert marries her anyway so he can be close to her daughter. His infatuation with Lolita begins immediately, and so he keeps a diary recording all the lust he feels for her until Charlotte (Dolores’ mother) finds it. Eventually, Charlotte dies and Humbert goes to retrieve Lolita, telling her that her mother is alive but ill. They go on a cross-country trip, fornicate, etc., till the young girl learns he lied to her about her mother. She in turn resents him, but has nowhere to go, and ultimately has to depend on him. Eventually, through some turn of events, Lolita ends up married and pregnant by another man at the age of 17 (and without a doubt, much less attractive in Humbert’s eyes).
Of course, while all these events are taking place, Humbert is contemplating Lolita’s beauty and how she will lose it once she is no longer a nymphet. His thoughts towards her are no doubt repulsive, yet Nabokov does an excellent job normalizing it all. After a while, readers become used to Humbert’s childish fantasies, since Humbert spends such a great deal of time rationalizing it. In Humbert’s world, it all makes sense.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to the story are the multiple names Lolita has, thereby illuminating the point that she is viewed as a different person by different people. She is Lolita to Humbert, Lo to her mother, her friends call her Dolly at school, and when she marries she takes on her birth name: Dolores.
- She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
It’s never really about Lolita the individual per se, but about how she is viewed by others. Having said that, Lolita herself is nothing more than a narrative tool, used to propel the desires within Humbert’s mind. This becomes the crux of the book, since the entire story is his memoir.
The only flaw I can offer is that the narrative does tend to plod on a bit towards the end, and such is what makes Lolita a very good book rather than a great one. Also, my mention that Humbert is really nothing more than a dirty, pathetic old man — albeit more insightful than average — makes for shortcomings that limit the deeper resonance his character can have. Though that’s not to say there aren’t moments of greater depth. Here’s a good moment that shows off his insight:
- There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open … and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Lolita).
Yet even despite his eloquence and education, Humbert is shallow and unlikable. Of course, one does not need to “like” a lead character in order for a book to succeed, but since this tale is only told from Humbert’s point of view, we are not given multiple viewing angles the way Dreiser does in Sister Carrie (a book also about shallow characters, yet the narrative steps away from this). Although emotion holds no place in criticism, I admire Lolita for its strengths, yet it is not a book I particularly enjoyed reading.
Also, the chapters did not use their brevity to their advantage. The short sections reminded me of the style used in Evan S. Connell’s Mr. & Mrs. Bridge. Yet, Connell is better at distilling his scenes than Nabokov, he is better at character development, and really getting into the root of a person. I am inclined to guess that Connell might have been influenced by Lolita’s structure, yet Connell went beyond Nabokov. Mrs. Bridge is no literary scholar, and far from being the deepest person on the planet, yet Connell is able to convey a depth to her that Nabokov could not.
So I leave you, readers, with Lolita – a book worth the exploration, but given such lofty reputation, it is likely to leave one disappointed, even if only slightly.