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.