Caveat: if you haven’t read Lolita, you might want to just skim this post, because I’m going to talk about it in a fair bit of detail. Of course, if you haven’t read Lolita, you probably think you know what it’s about, anyway, because it’s a big, distorted cultural icon. Trust me. You should read it.

From the very beginning, when we discover that our monstrous, and monstrously suave, narrator has called himself Humbert Humbert, Lolita has an odd doubling effect. There are at least two and sometimes three of everything in this novel. Two nymphets: the first, long-ago girl, Annabel Leigh Cooper (and yes, the references to Poe come thick and fast), and of course Dolly, Lo, L, Lo-lee-ta herself. Two wives, both hastily dispensed with. (The scene in which Humbert’s first wife leaves him for a gallant Russian colonel is both extremely funny and darkly revealing.) Two pederasts. The Enchanted Hunters as a hotel and as a play, and then of course as the enchanted hunter looking for his missing prey. Listen to the description of the hotel room in The Enchanted Hunters:

There was a double bed, a mirror, a bathroom door ditto, a blue-dark window, a reflected bed there, the same in the closet mirror, two chairs, a glass-topped table, two bedtables, a double bed: a big panel bed, to be exact, with a Tuscan rose chenille spread, and two frilled, pink-shaded nightlamps, left and right.

Dizzy yet?

Because this book is dizzying. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style, says Humbert, and we read, lips parted, passionate, astonished at what Humbert (Nabokov?) is doing with the language, and at the “gagging, bursting beast” just below the beauty of the prose. Humbert is a villain; of that there’s no doubt. He says he has “striking if somewhat brutal good looks,” and is “an exceptionally handsome male.” (But he also has “agate claws.” Shudder.) He must not be too attentive to women lest they come “toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap.” Poor Humbert, the victim of all these women! Is it his fault if he’s handsome?

And he’s so careful, so gentle with lovely Lolita. The first time he’s alone with her, he molests her surreptitiously. (There are signs that she knows what he’s doing, but he ignores them.) He’s thrilled with his perfect crime:

I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor…. What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita — perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness — indeed, no life of her own.

The child knew nothing. I had done nothing to her. And nothing prevented me from repeating a performance that affected her as little as if she were a photographic image rippling upon a screen and I a humble hunchback abusing myself in the dark.

Well, there are worse monsters in the world. At least he didn’t rape her. She knew nothing about it! And —

You see. What this book demands is constant vigilance, constant engagement, constant pushing back against a monstrously sympathetic narrator who is desperately in love. Humbert wants to erase the real Lolita — her past, her parents, her candy bars and comic books, her real self, her very life — and replace it with “another, fanciful Lolita.” In this way he can excuse himself, pretend he has never harmed his darling. But who is being abused in the dark?

Haze is her last name, and even Humbert reminds us of umbra, shadow: we are always fighting against a fog that is dangerously rich and neurotically dark. At times, Humbert reminds us of this himself: “The reader will regret to learn that soon after my return to civilization I had another bout of insanity (if to melancholia and a sense of insufferable oppression that cruel term must be applied).” But most of the time, we are on our own. 

The title of the book is Lolita. Who is Lolita, the real one? We are given so little: most of what we see is through Humbert’s obsessive ramblings about Lo, the nymphet, the daemon who is not a real child. But every now and then we see a glimpse of the damage, obliquely:  “There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.” Her sobs in the night. Her behavior at school. Her longing for a family: parents, a “small, chubby brother,” grinning dogs — because, of course, Lolita once had a baby brother, too. And of course, her final disappearance and transformation. This is no love-nest, and no family, but a prison to be escaped at any cost. When she escapes, she becomes herself once and for all: Dolly, not Lo.

In the end, Aubrey McFate, who has been lurking here and there throughout the book, finds all the characters. We know from “John Ray’s” somber foreword what happens, and now we know to whom. John Ray says there is a moral: protect the children. Nabokov, in his afterword, says there isn’t. Instead: 

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

Well, V.N., I’d call that a moral. Humbert Humbert is criminally incurious. He is not just irritated but enraged by anything that falls outside his twin (!) obsessions of self and fanciful nymphet. Tenderness and kindness are artificial means to an end. And when I am caught up in the murderer’s trademark fancy prose style, I find myself complicit in this violation, incurious about Lolita, incurious about the barber in Kasbeam, incurious about anything but the next sentence. The moral may not be “keep your hands off little girls.” It may simply be “listen to the suffering” — the sobs in the night. In that way, we can understand why Nabokov makes Grey Star the capital city of the novel.

I can’t sum up how I felt about this book. I feel… educated by it. Reading it, I wanted at once to read it as fast as I could and to slow down, way down, and read each word one at a time. I wanted to ease into it like a hot bath and to push against it, hard, like ice skating. I will read it again and again. It’s a masterpiece.

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31 Responses to Lolita

  1. Sigrun says:

    I read the most fantastic paraphrase over “Lolita” recently. Its a book written by the Swedish author Sara Stridsberg called “Darling River”. Hopefully it will be translated into English very soon.
    She talks about her own project – in English – here:

    • Jenny says:

      This does sound like an interesting take on the project, Sigrun. I’d be very interested in taking a look at it if it’s ever translated.

  2. Harriet says:

    I read this many many years ago and thought it amazing — I should re-read it to see how it strikes me now. This is a really excellent review. Many thanks.

    • Jenny says:

      I think re-reading could only add layers of understanding that I missed the first time. It’s clear to me that there’s much more to this book than what I caught on the first go-round!

  3. litlove says:

    Fantastic review! I just love what you say about doubling, because it’s true and I hadn’t seen it before. Also love that remark about HH being ‘criminally incurious’, I read this a couple of years ago now, but still remember it as a shining book. I agree it’s a masterpiece.

    • Jenny says:

      I recall your review of the first half of it, but I don’t remember anything from your finished opinion. (I might have just missed it.) I’d love to hear what you had to say. And shining, yes, but so dark, too!

  4. Jeanne says:

    Constant Vigilance! That’s my daughter’s byword, from the Harry Potter books. Such a good way to think about this novel. And I loved reading through and seeing how you responded to the parts you quote.

    • Jenny says:

      I kept saying that to my husband as I was reading. It was a much more tiring experience, reading this, than it is with most books, because I had to keep pushing back. I am so grateful when I’m required to do such heavy lifting.

  5. Beverly Penn says:

    This is by far one of the best analyses I’ve read of “Lolita”. Thank you for sharing with us your findings and reactions. I really love your point about the mirror-images and doubles; perhaps this represents the double-side to all of us. Good and bad. No person is wholly evil. And perhaps this further connects to your last point about suffering, for it isn’t just poor Lolita who suffers, but Humbert, the melancholy narrator, as well.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I’m reluctant to ascribe much good to Humbert, because he truly is a terrible, solipsistic monster of egotism who wants to erase a little girl for his own erotic ends, and almost succeeds. His suffering matters, because all suffering does, but I fear his tears (and there are many of them) matter less to me than Lolita’s. Whether he eventually begins to realize his own evil, and I think he does, is less important than the narrative strategies he uses to get there.

  6. Care says:

    No need to warn anyone from reading this review if they haven’t read the book. I read the book and this certainly does not spoil anything. I don’t think think it is a book you could ever know too much about going in. I want to try the Irons audio version next. FABULOUS post.
    (be warned I get so many spam comments because I mention this book – I never even got around to reviewing it! and my spam catcher is just disgusting with what gets sent there.)

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think it is a book you could ever know too much about going in.

      I totally agree. I don’t think, from my experience so far, that Nabokov can be spoiled, and in fact can only be enhanced by knowing the most possible about the book in advance, preferably by having read it before, more preferably still several times, most preferably in a class with a good teacher. Still, some people are choosy.

  7. The bizarre and mistaken notions people who have not read Lolita have about the novel – that has been, perhaps, the #1 surprising revelation I have gotten reading book blogs.

    • Jenny says:

      The fact that “Lolita” has culturally come to mean “a sexually precocious or predatory girl” is enough to show you that much.

      And what about young America/ old Europe? Or is that still up for debate?

      • Now that’s a good point. By “people,” I actually meant “readers,” people who spend a lot of time with books, but have picked up deuced peculiar notions about this one.

        The “old Europe” thing is clever, but to take it seriously would mean that “old Europe” is not just decrepit or degenerate, but evil, which is an awfully strong argument.

      • Jenny says:

        Well, okay, yes (and I agree that we should all mean “readers” when we say “people.”) I read that Robertson Davies, of all people, absolved Humbert of all wrongdoing and said that Lolita was a corrupt little girl seducing an older man. Presumably Robertson Davies spent time with books? And had even read this one?

      • Once people – readers (we should say readers when we mean readers – which I failed to do) – actually read the book, their misconceptions are cleared up pretty quickly.

        Although not every reader – look at that amazing Davies example. Right into the trap – ker-snap!

      • Jenny says:

        Of course, now I feel like misquoting Lina Lamont. “People? I ain’t people! I read more than Calvin Coolidge — put together!”

  8. Melody says:

    I really enjoyed reading your review–exactly how I wish I’d felt reading Lolita! Unfortunately it didn’t strike me that way at all, I just felt sick for little Dolores the entire time–could hardly appreciate the writing after that first amazing paragraph because the rest was just too much for me. I don’t think I’m usually like that, so I’m not sure why the content affected me so much with this one. But I just found it very very sad, all around. Thank you, though, for voicing so perfectly your response to the book. :)

    • Jenny says:

      Well, it’s a very powerful book. There’s no need to feel even slightly apologetic for being overwhelmed by it; in fact, I think you were being affected by the writing when you were affected that way. The fact that Nabokov can make us simultaneously sick for Lolita and understanding of Humbert’s desires is an enormous tribute to the prose.

  9. Jenny says:

    I need to read this book again! It’s been years now since I read it. I hardly remember anything except that one line about Lolita having absolutely nowhere else to go. That still gives me chills when I think about it.

  10. It’s been a while since I read this book, but I remember being absolutely captivated by it, and your discussion of it brought a lot of that back. I love how you phrase that you must keep vigilance because of the sympathetic narrator. Nabokov does such an unbelievable job of skewing “normality” and our expectations of it.

    • Jenny says:

      Humbert explains so carefully that things are different for him, in his “princedom by the sea,” and then explains that Lolita is not a real girl, and then takes her away from family and friends and any normal context into the infinite multiplication of hotels and motels. It’s impossible to keep track of what’s normal, without constantly reminding yourself to stay awake: perhaps tattooing on your page-turning hand, “You molested her, you douchebag.”

  11. mumble says:

    Well, Jenny has done a serious and thorough job of reading and reviewing a classic, and I’ll get back to it when I’m in a serious and thorough mood. However, I’m currently disposed to frivolity (don’t worry: it will pass; it always does), which leads me to mention three places where Lolita gets a brisker treatment:

    Firstly, in Brideshead Abbreviated by John Crace of the Guardian newspaper in England, who writes a column, terrifying to authors, called “Digested Read”. Each column takes on a serious work of literature and reduces it, devastatingly, to less than three pages (“Let me commencer by saying how much I hate my père et mère. Along with everyone else…”).

    Brideshead Abbreviated is a collection of a hundred significant twentieth-century books, ten per decade. [Note to Teresa: including Right Ho, Jeeves] And, of course Lolita. This book is highly recommended for anyone looking for a thumping good dose of mezzo-brow snark. It is currently in print.

    Secondly, all fans of the late, great Jean Kerr (the Please Don’t Eat the Daisies lady), which is all right-thinking people everywhere, need to know that her classic collection, The Snake Has All the Lines, includes an essay “Can This Romance Be Saved?: Lolita and Humbert Consult a Marriage Counsellor”: “It was a mistake to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and the Ladies’ Home Journal on the same evening…” It’s libraries and second-hand sources for this one, I’m afraid.

    And, finally. E.O. Parrott’s How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening obviously has to include Lolita, and does, and much else besides. Everything, in fact that you need to become ridiculously well-read in one evening. This book, and his others, is commonly found in second-hand book-stores and occasionally via third-party sellers on Amazon.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for this!

      Not to be picky, but although Humbert and Lolita were both married, it wasn’t to each other, and it wasn’t at the same time. I’m thinking that what romance there is in Lolita mostly resides in the structure, and is naturally doomed from the start.

  12. softdrink says:

    You should try the audio with Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert. It really gave me a sense of how beautiful the language in the book is…especially since when I read it I was too distracted trying to figure out the meaning of all the obscure words!

    • Jenny says:

      Some of those words are inventions (like “parkle”) so there’s no use figuring them out!

      Thanks for the recommendation for the audio. I think Jeremy Irons would be great.

  13. Alex says:

    Great review Jenny!

    “constant pushing back against a monstrously sympathetic narrator who is desperately in love” – that words perfectly the experience of reading the book. I felt it even more because I (also) listen to it in audiobook, read by Jeremy Irons. Just like in the movie, he’s the perfect HH: so engaging, such a smooth manic.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think I want to see the movie, despite the fact that I love Jeremy Irons. I’m guessing they soften the impact, and they couldn’t include the prose. But the audio version sounds good.

  14. rebeccareid says:

    I have yet to find the courage to read more Nabakov but I know I must at some point. I have heard so many times that it is so wonderfully written and impressive.

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