Has anyone had the experience of reading a book that is touted by critics as a masterpiece, got to the end and wondered why you bothered? Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita in 1955 and the book was so successful that he was able to give up a teaching career at Harvard and devote himself exclusively to writing. Merveilleux! Like Moby Dick or War and Peace, it’s supposed to be one of those ‘great’ books ‘you really ought to read’ and never get around to it. The coincidence of a listening to a radio interview about the book combined with finding a copy while browsing at a used bookstore finally got me to dip into the murky depths of Professor Humbert Humbert – the handsome but mentally unstable European born professor and pedophile who pens a kind of confessional memoire about his obsession with, and possession of, Delores Haze.
Set in the late 1940’s and earlier 1950’s, Delores – Do…. Lo… Lola… Lolita, is a twelve year-old girl living in small town America with her mother. Her father has died at some unspecified point in the past and her mother has decided to rent a room in her house to Professor Humbert, who has taken a teaching position at a local college. The widow Haze falls in love with Humbert who, in turn, is captivated by her daughter. Captivated is clearly too tepid a word. He marries the mother just to get closer to the daughter. When the mother finds out his true passion she rushes distraught from her home and is run over by a car, leaving Lolita in the care of her stepfather.
Humbert has Lolita attend a local private school for a short time before his fears that she might develop attachments for boys her own age, or that someone might discover his illicit relationship with his stepdaughter, leads him to carry her away on a road trip around America. For several years he travels with her, satisfying his carnal desires while becoming ever more possessive and obsessed. Unknown to Humbert, Lolita has already fallen in love – at school and with a playwright she met while doing drama. Here is another older man willing to pursue her and his perversions are at least equal to Humbert’s. He eventually helps her run away from Humbert but then abandons her when she refuses to participate with him and his friends in ‘filthy things’.
A few years pass before Humbert receives a letter from Lolita asking for financial help. She’s now about eighteen, pregnant and married to a destitute fellow deafened during the war. Humbert comes to her aid, seeking the identity of the man that Lolita ran away with. He begs Lolita to abandon her husband and come back to him. She refuses and Humbert sets off to kill the playwright who stole his Lolita and then abandoned her.
I read once that great literature bares the soul and brings fresh illuminations to life. If one turns to the dark aspects of life found crawling beneath rocks, then Lolita is decidedly great. On the other hand, there are aspects of this book I found more meretricious than masterpiece. The first and foremost difficulty, for me, is Lolita. I didn’t find her character particularly plausible. At twelve years of age, her sexuality appears to be more like that of a jaded thirty year-old from the sixties than a middle class girl living in the early fifties. One can certainly posit that she is revealed only through the eyes of Humbert Humbert, who may not be a reliable witness, but even with this in mind, her sexualized actions still don’t accord with her age and background.
Then there’s Nabokov’s writing. The prose of this book is decidedly aimed at a select audience. Humbert Humbert and Nabokov share a European background with a classical education. Again we could posit it’s his character, rather than the writer, that is attracted to obscure and/or sesquipedalian words, profusely sprinkled with un-translated French words and phrases… les bon mots en français as it were and, O quam glorioso, a few lengthy Latin passages. Such prose may keep the classically educated glowing with anticipation, but it will make for heavy slogging for many readers. There is a part near the beginning when Humbert Humbert mentions writing something that gave a great chuckle to the seven other pedants that were attracted to his treatise… I sympathize.
Consider the following passage – an explanation by Humbert of what separates his ‘nymphets’ (the term he uses for the young girls he pursues) from those unworthy of his amorous interest:
‘Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.’
If you find this compelling prose, you may well love this book, even if it’s a bit purple for me.
Then there are the many, many pages of Humbert Humbert’s observations about Lolita’s effect on him – the obsessive adoration balanced by his passion to control her, the endless whining compounded by mental instability all leading to the final picture of a disturbed mind. I managed to get the idea long before Humbert. Even near the end of the book, at the point where he has his one redeeming glimmer that he has stolen Lolita’s childhood, I’m not convinced that there’s anything redemptive attached to this recognition. At the end of the story he decides he cannot release his memoire before both he and Lolita have departed this life. He says it’s to protect her and there may be an element of truth to that. On the other hand, he’s facing a trial for murdering the playwright and if he disclosed his sexual relationship with an underage girl, it wouldn’t help the outcome of his trial.
I suppose it surprises me that Lolita became such a popular work. I can certainly understand its appeal to a segment of the literati – Nabokov is quite the wizard at word-smithing, but as to being a universal classic – a ‘meditation on love – love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation’ – I’m not buying it.
As another great literary character once said – ‘Bah, humbug!’