Sunday, December 3, 2006
Winter Reading Challenge Book #3: Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
There’s no question Lolita is a classic. But why? I will say that by the end, I liked it a lot more than I did when I posted my mid-book rant. It’s not because the story got better, necessarily. It is that the writing is exquisite. Vladmir Nabokov was born in Russia and lived in both Germany and France before coming to America, so English is not his first language (or even second or third!). Knowing this makes it even more amazing that his prose is more beautiful than most American writers can achieve. Here are some passages I dogeared to show the beauty of his writing:
“I said nothing. I pushed her softness back into the room and went in after her. I ripped her shirt off. I unzipped the rest of her. I tore off her sandals. Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I traveled upon was so slight as to be practically undistinguishable from a madman’s fancy.”
“I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of pederosis. My accursed nature could not change, no matter how my love for her did. On playgrounds and beaches, my sullen and stealthy eye, against my will, still sought out the flash of a nymphet’s limbs, the sly tokens of Lolita’s handmaids and rosegirls. But one essential vision in me had withered: never did I dwell now on possibilities of bliss with a little maiden, specific or synthetic, in some out-of-the-way place; never did my fancy sink its fangs into Lolita’s sisters, far far away, in the coves of evoked islands.”
So you see how, even though the subject matter is disturbing, the writing is quite beautiful. So what about the subject matter, then? Well, it’s undoubtably disturbing to read a story about a 30-ish man preying on a 12 year old girl. The narrator, Humbert Humbert (a name he makes up for himself) is writing this story, or confession from jail, awaiting trial. He rented a room from a widow who had a 12 year old daughter, knowing that he had a weakness for girls, or “nymphets” as he calls them. He ends up marrying the mother to be close to the daughter. The mother dies running into traffic during an argument, and Humbert Humbert then convinces the world he is Lolita’s father. He keeps her with him by threatening orphanages and foster homes, while he expects her to “fulfill her duty” (sex) each day. A completely disgusting plot, which originally no American publisher would touch - it was originally picked up by a French publisher.
The thing is, by the end, you kind of feel sorry for him. Not totally, just kind of. He really did love her. Even when she grew out of “nymph-hood”, no one else could ever replace her for him. The part you can’t forgive is that he has no empathy for what the experience is like for her. Once he does acknowledge that he hears her cry every night, but that’s all he says about it. He only has the ability to see the situation from his own perspective. Even at the end, when she is finally with someone her own age and starting a family, he tries to convince her to run away with him, and seemingly can’t understand why she wouldn’t.
Although I was disgusted by the book at first and had trouble reading it, it is truly a fascinating look into the mind of a pedophile. It is so interesting how he realizes his “problem” but doesn’t see it as a problem. He knows he is unacceptable in society, and yet feels no need to seek help for this. He doesn’t have any concept of what he has done to her, or how her life might have been different if he hadn’t preyed on her.
It’s a difficult read, no doubt about it. But for those that are psychologically minded, it is interesting and worthwhile. I’m glad I finally read it and finished it – don’t think that would have happened without the Winter Reading Challenge!