Thursday, March 20, 2008

Reader's Diary #336- Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita (FINISHED)

Reading this book was a difficult, embarrassing experience. Given the theme, which I, like most readers, was aware of long before actually picking up the book, I probably wouldn't have bothered-- except that it is Lolita, and it's one of the most discussed, and acclaimed, books of the 20th century. I couldn't understand why a book about paedophilia could be so praised. Then, I hadn't read it.

Perhaps the most difficult part, other than the obvious (i.e., cavalier references to rape), is enjoying the narrator's, Humbert Humbert's, style. Ever seen a Hitler painting?

I don't know about you, but it's hard for me to objectively judge the quality of a Hitler painting. Fortunately, Humbert is fictional and so I was able to put my contempt for the guy aside long enough to appreciate such lines as "She lit up and the smoke she exhaled from her nostrils was like a pair of tusks."

Yet, saying "I liked Lolita, except for all the paedophilia" is like saying you like pizza without the dough, sauce, pepperoni and cheese. What else is there? Nabakov preyed on the reader's discomfort expertly. I'll grant that Humbert is hard to turn away from. He's witty, he's complex, and he's conniving and psychotic. There are so many contradictions in the man, yet somehow Nabokov makes him believable.

For all Nabokov's instigation, I didn't resent him that. I'm not a big fan of shock art anymore. Too often the need for attention supersedes any philosophical point the artist was trying to make and I'm quickly bored with their antics. For such a risque topic, and the bluntness (not to be confused with detail) in which Nabokov approached it, it was obvious early on that shock was not the intent. As Humbert tries (futilely, one hopes!) to rationalize his actions to the reader, there are many larger issues to explore and in essence it digs further into the the cerebrum than shock artists ever even hope to delve.

The only time I did feel contempt for Nabokov was at the death of Lolita's mother. It's not so much that the author suddenly seemed to conspire with his narrator, it's that I've never felt an author play God as blatantly. Of course they all do, but as Humbert goes on and on about "Fate," I felt like shouting at him, "It's not fate! It's Nabakov! He's behind this!" And just as many other victims have done when struck with a catastrophe, I turned on God Nabokov. It was all important to the master plan, of course, but that doesn't make it any easier to accept.

I respect Lolita. I respect Nabakov. It was a brilliant book. He was a brilliant author. But...I didn't like the book-- it was about paedophilia afterall.

The Soundtrack
1. Thank Heaven For Little Girls- Maurice Chevalier
2. Great Balls of Fire- Jerry Lee Lewis
3. I'm on Fire (Bruce Springsteen cover)- Johnny Cash
4. Lolita- Martha Wainwright
5. Breaking The Girl- Red Hot Chili Peppers

Cross-posted at The Russian Reading Challenge.


Chrisbookarama said...

It's difficult to say I liked it without a lot of explanation 'cause, you know, I don't want to look like a perv! He just had a way with language that drew me right in.

Melwyk said...

It's the brilliance of the writing that makes this a classic. Nabokov was simply brilliant,an artist able to tackle such a subject and such a narrator meaningfully, and with complexity.

trish said...

I hate to say it, but I just wasn't really into this book. Perhaps because I tried to read it simultaneously with Reading Lolita in Tehran?

John Mutford said...

Chris: I especially liked the puns and other word play.

Melanie: It makes me want to readmore by hime for sure.

Trish: I'm reading Reading Lolita in Tehran now.

Dale said...

I haven't read it but it sounds pretty fascinating. The notoriety attached practically demands a preconceived opinion.

John Mutford said...

Dale: I agree and the whole time I was reading it, I was trying to imagine how it was way back when a reader may have picked it up without ever having heard of it.

Rob Hardy said...

My mother took a class with Nabokov at Cornell in the early 1950s. She insists that he once invited her back to his place to look at his butterfly collection, but I think she's just making that up.

Jodie Robson said...

I absolutely loathe this book, Humbert Humbert makes my flesh crawl. Effective, huh?

Anonymous said...

I remember they made the book into a Showtime movie with Jeremy Irons. It was really interesting to watch, but very disturbing. I've never read the book, but understand where your coming from.