Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
Damn it, Nabokov. I should hate you right now for daring to pen this story. But here’s the thing: I can’t. Why, you ask?
Before I let my emotions take over, it’s time to give a summary.
Humbert Humbert is a romantic who falls head over heels for a twelve-year-old girl at a young age. Unfortunately for him, she dies a few months into their relationship. He grows up enthralled by the innocence and beauty of young “nymphets” as a result, when he takes up lodgings with a Charlotte Haze and her twelve-year-old daughter, Lolita. From there, he falls completely in love with the child and marries Charlotte in order to get close to her. He documents his feelings for the girl in a private journal, admitting to his sexual desire for her. Charlotte discovers this diary and leaves to call the police, only to be run over by a car just as she gets outside.
To stall for time and finally get to be with the girl without interference, Humbert takes Lolita on a cross-country trip, fulfilling his lustful desire for her along the way. When Lolita falls ill and is taken to the hospital, Humbert goes to pick her up, only to realize that her “uncle” Quilty had already done so. Enraged, Humbert tracks her down for two years before finally finding her with a husband and pregnant. However, she did not marry the man who took her from the hospital, and tells Humbert that Quilty wanted her for child pornography, but she got away. Humbert tracks the pedophile down and shoots the man dead, after which he is arrested. Soon after, Lolita dies in childbirth, with Humbert dying of heart failure while awaiting trial shortly afterward.
If you were to look in my status updates on Goodreads, you’d find one update with a comment. I rarely write comments in there unless something really impacts me to the point where I don’t mind it being posted publicly.
The comment was simply this: Humbert is a piece of shit.
There. I said it, and I’m not taking it back because he really is a despicable human being and the words fit him perfectly. That said, I couldn’t stop reading his story because, as disgusting as it is, it is so brilliantly written! Nabokov has created this terrible, bottom-of-the-barrel human being that, for some godforsaken reason, has such a way with words that I was both disgusted and in awe at the same time. I just had to know what happened next.
“As greater authors than I have put it: ‘Let readers imagine’ etc. On second thought, I may as well give those imaginations a kick in the pants. I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a ‘young girl,’ and then, into a ‘college girl’ – that horror of horrors. The word ‘forever’ referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood.”
He is both disgusting and fascinating. Learning where his messed-up desire for “nymphets” came from really made him more sympathetic. (He’s still a piece of shit, but tragically so.) Because the trauma of losing someone at a mere twelve years old is terrible enough for anyone of any age, and his wounds show through throughout the entire story by his obsession over young female children. Eventually seeing Humbert receive his due comeuppance for his crimes by losing Lolita and spiraling down into despair, and him finally seeing that he had wronged her, is easily my favorite part of the entire story. This meditation on how lust swallowed him up to the point of committing rape (multiple times!) against her is so on-point that I was, again, in awe of this complex, interesting character Nabokov has created.
“I leaf again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of the remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity? When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past. I am convinced, however, that in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel.”
Moving on, I think I should talk about Lolita next.
In the beginning we actually don’t see much of her (it’s merely Humbert fantasizing about her), but we do get one main interaction between Lolita and her stepfather in that time.
And I thought he was raping her during that one interaction.
Once Charlotte dies, Humbert takes the girl on a cross-country trip to be alone with her. Of course, he actually does rape her on this excursion. The trip is beautifully detailed, but it doesn’t take away from the depravity of Humbert’s actions.
“‘In plainer words, if we two are found out, you will be analyzed and institutionalized, my pet, c’est tout. You will dwell, my Lolita will dwell (come here, my brown flower) with thirty-nine other dopes in a dirty dormitory (no, allow me, please) under the supervision of hideous matrons. This is the situation, this is the choice. Don’t you think that under the circumstances Dolores Haze had better stick to her old man?'”
It makes me pity Lolita all the more, because she cannot escape the situation and has nowhere to run. She is stuck with the man who she knows will rape her without question, and I found it to be incredibly tragic, and I hated Humbert for it. And, to make it even worse, we don’t even learn that much about her. Because we spend the entire narrative in Humbert’s despicable mind, we never learn anything about her, besides a few small, trivial facts.
After her time in the hospital, things just get even worse. When I found out that that sick “doctor” wanted her for child pornography, I felt like throwing up. It seemed everywhere this poor little girl turned there was someone looking to take advantage of her. Her dying in childbirth really put the nail in the coffin for me, but I do understand and accept why the story ended the way it did.
“There was the day, during our first trip – our first circle of paradise – when in order to enjoy my phantasms in peace I finally decided to ignore what I could not help perceiving, the fact that I was to her not a boy friend, not a glamour man, not a pal, not even a person at all, but just two eyes and a foot of engorged brawn – to mention only mentionable matters. There was the day when having withdrawn the functional promise I had made her on the eve (whatever she had set her funny little heart on – a roller rink with some special plastic floor or a movie matinee to which she wanted to go alone), I happened to glimpse from the bathroom, through a chance combination of mirror aslant and door ajar, a look on her face … that look that I cannot exactly describe … an expression of helplessness so perfect that it seemed to grade into one of rather comfortable inanity just because this was the very limit of injustice and frustration – and every limit presupposes something beyond it – hence the neutral illumination.”
And, finally, I need to put in a word about Quilty.
He was played off to be such a minor character in the beginning. It was only during the road trip that Humbert takes with Lolita that I really started feeling the man’s presence, in the form of Humbert’s “brother” Trapp. At that point, I was thinking that Humbert was just losing his mind (like he already hadn’t!) and would end up shooting somebody at some point. That is how well Nabokov shoved the man into the background, always saying exactly what was needed to keep the tension and never giving too much away. This creates tension that is really perfect for the situation. If I were to criticize anything, I wish we had been reminded that Quilty existed a little more often, because it made it a bit difficult to decipher who “Trapp” really was. Granted, I could have just missed it and a reread could fix that, so it’s not a huge deal at all. To sum up, I have to admit that I don’t know who’s worse, Humbert or Quilty, and it’s unsettling to me that I am still pondering this. That’s genius writing right there!
And now let’s move on to structure. The story is written in such a way that, as I said, it is gripping. Nabokov has this way with words that makes it so hard to put down. If I were to criticize anything, again, it would be that Nabokov really needed to put annotations for the French terms in the edition I have.
Now I have to decipher everything on Google Translate!
In the end, though, I am really glad I decided to pick this up. Nabokov has created a modern classic that I am sure will be enjoyed for years to come.
And I think this is where I’ll end off. Sherlock?
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