Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (3.5/5)

The back says: Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged, fastidious college professor. He also likes little girls. And none more so that Lolita, whom he'll do anything to possess. Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster?... Or is he all of these?

I say: I am not sure how I feel about this novel, there are a lot of conflicting emotions going on inside me right now. On the one hand I can recognise it for the masterpiece that it invariably is, but at the same time it made me extremely uncomfortable.

As it should.

The novel starts off with a foreword letting us know that the following pages contain notes written by Humbert before his death in prison. In the notes Humbert tells us of how he falls in love with his landlady's daughter Dolores, whom he dubs Lolita. After his landlady falls in love with him and asks him to leave, he marries her in order to stay close to Lolita. The mother wants to send her to boarding school and Humbert contemplates murdering her. However, before he works up the nerve she is killed and he takes Lolita with him on a trip across America, where they live like, in his mind, lovers.

There are a jillion different interpretations of this novel (that I’m not going to present here), and I have to say that I’m glad to have finally read it so as to form my own opinion of what/who Lolita is/was. As Humbert describes in the beginning:

“Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitching travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and those chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.” - p 15
And then he goes on to say:

“A normal man given a group photograph of school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily chose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs […] the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.” - p 16
And that right there was the reason why this made me uncomfortable; reading Humbert's rationalisation of his 'condition' (if you will) and the way the he felt that Lolita was coming on to him. I have to confess here that I was reading this as satire (because, well, seriously), and that still didn't make it less uncomfortable. However, the amusing part is that Humbert considers himself sick and wrong in what he's doing to Lolita, and yet he claims that he cannot help himself because he loves her so much. He continuously hurts her and then buys her presents to mollify her. In all this he recognises there will come a time when she will leave him (he even wonders why she hasn't done so yet), and tries his hardest to make an escape impossible. It's this cool and calm calculation that gave me chills – the fact that Humbert is a learned and intelligent man and knows exactly what he's doing.

But enough about him and on to Nabokov. This is the first I’ve read by him, and as much as I appreciate and adore his love of language and turn of phrase, it became a tad too much at times. Perhaps it is Humbert I should be annoyed with; the way he was describing the different places they visited was nice for about a page or two, but then it became tiresome. Nabokov being Russian was quite evident in the wit and humour, and even the excessive use of French.

[Aside: I hate it when they don't translate the French, and yes, I know that he wrote this in English, but is a little footnote really too much to ask – I don't want to have to sit in front of my computer and google translate while I’m reading.]

So yeah, I'll give this a 3.5/5 because the language was simply too much for me; there were too many instances of Humbert veering off into tediously descriptive memories. Also, as great as this novel is for a literary discussion, I still can't shake the fact that it made me uncomfortable, and I doubt that I’ll want to read it again.

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