Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book 49: Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I was seriously dreading this novel and it took me quite awhile to finish it (by my standards). Having said that, I "enjoyed" it more than the last time I read it which was several years ago though I still wouldn't say I found it to be a pleasurable reading experience. Since this is a classic and the Pajiba Book Club selection for February, I am not going to worry too much about any spoilers (I don't think I'm going to blurt out the very end, either, but you never know).

The novel begins with an introduction by a fictional character, telling the reader that what was to follow was the journal of a man that had died in prison. All the names and locations had been changed and obscured enough to prevent identification of the people concerned. Humbert Humbert begins by describing his early life and his interest in young girls, or "nymphets," attempting to rationalize it with his unfulfilled, lost love at thirteen years old. Eventually, he left Europe, moved to the States and ended up as a boarder to Charlotte Haze and her daughter, Dolores or Dolly or as Humbert calls her, Lo, Lola, Lolita.

I've read a few different reactions to this novel, and I know some have found it humorous, others have felt conflicted because they feel sympathy for Humbert, and others mention the language. I kept myself at a distance from the character the entire time I was reading so I never felt sympathy and often found myself arguing with him (gee, you were in love with a thirteen year old when you were that age and it defined who you'd like from then on - that happens to others, too, but that means they look for similar traits in other people such as blond, tall, whatever - not 13 year olds - for the rest of their lives!). And I hate to admit this, but many times when I hear about how beautiful the writing is in a certain novel, I often don't get it. I will find passages I like but for the most part, I am more likely to feel bored. I realize that makes me sound incredibly superficial and pedestrian. It was a similar case with Lolita. I could appreciate the language in some places (especially when he describes Lolita as a tennis player) and other times just wanted it to move forward.

I preferred the first half of the novel to the second half, and this may well be due to the subject matter. In Part I, Humbert is obsessing about a 12 year old girl and he is in his late thirties at this point. He tells the reader all about his attraction to young girls and his past life but he doesn't actually do anything until the very end (yes, there are moments where he sneaks kisses and embraces her inappropriately before that but it's still mainly in his head). In Part II, he has her, and he tells of his life on the road with Lolita and then his act as her father once they are settled in a town. Not only does he steal her childhood with his abuse, he then decides to be a "good" father that enforces all kinds of rules, mainly to prevent her meeting someone else or ruining his perfect set-up (overly simplified, yes, I know).

The thing is, though, and this may really depend on one's attitude already going into the novel but I don't feel like Nabokov wants us to sympathize with his protagonist or feel sorry for him. He sets Humbert up as an unreliable narrator by alluding to his previous breakdowns (and he definitely becomes paranoid in Part II) but also by telling us that the guy is into little girls. Pedophiles, rapists, etc. can rationalize their actions pretty damn well, and just because they can eloquently explain or excuse themselves does not mean that they are not doing wrong or completely misreading the situation. Do I really doubt Humbert when he says Lolita seemed to have a crush on him when he first became her mother's boarder? Absolutely not. When I was that age, I was starting to develop crushes on all kinds of older movie stars, such as Brad Pitt (I'm going to avoid mentioning certain boy bands because they were closer to my age and I'm discussing a 40 year old here - also, it's kind of embarrassing). Does that mean if Brad Pitt had shown up on my doorstep he would have had any right to take advantage of that? Hell no. So while I am more than willing to believe that Lolita was at that age where she might have been experimenting with how to get male attention and even flirting with Humbert, him acting on it is completely reprehensible.

And that's the thing that bugs me most about this novel - it isn't the actual storyline, it isn't any of the characters, it isn't Nabokov because as I said, I don't think he wants us to like Humbert, it's society's reaction to this. When people hear Lolita, they think little girl that SEDUCED a grown man. To quote Vanity Fair on the back of my version of the novel, "the only convincing love story of our century." Seriously? Seriously? Even Humbert, the main character, begins to realize just how much he hurt Lolita by the end and that he stole her childhood: "that had not something within her been broken by me" (232) - what more do you need to realize that this story may be about obsession but it's not a love story! One of the participants had no free will.

I guess I really didn't talk about the novel itself too much - overall, it's still not one of those books I would want to reread over and over again, and while I felt bad for Lolita, I didn't think a single character was very likable. Of course it doesn't help that everything was portrayed through Humbert's eyes, and he is a rather pretentious and cynical human. There were a lot of things going on in the novel that I couldn't relate to, and just seemed kind of out there, such as Rita - I didn't see much point in her existence in the novel. I'm sure it will lead to some interesting discussion tomorrow. Of course as it turns out, I'm not going to have access to a computer for the first half of the day so I hope I don't miss out on too much of it.

1 comment:

Denesteak said...

Yea, it's unfortunate how society has misconstrued the term "Lolita," though a part of it might be because the book is told form Humbert Humbert's POV, and he also portrays himself as so helpless to the charms of Lolitas and nymphets... And I guess the quick take-away from it is the term. If anyone has ever read the book, I think it would be no question as to who the more powerful one in that sick relationship was.

Rita was soooo random.