Sunday, December 27, 2015

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

An erudite sarcastic pedophile takes the bobby soxed object of his lust on a road trip across the United States

Humbert Humbert, raised on the paradisiacal shores of the Mediterranean in the Hotel Mirana, is bathed in memories of his childhood girlfriend Annabel Leigh and their frantic unsuccessful attempts at love. After an unhappy marriage in Paris, with pit stops in several madhouses, Humbert tries his luck in America. This first person narrator lets us know, early on, that he is erotically attracted, not to fleshy women, but to frail nymphets, little girls on the cusp of puberty. These little girls are depicted, skating, skipping, and coming out of school. Humbert tries to be where they are. Through a series of fortunate plot twists, houses burning down, hips breaking, or Aubrey McFate, as he would say, he encounters Mrs. Haze, with a room to let, and Dolores, her twelve year old daughter. Fat Haze and little Haze. Circumstances conspire to leave him the sole guardian of Dolores. His original plan of drugging Lolita, as he calls her, to have his way with her, changes when the little girl apparently is up for coitus. In hiding, the pair flees across the country, giving Humbert an opportunity to sneer/admire the tawdry grandeur of America. Seeking respite, Humbert gets a job teaching French at a school very much like Wellesley College, enrolling the child in an all girls academy. As Humbert’s jealousy grows, the final part of the book turns farcical, as Humbert pursues the sex fiend who stole Lolita’s heart.

There are three parts to this book; 1) the amazing sentences completely precluding a “quick read”; 2) a love song to “America”; 3) a tragedy about lust and the ego and the inability to stop oneself from destroying another human being. Humbert presents himself as a monster. And he is. The book is split rather neatly in two. The tragedy presented in a cup of satire.

The sentences demand to be reread. This is not a book for skimming, because most of the enjoyment  comes from savoring the words. The sentences detonate – little knife twists with precise vocabulary choices –the high and the low.  I did not know the etymology of the word fascinate before. There are chunks of heavenly writing: The list of children’s names in Lolita/Dolores’s class. The amazing description of the tennis game, which also depicts his love for the girl and his love for life. Humbert views everything with a gimlet eye and right off the bat, the highly satirical truly tragical tone is taken.  The introduction has a deep emotional resonance once reread. Tragedy can’t be fixed.

I wonder if this is psychological accurate portrait of a pedophile. It seems like it is. In an extremely methodical fashion, he grooms her. Most of the time, Humbert is cruel, blinded to the little girl’s humanity. In many ways Lolita is a meditation on consent. He coerces her, maybe at first he seduces her. The book is not pornographic though its currency is the erect penis.  

The beautiful language; the paean to America, the tragedy of the destruction of a little girl’s life. And Lolita is no Little Nell. She’s a petulant brat. However, even a petulant brat deserves to have a childhood.  The plotting is a little wink wink: the hidden journal, the errant car, the house burning down. Nabokov must have enjoyed the thought of all the ignorant Americans scampering to the dictionary to look up the dirty word.

This is a masterpiece.

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