Tuesday, 2 March 2004

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita (1956)

Edition: Penguin, 1980
Review number: 1225

Lolita is probably the most famously scandalous novel of the twentieth century, and still packs a punch as its subject is one of the remaining sexual taboos - the seduction of a twelve year old girl by a paedophile. (Lolita's age was raised slightly in the famous film made of the novel.) The novel, supposedly memoirs written in an asylum, concentrate on three years or so in the life of Humbert Humbert (a wonderful, but assumed name) together with some background to explain how he came to be attracted to young girls of the type he calls "nymphets". In a small Eastern US town, Humbert falls for the his landlady's daughter, Dolores Haze, also known as Lolita. But the girl's mother has at the same time fallen for Humbert, and eventually he marries Charlotte Haze as part of a scheme to seduce Lolita. She finally finds out about his passion for her daughter (Humbert keeps a secret journal, rather recklessly). After confronting him, Charlotte runs from the house, only to be run over by a passing car and killed. This event catalyses Humbert's seduction of Lolita, and the two of them set off on a mammoth car journey across America.

There are three very clever contrasting pairs which basically make Lolita work in the way that it does. First, Nabokov makes all three main characters thoroughly dislikeable, to the extent that Humbert's story sometimes seems to be describing a competition where the aim is to be as unpleasant as possible. This is, of course, about the only way to make Humbert not come over as a complete monster. (It should also be remembered, of course, that Humbert is the narrator - so that even if we believe his claims that he is telling things exactly as they happened without excusing himself, we have to remain aware that we are only seeing things from his point of view.) At the same time, all three are victims: Lolita most obviously, but her mother is trapped by her infatuation for Humbert into a situation which leads to her death, and Humbert, also trapped in an infatuation for someone not very nice, describes himself as a sick man whose actions are driven by his illness.

His infatuated reconstruction of Lolita and her true nature form a contrast which is the second of Nabokov's clever touches. She is clearly shown to be a not very bright, selfish and vulgar adolescent, and yet even while he realises this, Humbert is helplessly captivated by everything about her - even her faults. The dual nature of the idealised and real Lolita is brilliantly conveyed by Nabokov. If Lolita could be said to have a wider application than its sensational subject matter suggests, it is in Nabokov's delineation of the nature of infatuation. (The author, however, denied that the novel has any kind of moral.)

The third contrast is between the sordid activities of the three main characters and the beautiful, poetic writing style. Two of the most masterly writers of English prose in the twentieth century, Nabokov and Conrad, did not have it as their first language. Nabokov goes so far in the afterword to Lolita, his first English novel, to deplore his writing as second rate by comparison with the "untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue". This is surely too self deprecating to be a true comment on how he felt about his English writing; however, my Russian isn't good enough to check out whether his novels in that language are as good or better. When one thinks about influential prose styles from the fifties, the obvious names that come to mind are "beat" writers like Kerouac or Burroughs; but I think that Nabokov's writing has had more impact on the mainstream English novel.

Although widely attacked as pornographic, there is nothing titillating about Lolita. The novel is not a pleasant read, but it is certainly like a journey which requires frequent stops to admire a particularly beautiful view. It is entirely deserving of its position as one of the twentieth century's most admired novels.

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