Re-reading Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”…

by Kathleen Valentine

Recently I got into a bit of a kerfuffle on another web site where my novel Each Angel Burns was reviewed and the reviewer took exception to some of the themes in the book. She was perfectly within her right to do so and I have no issue with her review, but it made me start thinking about novels that genuinely shook me up, novels that contained something that, well, frankly, shocked me. I wrote a post on my blog about it called Controversial Subject Matter in Religiously-themed Books. After it was posted I began thinking about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It is not a religiously-themed book, of course, but it certainly shocked the world. I went in search of my copy and began re-reading.

I can understand why it is a great novel if only for the beauty of Nabokov’s language. He loves words and plays with them beautifully, musically, carrying you along through some truly revolting ideas with mellifluous language.

I am about two-thirds of the way through, and will finish if only to assure myself (again) that Humbert does indeed die, but I don’t ever recall disliking a character more than I do Humbert Humbert. Which begs the question, how does one handle reading a beautifully written and constructed book filled with revolting and unsympathetic characters? I guess I’m sticking with it to find out.

On my blog I have often complained about the very popular miz-lit books — those sad, depressing books about how awful someone’s life was — but this book does not fall into that category – I think. The redeeming value, apart from the beauty of the writing, is still eluding me but I’m willing to trust that a novel that has withstood the amount of time this one has, did so for a reason. I have yet to find any of the characters to be sympathetic but am also aware that, because Humbert is the narrator, it may be his inherently detestable nature that makes them seem so. His descriptions of women – other than his adored and salivated-over nymphets – are scathing and he doesn’t have any more tolerance of men. I have to give Nabokov credit, he has gotten inside the head of a thoroughly revolting human being and brought him vividly to life. I admire Nabokov for that though do not envy him. I doubt I’d have that amount of courage.

The central issue of Humbert’s character, of course, is his overwhelming erotic obsession with “girl-children”, his nymphets over which he rhapsodizes endlessly, and his possession of Lolita, the 12 year old daughter of a woman he married who was conveniently run over by a truck a month later — leaving him with this child. Now, the thing is, Charlotte, the mother, as seen through Humbert’s eyes, was a really nasty piece of work and his observations on her may not be entirely unfair. Her treatment of Lolita is disturbing and her scheming to snare the single Humbert when he comes to board with them is embarrassing. So she’s no prize. And, apart from her physical allure for him, Humbert doesn’t much like Lolita either. She’s a spoiled, whiney brat and one gets the sense that he would be much happier if she were entirely stupid and completely lacking in a will of her own.

In one paragraph Humbert muses over the fact that he only has a couple of years in which to “enjoy” her before she turns into a teenager, a “detestable creature”, and then a “revolting, heavy-bottomed co-ed”. He muses about how he will dispose of her when that day comes but then does entertain the notion that it might be worthwhile to keep her until marriageable age so that he can legally marry her, get her with child and begin breeding himself a second Lolita, a daughter/granddaughter, with his “own blood running in her lovely veins”, who might become old enough for him to use for his pleasure while he is still virile enough to do so. He even goes so far as to fantasize about maintaining his masculinity long enough for the violation of a third generation – a Lolita III.

Clearly, I am still having problems with this book. I don’t think I’m alone in that and, to a certain extent, I think it is an important book for the inside-the-head look at a pedophile it provides. I know there are Humberts in this world, though I wish there weren’t, and I think Nabokov, in some strange, subtle way, is illuminating something else, something more than the eroticization of girl-children in many segments of society. Humbert is an arrogant, self-absorbed man who sees no reason why he should not have what he desires. Maybe it is that alone, more than his sexual obsession, that differentiates him from too many others. That is the truly frightening part.

8 responses to “Re-reading Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”…

  1. HH is not only a pedophile but a misogynist. Who was it, I wonder, who turned this book into such a literary classic? Male reviewers, maybe?

  2. Ruth, I have long been of the opinion that you cannot judge a work from a different era by contemporary values. You are correct that Humbert was a misogynist but in 1955 when that book was published that was not unique. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this book recently and the more I think about it, the more I think Nabokov did a very brave thing in writing it and exposing something that was a lot more common than people knew. He gave the world a look inside the head of a pedophile and that was something no one had ever done before.

    There is one scene that struck me particularly when Humbert takes Lolita to a resort and, as they are passing a man, the man says “where did you get her?” He goes on to write more about this guy and it struck me because it is so disturbing and yet, what would be more disturbing — writing about the reality so people were aware of men like that or turning a blind eye and facilitating their perversion?

  3. Pretty likely, Ruth.

    Good points, Kathleen. Still, I’m never sure I need that information tucked into my psyche. I must admit I never did read the book after I saw the Kubrick movie ~ which I understand was not very true to the original ~ and that was enough depravity for me. Edifying and beautifully written though it may be…

    Have you finished the book?

  4. Yes, I wrote a thesis on it in college and re-read it again recently. I’ll tell you I am a lot less disturbed by this than I am by the current crop of books about girls kidnapped by pedophiles which are marketed to the YA readers. Some girls are romanticizing them and that scares the crap out of me. I blogged about it the other day:

  5. Wow, Kathleen, I read your blog. Perhaps like you I am just getting too old (and perhaps my upbringing too ‘straight’) to understand, but it seems to me as if young girls are being exploited more now in this supposedly more enlightened age, than ever. I hope that young girl you quoted discovers what it is to make love in her lifetime, but I fear for her chances of that.

    It could be that my perspective is all wrong and she will grow to be a great well-rounded mate with a loving and open family. She will certainly have the experience of the contrast…

  6. Sharon (and Ruth), what disturbs this old feminist the most about this is that it is women who are writing this stuff, women who are buying it, and women who are fantasizing about it. Us old 60s warhorses want to believe it is men who think this stuff up and perpetuate it but it is women who turn it into “romance”. Baffles me. After my horrible experience with women on the Amazon Discussion Boards who beat the crap out of me when I questioned the appeal of so-called “forced romance” (aka rape romance) I can’t blame men for this.

  7. That bites Kathleen. I haven’t been around the boards much, so I missed that. What is it about women that we have such low self-esteem. If a grown woman decides that kind of romance turns them on it’s one thing, but if this stuff is being sold to the YA crowd, that demands it be brought to the attention of parents. The other creepy part of this is I can well imagine the boys getting hold of it and thinking they want a piece of the action (pun intended).

  8. Yes, I agree that these books send the message that women/girls secretly want to be raped and that no-no-no means yes-yes-yes. However when it comes to self-esteem I’ve met quite a few young women in these discussions who would take BIG issue with that. They think it is the fact that they have self-confidence that allows them to play at risky sexual behaviors. That young woman’s comment about “battle scars” being the sign of a “great lay” really, really haunts me.