Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Lolita by Vladimir Nabukov

No plot summary needed because I think most people are well acquainted with this particular story. I read this book as my choice for the “Banned or Censored Classic” for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. This book was banned in the UK  and in France, in the late 1950s although it was eventually published in both countries. I can’t find any Internet evidence, however, that it was banned in the U.S. at all which really surprised me, given that Forever Amber was banned less than 10 years earlier and having read both, I would say that Lolita is more explicit and much, much more disturbing.

I read Reading Lolita in Teheran a few years ago. Probably mostly because the title alludes to it, but I specifically recall  Azar Nafisi’s deconstruction of this novel.  In particular she elucidated on how Humbert Humbert not only physically imprisons Delores, but how he denies her her own existence outside of himself figuratively and metaphorically as well. This is something I thought a lot about as I read Lolita.    

 I know that Nabokov is revered for his writing but I wasn’t really able to appreciate it as such. I realize there is a lot that I missed; references to other works, etc. But even if I could unequivocally state that this was the best written novel ever, it is, in my opinion, a very unpleasant story and no amount of Humbert Humbert's charm can deflect from that.  There are a few books that I have read where I am sure that I would have appreciated them more when I was younger, but this is a book that I am glad I read when I was older and somewhat wiser. I don’t know if I would have been able to see past some of the roadblocks that Humbert puts up had I been a younger and more na├»ve reader.

I don’t know what Nabokov’s intent was when writing this book, but clearly publishers and the public at large have also been seduced by Humbert Humbert. Just look at the freaking cover art for most of the editions of it (thankfully mine published by Everyman’s Library only has a photo of the author); why is Delores objectified again and again? Why do we use the term culturally “Lolita” to mean a “nymphette” as defined by Humbert? These facts are as disturbing as the book itself.

7 comments:

  1. I'm looking forward to eventually getting to Reading Lolita in Teheran. It's been in the queue for quite a while now.

    I wasn't sure what I was getting into with Lolita, but I have to say I really enjoyed it. Unsettling subject matter for sure, but he wrote it in a way that made it palatable for me. I think the fact that he was never really shown as a sympathetic character, or that his views were acceptable, allowed me to read it without being put forced to try and ignore my own feelings in view of his. If that makes any sense.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Rob. Reading Lolita in Teheran was a bit hit and miss for me (and spoilery for some of the classic novels discussed in the book!) , but worth reading for sure. I think I enjoyed the literary criticism side of it more than the depiction of her life as a woman under a conservative, religious regime.

      I agree that Nabokov does not condone Humbert’s actions. However, Humbert’s POV is the only one the reader gets and there is a lot of subtlety that I probably would have missed as a younger, less informed reader.

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  2. This is one of those books that I have managed to avoid reading and really don't want to get lulled into thinking that I should. I like to read classics and books that I consider to have had an impact on either society or writing in general, but I know it would bother me so much that I would be in a funk while I was reading it and a long time afterwards.

    >clearly publishers and the public at large have also been seduced by Humbert Humbert.

    I think you are right--I think that people read it because to do so has a panache of sophistication.

    Good review, though. You've just reaffirmed why I don't want to bother with it :)

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    1. BTW, I enjoyed reading the chapter on Lolita in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and I felt that reading about it was better, for me anyway, than actually reading it!

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  3. I'm also one who has loved Reading Lolita in Tehran, and who doesn't think could read Lolita. But, curious about Nabokov, I read his Invitation to a Beheading. Though I liked that book, -it's intriguing, language is somewhat of it's own character in the book too, I don't think I like Nabokov as much as Nafisi's talk about Nabokov and his books, concepts, ideas, in the context of her life in Tehran.

    I only know of a well read young man, father and husband, a christian young man, who has read this book and commented to me that he finds a lot of humor in it. I'm not questioning his integrity, nor diminishing his comment, I simply think that there must be some who can read this book and go pass those roadblocks you talk about. I haven't read it, but it may be the case that he unleashes a fantasy that's totally wrong, and possibly he also constructs a prototype too, Lolita, who unfortunately exists, and this couple of co-dependent people usually come in pairs, though I'm not justifying Humbert's actions in the least.

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  4. ... I meant ITS OWN, not IT'S OWN

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    1. Thank you for your comment Silvia. I agree, there are readers who can appreciate the writing and the story telling in Lolita and not be as affected by the content, I mean Azar Nafisi is one such person! I definitely want to try more Nabokov in future, in particular I want to try Pale Fire.

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