My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Humbert Humbert introduces himself to the readers whom he refers to as his jury, and openly admits his lifelong lust over young girls, between the ages of 9 and 14, he refers to as nymphets. As he early on explains, his pederosis could be explained to his first passion with a 12-year-old girl named Annabel. Sadly, Annabel died of typhus soon after their first failed attempts at sexual relations. Humbert draws multiple parallels between his young love Annabel and the love of his adult life, Lolita. This is his memoir of the time he spent with the young “nymphet” and how he ended up a murderer.
Surely, many readers are familiar with the basics of the story of Lolita either from Nabokov’s classic or the two movie adaptations that followed it. What is fascinating about the author and evident in his Lolita, is his trilingualism: his fluency in Russian, English and French. In fact, French is a big part of this novel as Nabokov often interrupts his magnificent english prose in favour of whole phrases or sentences in French. His english-written masterpiece was rejected by four different American publishers, until, after much pursuit from the author’s part, Lolita was finally published in France in 1955. As part of my new year’s resolution to add more diversity on my reading lists and attempt to conquer some classic works, I decided the intriguing and controversial novel of middle-aged Humbert’s affair with 12-year-old Lolita was a must-read for me this year.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Despite some probably inevitable hesitation or scepticism accounting for this novel’s “bad reputation”, I never expected to stumble upon such a beautifully written story. This being a fictional memoir of Humbert Humbert, one can easily draw similarities between Nabokov and poor, tragicomic Humbert. Both European men of high intelligence who moved to America in search of a better life and with high linguistic and prosaic skills. But this is as far as this comparison goes. With the risk of the quotes presented in this review not doing justice to Nabokov’s unique and exceptional prose and with the fear of sounding exaggerating, this is probably the most exquisitely written novel I have ever read. Nabokov is a master of the english language and has made slaves of every letter in the alphabet and each punctuation mark, guiding them with his whip into the creation of his masterpiece.
You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs – the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate – the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.
What could be considered one of the most disturbing aspects of Lolita, is Humbert’s ability, through the use of language, to captivate the reader and twist one’s sense of right and wrong to the point that one will end up feeling for poor Humbert and his miserable life. The story is purposefully told from only one perspective and Humbert does not make any attempt what-so-ever at portraying or even imagining another person’s feelings and thoughts, most of all Lolita herself. The accurate representation of how Humbert thinks, feels and behaves is in direct contrast to the lack of another character’s perspective. So, while we have no idea how Lolita feels about what is happening to her, at the same time we are never bothered wondering. Humbert preoccupies the reader with his own self and focuses on such detail on his person as a lens that only produces one colour. Not only is Humbert seducing Lolita but also shamelessly directing his seductive powers to the reader, not only successfully extracting sympathy but also managing to blame Lolita for sexually enticing him on the first place. One really needs to take a step back and evaluate what is actually being relayed in order to realise that Humbert is a completely unreliable narrator who bluntly lies to himself and the reader alike.
My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.
Interestingly, although Nabokov himself does not view Lolita as pornographic and despite the fact that there are undeniably multiple sexual behaviours, thoughts and feelings throughout this novel, Lolita is the polar opposite of a sexually explicit book. In fact, there is probably not a single word that could upset any reader, and intimate scenes might need to be revisited for a second quick glance as they are so discretely offered. And if one thinks about it in terms of Lolita not being a young girl and Humbert not being a middle-aged man, this is a man that really loves, no, adores, lives and breathes for this girl. From her mannerisms, to her voice, and from her scent to her unwashed toes, Lolita is Humbert’s everything. Funny, how the most beautifully written romance I’ve read so far involves a paedophile.
I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you.
With times when Lolita completely went over my head, thanks to Nabokov’s elegant and exuberant prose and references that I was not able to follow, but also the interrupting French which I could definitely not understand not even to the slightest, I feel that I missed important bits that hopefully a future re-read will provide. Apart from that, I am in awe of Nabokov’s writing power, and Lolita is one classic I will therefore recommend to anyone who’d like to read one from now on.
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