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Lolita

A book by Vladimir Nabokov

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Bad for reasons that have nothing to do with sex

  • Dec 14, 2007
Rating:
-3
Pros: Clever language

Cons: Obsession, horrible narrator, instead of puzzle, we are given confusion for no real reason

The Bottom Line: The novel has a reputation that isn't deserved. I can't believe what I'm going to say: read the Masterplots version instead, then pick up a different American classic.

I have wrestled with the difficulty of writing reviews for “classic” novels (this paragraph deals only with this topic, jump to the next paragraph for the review to start in earnest). How do you take on a novel that is part of the culture, even if 1) no one has read it but understands part of it and 2) many others have gone before? It doesn’t take courage to tackle the subject; it takes patience. I went through a dozen drafts of the review I did for Faulkner’s Light In August before I could post it—it was becoming a graduate thesis. Fortunately Lolita is far easier to summarize and to analyze than Faulkner’s major opus. I ordinarily don’t bother to write a review of something that has more than 30 already posted, but I just finished a 300 page swim through mud so I am going to put in my hay-penny.

Lolita has a reputation and I believe this reputation is almost totally without merit.

We learn from the prologue that Humbert Humbert (the narrator who chose this nom de prison) has died before his trial and what follows is basically a confession.

Part one takes Humbert from his former abode along the Cote d’Azure to the United States where he is required to live and show at least a little interest in the perfume business that was left to him. From here he wanders a bit, not liking anything he sees. He has a couple of breakdowns whose origins are strangely missing. After the last one, he decides to move in with distant relatives. As his luck would have it, the house burns down and he is urged to stay with Charlotte Haze and her daughter Dolores (the last name is also fake). Once Humbert sees Dolores (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”) he decides to stay. Shortly he marries Charlotte with his eye always on Lolita. Charlotte finds a secret diary Humbert keeps about his “nymphet” and is in the process of essentially spilling these beans. Humbert’s luck strikes again and Charlotte is killed by being struck by a car. Now the way is clear.

Part two is a bildungsroman (note--a reviewer took me to task for using this term incorrectly; I agree it was a mistake; however, I am not one who likes to delete mistakes like this [I consider it cheating] ergo the note). Humbert and Lolita go from motel to motel. They see silly things along the way. Lolita is permanently a teenage girl interested in movie magazines and trying to get the attention of other boys, which is totally forbidden by the jealous and (let’s face it, gross) step-father/rapist?lover? Humbert, again, finds nothing to like except about 40% of the time spent with the fire of his loins. Then he loses Lolita. The three intervening years take up a few pages then things get very odd. She finds him via letter asking for cash for her and her husband. He finds them in horrid condition and gives them a large sum of money. The only thing he wants from this is the name of the man who took his life-light from him. From there either Mr. Nabokov or Mr. Humbert (or both) completely lose control. There is no secret this is written in prison, but I will not explain why, in case you want to make it that far on your own.

I read Lolita more for sociological reasons than literary. I have discovered that I do not like Nabokov after 2 novels—each was massive slogs. Humbert and the narrator of Pale Fire are so unnecessarily haughty and wholly unlikeable that a reader is left with this question: why read this if the guy telling the story literally sucks äss? The answer for this reviewer is so that I can understand what it means when a girl is called a Lolita and why the man gets ignored in these comparisons.

This is why I say the reputation is without merit. Lolita is a spontaneous 12 year old who barely matures through the novel—she is stunted (or we are led to believe she is). She is a bit of a tease, but this cannot be uncommon for girls beginning puberty. Social practice has to start somewhere and teasing is a better place to start than the back of a 1947 Buick.

The true complicating factor, though, is Humbert. Any reader who could get through these turgid 290ish pages understands very well the concept of the unreliable narrator. Since we only have his word (and words and words and words) for it, how much is true? There is enough reason to believe that sex occurred and probably pretty often. We also have enough reason to believe Lolita was ok with this, for a little while anyway. At one point, while being kept for observation following a meningitis like virus, she just leaves. Was this impetuousness or was she just tired of trying to figure out if the relationship was that of equal love or some sort of semi-soft sexual slavery? In the hands of a different writer, these questions might be worth the effort. Alas, this novel doesn’t fit the bill.

I did not read this novel, did not stick it out to the end, because of Lolita. Girls who are called that are marked with the title of whóre, or at least a world class tease. This isn’t what the girl in the novel is. She is a 12 year old rebellious girl in the late 1940s. The tease, sexually seducing, young succubus idea all comes from the man who carries her around the country like a pugnacious blow-up doll.

I read it for Humbert. Before reading the novel, I have used what I named the “Humbert moment.” For me this was the way of describing something very specific, while making sure the male was a party to the incident. When a straight adult male finds a jailbait girl to be attractive (a look but no touch), or when a gay man sees a jailbait boy to be attractive (again, look but don’t touch) then the guy is having a Humbert moment (women . . . maybe you have a Humbert character in literature somewhere, if not, you can still rely on it, just call it something like a Humbertina moment).

I walked through 290 pages of self-aggrandizing, “everything is loathsome,” “everyone wants me” melded with obsessive language about a girl he spends more than half the time disliking. The walk was not pleasant, it was trying to get to a relatively solid piece of ground while wading through knee deep mud.

I, honestly, see no reason for anyone to read this novel. There are clever puns to make the intelligent feel even more so by getting the jokes (and maybe a few that we miss, but ultimately, do we care?). There are a few other literary tropes here and there, but seem to be scattered about for no reason but to prove he could do them. The pacing is terrible. The ending is so quick and so silly that I finally came to the conclusion that it was entirely possible he made the whole thing up.

If I had gotten to the end of this and found out that Humbert made the whole thing up, I’d walk to wherever Mr. Nabokov is buried and pee on his grave.

That said, Mr. Nabokov has always had my deepest respect, but for abilities, not true talent. I have to respect a man who wrote novels in Russian then moved to the US, wrote novels in English then translated the other novels. This deserves an unreserved WOW. However, this does not mean that what he writes is “good.” There is no denying he is challenging but so is a marathon. Just because there is a challenge doesn’t mean you have to take it—there are plenty of others around.

I cannot give it one star because the language can be entertaining at times, but if you want that, pick it up, read a dozen pages. This way you will get a taste without having to eat the whole, very heavy, meal.

Recommended:
No

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More Lolita (book) reviews
review by . January 04, 2010
Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Click here to read the book quotes.      As most of Nabokov's books are, this one was an exceptional joy to read. Even though the subject matter is deplorable, the writing style, imagery, and emotions that comprise this story make it a great piece of literary fiction.      As I read the book, I found myself in another time and place that was described by a detestable pedophile named Humbert Humbert. From the very beginning of the book, it's easy …
Quick Tip by . June 20, 2011
It has been awhile since I read this book and others by the author. I recommend it highly. Most people think of it only as a sex book. In fact the name Lolita has become synonomous with sex with a young girl. However, these peope are ovelooking the fact that this is a very well-written book.
review by . February 11, 2010
A wonderful book that should not be missed!
      my edition       Lolita is one of those books that you're either going to love or you're going to hate. I choose the former -- it is simply superb.         I fell in love with Nabokov after reading Pale Fire, but I'd never read Lolita. Truthfully, this book has been sitting on my bookshelf for years, because I was hesitant to read it due to the subject matter. Yes, the main character is a pedophile, yes, the subject in question …
review by . July 06, 2010
Vladimir Nabokov writes Lolita with an elegance that is more similar to poetry than prose. Despite Russian being his native tongue, he masters the English language with an ease and grace that is difficult to find in many writers. Although the book has been banned in the past and the subject matter often troubles moral purists and schoolteachers alike, the book is written in such a way that is tasteful and beautiful.      Humbert Humbert’s love for Lolita is forbidden, …
review by . May 19, 2010
This book is simply beautiful! Most people may think beautiful is a strange word to describe a love relationship between a very young girl and her much elder admirer, but Nabokov succeeds in writing the book in a way that denies all pre-conceived opinions. He is able to strip age from the two characters in order to reveal true human emotions in an entirely new spectrum. The plot is original and unpredictable and follows the "couple" as middle-aged Humbert traverses the country from one …
review by . June 08, 2010
This is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest books written in the 20th century, not that I'm into hyperbole, but if my mom and any copy of this book were falling out of an airplane, and I could only save one- bye, mom.      This is the story, at least on the surface, of a middle- aged man in love with a 12 year old girl.  More importantly, this is an immaculately written book about desires that deviate from society's accepted norms.  It is also an example …
Quick Tip by . July 13, 2010
This book is beautifully written about disgusting events. It's great, but it seriously drags.
Quick Tip by . July 09, 2010
Lolita is an amazing book for the alliteration alone!
Quick Tip by . July 03, 2010
slightly disturbing tale but definitely a fair commentary on our culture
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Nabokov's writing is absolutely beautiful. It's like reading poetry, not prose!
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Paul Savage ()
Ranked #57
I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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Wiki

Lolita (1955) is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, first written in English and published in 1955 in Paris, later translated by the author into Russian and published in 1958 in New York. The book is internationally famous for its innovative style and infamous for its controversial subject: the protagonist and unreliable narrator, middle aged Humbert Humbert, becomes obsessed and sexually involved with a twelve-year-old girl named Dolores Haze.

After its publication, Nabokov's Lolita attained a classic status, becoming one of the best-known and most controversial examples of 20th century literature. The name "Lolita" has entered pop culture to describe a sexually precocious young girl. The novel was adapted to film in 1962 and again in 1997.

Lolita is listed in the TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It is fourth on the Modern Library's 1998 list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century.
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Details

ISBN-13: 978-0822206835
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Genre: Fiction, Literature
Publisher: Everyman's Library, Vintage
Date Published: 1955
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