Thursday, March 3, 2011

Literary Bite: Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is beautifully written. It’s the kind of book that should be read aloud - to get the full effect of Nabokov’s prose you need to focus on the text. It is supposed to be a book about love…but really it’s a book about obsession.

I’ve been meaning to read Lolita  ever since I absolutely loved Reading Lolita in Tehran last year (one my all-time favorite books!). Lolita is a classic – one of those literary masterpieces that everyone should read at some point.

The narrator, 37-year-old Humbert Humbert is “in love” with a 12-year-old “nymphet” Dolores Haze. Really, that’s all you need to know. You could open the book to any page and it will be about Humbert’s obsession with Lolita – every other plot point is secondary.

So is this the only convincing love story of our century? I vote no. The writing is beautiful and can suck you in…but then Nabokov constantly reminds his readers that Lolita is a child (a very rude and difficult child) and is not actually the goddess of Humbert’s ideals. The actual Dolores is nothing like the Lolita Humbert sees, which makes me think he’s not in love with her, but in love with an idea of what he wants her to be.

Some people read it as an ironic comedy – the ridiculous Humbert bumbling through his obsession with a sassy little girl. Others see it as a tragedy – I mean, hello! it’s about raping a kid. Wikipedia tells me it’s a “tragicomedy” aka, a dark comedy.

Nabokov claims that there is no moral to the story, his inspiration "was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage". So maybe it’s about how Humbert is trapped in his obsession, and Dolores is held captive by Humbert?

Nabokov’s original language was Russian, but he wrote in English after moving to America in 1940 (he published Lolita in 1955 in Paris, 1958 in New York). An American critic characterized Lolita as the record of Nabokov's "love affair with the romantic novel", but Nabokov writes that "the substitution of 'English language' for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant formula more correct."

I’m on the fence on this one…it’s not a beyond amazing page-turner, but definitely a work of literary genius that should be read (and I did enjoy reading it!). Have you read Lolita


  1. I've read it. It made me very uncomfortable, which made me unable to appreciate the quality of the writing.

  2. ive read was...ummm...interesting!

  3. I've been meaning to read it for a long time. My mother (an ex-english teacher) seemed to think it was worth reading, but had said that it makes most people very uncomfortable.

  4. It's been a while since I read Lolita, but my favorite Nabokov work is Laughter In The Dark. It's less....creepy? While still being about messed up people, and still being so beautiful.

  5. Thanks for the comments! I think that a book's ability to make you feel emotions - uncomfortable/angry/etc. is part of what makes it a good book. I mean, if you FEEL something that means you care...

    For those of you who haven't read it, Lolita really isn't that explicit, but yes, creepiness is definitely implied. And thanks for the recommendation Rose - I'll look into Laughter in the Dark!

  6. I was fascinated by how Nabakov presented Humbert as a sympathetic character. I would find myself going, "Aw, poor guy," then realize I was feeling sorry for a pedophile. After all, if I remember correctly (and it's been YEARS since I've read it!), didn't he sit outside Lolita's school and fantasize about all the 12-year-olds he saw there? Seems like I remember him talking about all of their "slim hips" and how much he liked that... shudder. To me, that is what makes the book amazing - he took this awful character and really made you feel for him.