I have wanted to read Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ for a while now. I got a hardbound edition of the book as a present from a friend sometime back. When my friend Delia (from Postcards from Asia) also said that she wanted to read the book, we decided to host a readalong. After a lot of hardwork and many despairing reading moments, I finally finished reading the book. Here is what I think.
The story told in ‘Lolita’ is very simple. The narrator is a forty-something year old man who lusts after girls who are between ten and thirteen years old. He calls them nymphets. The story describes his affair with one such girl whom he calls ‘Lolita’.
Once when our narrator tries to move to a new town to work on his writing, he discovers a house for rent. He doesn’t like the landlady much. But when he discovers that his landlady has a daughter and he feels attracted towards her, he immediately rents the house. He plots and fantasizes about things. But things don’t happen according to plan. The mother – the landlady – falls in love with him. Our narrator doesn’t give up easily. He marries the mother. Now he believes that he will have the license to behave in whichever way he wants with the daughter. But the mother discovers the ugly truth. And she tries to expose it. But, unfortunately, she gets killed in an accident. Our narrator, Humbert, then takes his step-daughter Lolita out of school and the two unlikely companions go on a road trip which stretches for months, during which time they live in motels every night and become lovers. They finally decide to settle down in a town and Lolita goes to the local school. But Humbert is jealous whenever Lolita attracts the attention of boys of her own age. At some point he decides to move out of that town and they embark on a road trip again. During the road trip, Humbert has a suspicion that they are being followed by someone. But he is not able to find out the identity of their pursuer. Lolita also disappears briefly for a short while whenever they are making stops and seems to become friendly with a stranger. At some point Lolita disappears. Humbert searches for her, but is not able to find her. He spends the next few years just floating around with another woman. And one day he receives a letter from Lolita asking him for money. He tracks her down and asks her who kidnapped her and why she disappeared. What happens after that is the rest of the story.
‘Lolita’ was hard for me to read. For most of the first half of the book, Humbert tells us a lot about his fantasies and it was quite difficult to read those parts of the book. Many times I stopped and asked myself why I was reading the book. And precisely at that time, Nabokov would come up with a beautiful sentence like this :
If a violin string can ache, then I was that string.
It was sentences like these that kept me going.
As Humbert says on the first page of his account :
You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
When I finished the first part of the book, I found it extremely hard to get started on the second part. That is when I read this piece about the ’51 Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature’. There was a quote from ‘Lolita’ in that article, which went like this : “And the rest is rust and stardust.” That sentence touched me deeply and gave me goosebumps. I wondered how Nabokov had taken the creepy narrator with his creepy story to the place where this beautiful sentence springs out of the story like a beautiful star. I wondered how that happened. I wanted to find out. That made me read the rest of the book. I did finally manage to find that sentence, but it didn’t have the same impact as part of the text. Outside the text, standing on it own, it shone like a bright beautiful star.
I have to say something here about Nabokov’s prose. There were passages and pages which were filled with Dickensian sentences and these were interspersed with passages and pages filled with sentences in our everyday, contemporary style. It clearly showed that Nabokov had one literary foot in the Victorian age and another in the modern era and he was trying to navigate between both these universes with easy felicity while trying to come out with one coherent unique style. I don’t know whether he managed to succeed in that, but I felt it was an interesting experiment. (I have seen some contemporary Australian authors do that – writing in a combination of Dickensian ornate prose and contemporary plainer style. One of my favourites, Elliot Perlman, pulls it off successfully.)
The book is littered with beautiful sentences and passages, like beautiful pearls. That is what kept me going. As someone said, how in life beautiful happy moments come only after long gaps and how we have to keep working hard during those dreary long gaps to reach those beautiful moments, I kept working hard to reach those beautiful sentences. They brightened my day of hardwork.
This is a spoiler and so if you haven’t read the book, please be forewarned.
Towards the end of the book, Nabokov pulls a rabbit out of the hat. He introduces a new villain who is even worse than Humbert. I don’t know whether we were supposed to feel sympathy for Humbert after that. At that point, Lolita is also portrayed as a not really innocent girl. I didn’t know what to make of that. If we look at it from an outsider’s neutral perspective, it looked like two grown up men used their considerable influence and power to exploit a young girl. Whether she was innocent or not was irrelevant. The fact was that she was young, she was a girl and she was exploited. When we look at it from this perspective, it is hard to like the narrator even if he is the one who is telling the story.
While reading the book, I remembered two things. One of them is a book by Yoko Ogawa called ‘Hotel Iris’. It has the exact same story as ‘Lolita’ – an older man lusts after a young girl. The difference is that in Ogawa’s book, the story is told by the girl. I found that narrator likeable. Also Ogawa’s book doesn’t spend time on fantasies and imagination, but describes events as they happened and in the end, the girl survives to tell the tale, while the man disappears.
The second thing is a Spanish movie called ‘La Flaqueza del Bolchevique’ (‘The Weakness of the Bolshevik’). It has a similar story – an older man and a schoolgirl have a relationship. But what the scriptwriters have done in that movie is that they have removed all the things which are uncomfortable to the reader in ‘Lolita’ and have created a beautiful love story. It is a convincing story, the main characters are adorable and it is one of my favourites. If you want to read ‘Lolita’ but are not ready to take the leap because it makes you uncomfortable, I would recommend this movie to you. If you have read ‘Lolita’ and decide to watch this I would love to hear your thoughts on they compare.
So what is my verdict on ‘Lolita’? I am not sure I can say that I liked the book. The first half of the book made me really uncomfortable. (I have read a few disturbing books in my time, but still…) It was impossible to like Humbert but it was equally impossible to resist knowing his insightful thoughts on different things. I felt sad for Lolita – she must have had a hard time with perverted older adults around. I loved parts of Nabokov’s prose and I will be reading some of those beautiful sentences again.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
There are two kinds of visual memory : one when you skillfully re-create an image in the laboratory of your mind with your eyes open; and the other when you instantly evoke with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors.
I now warn the reader not to mock me and my mental daze. It is easy for him and me to decipher now a past destiny; but a destiny in the making is, believe me, not one of those honest mystery stories where all you have to do is keep an eye on the clues. In my youth, I once read a French detective tale where the clues were actually in italics; but that is not McFate’s way – even if one does learn to recognize certain obscure indications.
I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind. No matter how many times we reopen ‘king Lear’, never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympathetic salts in Flaubert’s father’s timely tear. Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would clash with the second-rate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z ever betray us. We have it all arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We would prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen.
Have you read Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’? What do you think about it?