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In which Netty (finally and reluctantly) reads Lolita. And then has some things to say about it …

April 23, 2015

Andy is right – I most decidedly did not want to read Lolita, despite his numerous suggestions over the years. And I only did relent because that’s what this blog is all about – reading important works of (mostly 20th century) literature. No matter how dubious in subject matter. More on that, obviously, later.

lolita-coverI’m not big on Russians in the literature department. I mean, I read One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in college, and I finally got around to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master And Margarita about 10 years ago (it’s very, very good. Read it by all means). The closest I’d come to Russian-cum-American author Vladimir Nabokov was The Police song Don’t Stand So Close To Me, about a teenage student’s infatuation with her teacher, which references the novel (“It’s no use/ He sees her/ He starts to shake and cough/ Just like the/ old man in/ that book by Nabokov”). And frankly that’s as close as I wanted to come. Hell, I haven’t even seen the movie(s) – the original or the remake.

Let’s not beat around the bush here – Lolita may be a novel, as Andy so pertinently notes in his post – but it’s a novel about a man in his late 30s who is having a sexual relationship with a pubescent girl, against her wishes, even though she initiates the first physical contact and then goes along with it, enticed and subdued by various bribes and threats. As always, rape has little to do with sex, and everything to do with power. And, sadly, as the book plays out, we discover its lead character is not the only older man willing to exploit this young girl for his own means and ends.

Actually, who would know what Lolita/Lo/Dolly/Delores wishes, wants or desires, because the book is wholly narrated by the odious, pathetic Humbert Humbert, so the reader only sees the girl (or “nymphet”, or “faunlet”, as Humbug would put it) through his eyes. Obviously that is deliberate, but it is difficult not to see it as yet another way in which Lolita is subjugated, objectified and moulded by the dominant male presence in her life. That Humbert is possibly the most unreliable of unreliable narrators (it is my theory that possibly the entire plot takes place only in his head) does little to clarify these murkiest of waters.

Would this book see the light of day in 2015? It was a battle enough to get it into print back in 1955 – indeed it was initially published in France (but written in English; not the author’s native language) after being turned down by some of the biggest American publishing houses of the day. It was banned in England – and later France – the following year, before its eventual publication in the UK and US in 1958. It was improbably turned into a film, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring James Mason and Sue Lyon, in 1962, then again in 1997 (this time directed by Adrian Lyne, with Jeremy Irons and Dominque Swain in the main roles); both versions had more than their fair share of censorship issues.

Nabokov, who published nine English-language novels in his lifetime, along with a dozen in Russian, as well as numerous collections of short stories, poetry and criticism, always reserved a special place in his affections for his most notorious novel. In fact, he spent almost 30 years writing various versions of it – as a poem, a short story and another novel, as a novella and an unfinished manuscript, both published after his death; he even incorporated the concept into one of his Russian-language novels. All of which, frankly, makes me feel more than a little uneasy. What is it about this hebephilic relationship that so held him in its thrall over the decades? Lolita is dedicated to Nabokov’s wife Vera; interestingly, it was she, as executor of his estate, who made the decision to posthumously publish the Lolita-esque works her husband had wanted destroyed. Go figure.

Lolita starts with a foreword penned by a “John Ray, Jr, Ph.D”, who is asked to edit Humbert’s manuscript after his death “in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis” (this is not a spoiler, peeps – this is the book’s opening sentence! However, he’s not in the lock-up for reasons the reader may initially suspect), before the fates of various characters – unbeknown at this stage to the reader – are revealed in the ensuing pages. Yep, he’s a bit of a clever clops, ol’ Vlad. A 1956 epilogue is appended to my 2008 Penguin edition; in it Nabokov outlines the book’s path to fruition (although the bit about the artistic ape appears to be a furphy) and asserts it “has no moral in tow”. As Mandy Rice-Davies remarked at the trial that resulted from the infamous Profumo affair of the 1960s, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

I’m not going to ruminate on the plot, although I will say that as this book’s reputation precedes itself, anyone who actually takes the time to read it will be surprised by the various, largely unexpected plot twists and turns. I certainly was, having originally gone in with some preconceived ideas about how it was going to play out. Despite Nabokov’s emphatic statement about its morality, this novel’s ultimate saving grace is that its perpetrator is under no illusion about the vile acts he is committing, even as he continues to commit them. This is no American Psycho, where its (also unreliable) narrator shows absolutely no remorse and basically gets off scot-free for his actions. Karmic retribution plays a large part in the proceedings here – as it must – and all the characters end up paying a huge price, some with their lives. Also – and this is very important – it is not an exploitative novel; it is neither titillating nor erotic.

Would I recommend it? That is a very grey area indeed. On subject matter, no – I don’t condone in any way, shape or form child sexual abuse, or any sexual abuse for that matter, and neither does any sane, decent, right-minded person. But purely as a work of literature – subject matter aside – it is undeniably cleverly plotted and well-written. I believe it is still on school reading lists around the (presumably western) world, almost 60 years after its publication, so it obviously has longevity.

But I won’t be rereading it, nor will I bother with any other Nabokov books. I don’t like books that leave me feeling like I need to take a long shower with a loofah brush afterwards.

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