Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Review #29: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

"Publisher Y regretted that there were no good people in the book. Publiser Z said if he printed Lolita, he and I would go to jail." (Nabokov)

A glance at the cover from an oblivious friend suggests that this novel is a chick-lit novel. The first few pages suggest that this book is a pedophile novel. The controversy surrounding this book suggests that this is an erotic novel. This is chameleonic appeal at its best.

Merely branding this a pedophile novel is a gross injustice to this piece of literature and I don’t know why (Nabokov didn’t know why either) this can be seen as an erotic novel because there isn’t anything remotely erotic about it - if you're not careful you might even overlook the sex. If anything, this tragicomedy, this satire is meant to make us laugh (which I did :).

Lolita was, to me, one of those dishes that was frequently apprised on menus but I never really desire to taste. Being completely ignorant to the reputation that preceded Lolita until early last year, admittedly I was more intrigued than disgusted when I digested the excerpt.

"There's no funnier monster in modern literature than poor doomed Humbert Humbert" He is a middle aged professor with a thing for "nymphets" - prepubescent girls from ages 9 to 14 who are aware of their lure. He met his landlady's 12-year old daughter, Dolores "Lolita" Haze and was so obsessed with her that he married his landlady to be close to her. And off he goes on a road (quite literally) to his own destruction.

"There was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses". I had a sharp loathing for HH the pedophile, HH the rapist, HH the romantic, HH the murderer. As I progressed, he appears less predatory. His blind adoration and manipulative ministrations are quite pathetic. He is, in fact, the biggest joke there is, for he is doomed right in the beginning. HH is part predator, part victim. In doing he becomes the predator, and he is the victim of his own doing.

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins". I think that many disregard or overlook: the fact that Lolita herself is the seducer and has HH in her hands for the most part. Lolita being not so innocent, debauched and lewd is quite jarring for a 12-year old. In the beginning, although HH claims he loves her but this line in the book suggests that he loves the idea of his nymphet: "mentally I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl".

“..the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer” (Martin Amis). This depicts what I felt exactly when I was reading. Nabokov made Humbert’s learned, Literature professor prose into molten chocolate. It’s a bit disturbing though likening HH's psyche to molten chocolate (I hope I didn't put you off chocolate!). Everything rolled and flowed unbelievably and admirably. I have never sampled such crafty English. There was much assortment, culture, sophistication in the language that I felt like an squashed ant because I know I’ll never produce a craft like Nabokov’s.

"You can always count on a murderer for fancy prose style". The prose is universally acknowledged as the saving grace, the epitome of language transformed but I have to be honest here and say I got tired of Humbert’s character ¾ into the book. I had had enough of HH’s guff whilst he drones on and on like a madman. There was nothing new about HH to discover anymore and I was impatient and itching for the final blow at the piƱata to come. Even when the blow came, it was a bit… unsatisfactory. Part of me perhaps wanted to see HH writhe in more regret. This was the only dent for me on an otherwise perfect can of pineapple juice.

I can't help but wonder what it will be like if Humbert was an ugly man. There is a kind of bias, a guy once said to me, that if a handsome man is crazy over a woman, the woman is flattered. If an ugly man is crazy over a woman, the woman brands him a stalker. The protagonist clearly takes pride in his physicality: "clean cut jaw, muscular hands, deep sonorous voice, broad shoulder". It's amusing, Humbert seems such a catch but you can hardly call a pedophile or a "nymphet-lover" perfect.

Be honest with me if you've read the book, didn't the fact that he has "striking if somewhat brutal good looks" help you stomach (a little) his creeping hands and his torrential psyche? Or did it make you repulse him more? I wonder if Nabokov deliberately made him like this; surely the utilisation of a less appetising male changes things?

If you read this because of the controversial subject, you'll perhaps be disappointed. I think this novel deserves all of its praise. I didn't find it as disgusting or taboo. Nabokov himself didn't set out for this book to be those things. He simply couldn't let himself not write this book for it will haunt him forever. Glad he did! ★★★★1/2

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