Friday, 10 April 2009

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

Read: January 2008

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta…
You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”

Although I am not a fan of the prosaic, cliché ridden first sentence – it strikes of bad 1970’s porn and bad sex in literature awards – it is impossible to argue that this first page is not one of the most exquisite opening passages of a novel over composed. Throughout Lolita remains one of the most clearly enunciated novels I have read. As with Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov’s use of English is absolutely exact, his command of the language all the more exceptional since it is not his first, or even second!, language. He is playful in his tone, playing word games with the reader, many of which are very funny. For example,

“I have not much at the bank right now but I propose to borrow – you know, as the Bard said, with that cold in his head, to borrow and to borrow and to borrow.”

Sadly, the problem with Lolita is that these light phrases are few and far between and separated by some of the densest chapters I have read. The prose is well written from an intellectual standpoint, but so strewn with obscure references and French phrases that it is difficult to enjoy reading. Indeed, if it were permitted by my genetic makeup, I would have given up halfway through. Each page consists of one huge, impenetrable wall of text, short on dialogue, large on the narrator’s pedantic sense of reality.

What is absent is any notion of pace. Taken individually, almost any sentence resonates with style and grace, well written, expressive and readable. But when they are taken one upon the other they merge into one, exhausting collection of convoluted sentences from which there is no respite. Were these pages broken up then Lolita might be a more enjoyable read. Someone like Salman Rushdie is an example of how dense literature can be broken up with a more playful, light and conversational tone which is so much more satisfying to the reader. With Nabakov, the unbroken intellectual weight of every page grows more oppressive and soon your eyes are dropping and you just can’t wait to fall asleep. Each page is, in short, an ordeal which requires gargantuan concentration and perseverance merely to get through, let alone enjoy. (Like this review, perhaps.)

Lolita, if it is to be read with enjoyment, must be approached with an air of timelessness, like a work of poetry, read in small pieces, each word savoured and considered as and of itself. Lolita is by no means a fast and exciting novel which will keep you turning pages long into the evening. It often happened that I would sit down to read Lolita and for the first twenty minutes I would feel like I was getting into it. And then, like a veil descending across the page, the prose gradually grew less and less immediate and my eyes grew less and less focused.

But what of the plot? Surely that is why people read Lolita, to be scandalised. Humbert Humbert has spent his life being tormented by his latent attraction to pre-pubescent ‘nymphets.’ But although he has successfully fought his desire all his life, when he moves to America and goes to board in the house of a single mother, he becomes obsessed with her twelve-year-old daughter named Lolita and can resist no longer. Through a mixture of good luck, scheming, seduction, and unstoppable desire Humbert manages to become both her sole guardian and lover and they embark on a road trip across America. But in securing his wildest desires he begins an obsession which eventually ruins both of their lives forever.

Lolita is one of the most important examples of literatures imperative to offend. Nothing can be due higher praise than a novel which offends against the prevailing decency of the age. And Lolita is probably more offensive today than it was in 1955, with our ridiculous paranoia over paedophiles and paedophilia. But Lolita is not shocking. Nor is it crude, erotic, pornographic or repulsive. In Humbert Humbert, Nabokov creates a dextrous character capable of eliciting sympathy, pity, and revulsion, often at the same time. He also has moments of great wit and generosity and you often feel the difficulty of his situation. Remembering his first love, aged thirteen, Hubert describes his summer romance thus:

“All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh”.

I have not read a better description of falling in love anywhere in any novel. Age is regardless. And the same can be said of his side in the relationship with Lolita. Love is his primary motive. But it is in seeking to control this love, to possess it and protect it, that he becomes so unlovable. And it is the same with any lover, regardless of age. And yet he knows all this. At one point just before his wildest dreams come true, he says:

“If my happiness could have talked, it would have filled that genteel hotel with a deafening roar. And my only regret today is that I did not quietly deposit key ‘342’ at the office, and leave the town, the country, the continent, the hemisphere, - indeed, the globe – that very same night,”

It is this reflective air which I enjoyed. It is particularly evident at the beginning and end of the novel. In the middle, the dense, dull middle, his mindset becomes obsessed, his character thoroughly self deluded and repugnant. And I found this the most turgid of all the passages. For, sadly, Humbert is also a pompous ‘old-worlder.’ In the Russian style of Dostoyevsky or Gogol, he is one of those pitiable intellectual ingrates who assume the world belongs to them, condescendingly hates everyone else and who, were they to piss in their dirty old suit, would need to whine about it and tell everyone how pitiable they are, yet how right their way of seeing the world is. It is this which I hated most about Lolita.

In the end, reading these quotes and thinking about Lolita I am reminded of how many beautiful passages there are and how much there is to laud in this book. But, sadly, I personally did not enjoy reading it.

6.5 out of 10

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