Monday, March 02, 2009
book review: lolita, by vladimir nabokov
"My heart was a hysterical unreliable organ."

I must be honest - this one took me quite a little while and left me terribly conflicted.

I've been attempting to read Lolita for years now, and took two serious attempts at it before I ultimately had to make it one of my resolution reads just so I'd finally commit to finishing the little bugger. The strange thing is that I had been sincerely enjoying Nabokov's masterpiece during all of my false starts. Each time I had found it unexpectedly funny, and the pedophilic protagonist surprisingly likable. Yet, each time and always somewhere around page 100, I'd abandon it without any particular reason. I liked it, but I couldn't bring myself to finish it. It was as simple as that.

It wasn't until this third, successful go that I understood what was holding me up: I could only truly enjoy Lolita and its notorious protagonist for as long as Humbert Humbert's lascivious desires remained vague, uncommitted longings in his head. I, perhaps better than most, understand all the arguments in Lolita's defense. Art isn't polite. Art challenges, often offends. And who would argue that Nabokov's novel isn't a work of art? It's hardly my place to presume what Nabokov's purpose was with writing Lolita, but what the novel does is challenge its reader to sympathize with a violent rapist. Quite the little mixed bag, eh?

And despite all his poise and charm, Humbert Humbert is revolting. He's a murderer who abused his first wife, plotted to kill his second, and repeatedly rapes a child. His attempt to rationalize his actions - claiming the existence of "nymphets" and painting little Lo as a flirtatious seductress - is a weak and transparent attempt to dilute the obvious truth of what happened between the two. Whether or not she was a flirt is irrelevant; Lolita was twelve years old when Humbert essentially kidnaps her and keeps her as his sexual plaything until she finally finds both the opportunity and the will to escape. Sure, Humbert is likable and tells his story with a silver tongue, but it's the nature of violent narcissists to be incredibly charming. From the moment Humbert took Lolita to bed, I had lost my ability to sympathize or find humor in his tale, and I found myself wading through the back half of the novel with a tight ball of dread festering in my belly.

And frankly, I'm a little surprised by my reaction to this book. I'm the furthest thing from a prude and I like to think it takes quite a bit to shock me, but I'd also like to think that my affections aren't so easily won, either. Certainly, it's going to take a lot more than a little charisma for me to sympathize with a skeevy pederass.

But, hey - it ain't art if it ain't challenging, right?

Vladimir Nabokov
317 pages, 1955

Labels: , ,


Blogger PAK said...

The Russians seem to have the market cornered on challenging, yet rewarding literature. Crime and Punishment was one of the toughest books I've ever read yet it was undeniably great. I probably won't be reading it any time soon, but yikes.

Post a Comment

<< Home