Reading Lolita

What a garish, ugly, sardonic book this is, and yet it does grip in some unhealthy way. It is, however, the perfect book for critical commentary. It was hard to settle on a passage, as just about any would do, but I picked an almost unobtrusive one so that I would not be distracted by internal shrieks of horror at Humbert Humbert’s dastardly hi-jinks.

‘I decided to marry. It occurred to me that regular hours, home-cooked meals, all the conventions of marriage, the prophylactic routine of its bedroom activities and, who knows, the eventual flowering of certain moral values, of certain spiritual substitutes, might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and dangerous desires, at least to keep them under pacific control. A little money that had come my way after my father’s death (nothing very grand – the Mirana has been sold long before), in addition to my striking if somewhat brutal good looks, allowed me to enter upon my quest with equanimity. After considerable deliberation, my choice fell on the daughter of a Polish doctor: the good man happened to be treating me for spells of dizziness and tachycardia. We played chess: his daughter watched me from behind her easel, and inserted eyes or knuckles borrowed from me into the cubistic trash that accomplished misses then painted instead of lilacs and lambs. Let me repeat with quiet force: I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanour. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal. And this was my case. Well did I know, alas, that I could obtain at the snap of my fingers any adult female I chose; in fact, it had become quite a habit with me of not being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap.’

So let’s talk about that voice, a disquieting, troubling, silky menace of a voice if ever there was one. You have to concentrate to follow the sinuous verbal meanderings of the narrator, and by concentrating you are obliged to let Humbert Humbert into your mind, where he sits, like a viral contagion. This is a voice of icy chill and volcanic heat, of threatening darkness and yet spirited playfulness. It’s a voice that combines intelligence with vulgarity, cynicism and alienation. It’s the voice that could be beautiful, if it were not for something rotten at its core.

Look at the vocabulary here: prophylactic, pacific, equanimity, cubistic, demeanour, this is not a man who will use one syllable when three or four would suffice. And these are cold, hard-edged words, academic, distanced, intellectual words used to display the mental agility of their speaker against the tacky tedium of the world. But that vocabulary is continually undercut by words that come from other registers and dress themselves in violence – purge, brutal, trash, bloodripe. Our narrator becomes more implicitly dangerous because he coats his language with a veneer of intellectual control; we become aware of that most alarming proposition, that underneath something clever and polished, ugly drives lurk and threaten, pushing at the boundaries of language’s containment and liable to break out.

In fact the whole passage is written – as stupendously, every single passage in this novel is written – in a style that threatens but never reaches, linguistic exhaustion. I’ve never known an author make his sentences work so hard, stuff them so full of every possible pretension. This is bilious, overripe language, driven hard by intelligence, ravaged by pervasive, insidious emotion. We are given to understand, then, that it emanates from a man straining at his own internal leash. A man who suffers from dizziness and tachycardia – his body strained and overwrought. This passage is a good example of Humbert Humbert attempting to rein in his baser desires in such a way that we know from the outset he is doomed to failure. The reader is gripped by the painful anticipation of the limit being reached, the constraint being broken, the implosion or explosion being immanent.

And how do we know this? Well, look at the way he describes marriage, his voice dripping with sardonic disdain. This is not a man who believes in his self-prescribed cure. And look at the way he describes his bride-to-be: there is nothing in the least hopefully romantic about his tone here. Instead he sneers over her painting whilst she chops him into unappetizing body parts – a trick in fact that the narrator repeatedly uses at any moment of perceiving the female body. It’s a strategy for distancing the reality of a woman from her body, and it enables our narrator to lust or revile without troubling himself over the person behind the fleshly façade. The same strategy is used to slightly different effect when he contemplates himself. Physical appearance is everything of value in this novel, but Humbert hates himself. So his own ‘striking but brutal good looks’ are the subject of bitter irony. He could have any woman he wanted, only there are none who fail to disgust him. He shows us his attempt at decency, made by avoiding undesired heterosexual encounters, but his tone is too repellent for us to really gain sympathy with him.

So what do we have here? A man bent and twisted out of shape, forced into endless pretence and driven to the edge of distraction by desires that fall outside the legal limits of society. We have a man who is handsome and smart and learned, but who is physically disintegrating from the strength of repressed emotion. Some people would say we have here a sardonic and darkly comic representation of middling, trivial reality as seen from the perspective of a man relegated to its margins. It depends on how amusing you find the human condition, if we view it as an individual’s destiny to be full of emotion that is rarely matched or assuaged by life’s events. But I suppose I see it as the tragedy of a certain kind of passivity.  Humbert Humbert is so busy dealing with himself, so locked inside his unruly emotions, that he can never have respite from them. In this passage he is about to insert himself into marriage in the same way that his fiancée inserts his knuckles into her picture, and the result will be similarly successful. There is no engagement in what surrounds him, only the alienation of a heightened, hyper-sensitive perception. Humbert carts his suffering carcass of a body around, while his mind scorns and derides and plays clever verbal tricks with it all, and all he can do is wait for the circumstances around him to bring relief. And yet…the relentlessness of that highly particular voice tells us that nothing is going to change. In fact, I expect that things are only going to get worse.

I’m only forty pages in and already I’m not sure whether I can go on, but I seem to keep going. I’m finding it intellectually intriguing, but my soul cringes.

32 thoughts on “Reading Lolita

  1. I have read Lolita, and also listened to Jeremy Irons reading it, and oh but that was an altogether different experience of the text. Because Irons’ voice makes the prose even more vivid, and therefore Humbert even more monstrous.

  2. When I start to read a book that is good but soul cringing, it generally gets thrown against a wall before long, and from there to disposal. Awesome analysis–but your soul deserves nourishing.

  3. I’m not sure whether to encourage you to keep on or not, but that 40 pages inspired such wonderful writing, I hope you do keep reading! It’s such a difficult book and such a brilliant one at the same time, and that combination makes it so disturbing. I wonder what you would think of Pale Fire, my favorite Nabokov novel. It’s just as linguistically intricate without being so horrifying.

  4. wow. I’m shuddering. I love what you write, how you think! I don’t know if I ‘ll ever get my review of this book written. yes, I’m just going to skip it. I don’t think I can separate the book from HH and knowing that makes me feel weak and disappointed and annoyed. Annoyed at Nabakov and HH and myself. But I loved your thoughts here!

  5. I really loved Lolita, I have to say – Nabokov makes it so easy to believe what Humbert is saying, as evident by the group of people who think Lolita really was a temptress. At twelve. (Yes, that makes me very angry.) Don’t keep going if it’s upsetting, though! I have to be very much in the mood for Lolita, or else I get too upset to carry on with it.

  6. I’ve never read Lolita, but I’d like to give it a try at some point. I can see why you’re cringing after reading that paragraph! Somehow I had not ever pictured Humbert Humbert as being intellectual. Somehow that makes it worse for me. I’m guessing Nabokov knew exactly what he was doing–it’s just such stretch, isn’t it.

  7. Becky – I have chills running down my spine at the thought of Jeremy Irons narrating the text – his voice would be perfect and yes, perfectly disquieting!

    Bluestocking – I promise I picked out a relatively gentle one!

    Charlotte – it’s worse than that, I’m afraid, in that it’s a commentary just on the passage I quote. It is SUCH a rich and full text – almost too much to take in, but yes I agree with you completely, extremely emotionally cold.

    Lilian – Thank you! And I like the thought of you throwing the book against the wall! Yes, I know what you mean. I can’t decide how far my academic interest in the book as artefact and experiment will take me, or whether the general reader in me will just give it up. I’m padding it out with a Persephone novel and some non-fiction too!

    Andrew – well, that’s a good precedent for me if I don’t get much further with it. 🙂

    Dorothy – I’ve come late to Nabokov and possibly not in at the right book for me. But whatever I end up doing with Lolita, I will read him again. Pale Fire might be a better option for me, and I really want to read Speak, Memory. And thank you for your kind words – I very much value your opinion!

    Thomas – it IS compelling. It does sort of drag you through it. I do wonder whether it’s an easier read for men than for women, but this may be a crude over-generalisation. It’s Humbert’s perception of the female body that’s most disturbing I’m finding.

    Care – oh my friend, you must write about it because I really want to know what you think! It’s hard to write about because there’s so much in it – it’s sort of disturbingly vast and complex. Write just about one element – tell me what you think of Lolita, or even of the way America is portrayed. But do have a go because I’d so love to have your opinion.

    Jenny – I really like what you say here about finding the book hard to read AND being able to admire it. That’s good advice to check out my mood before picking it up. I can see there is much here to appreciate, if I can overcome my womanly revulsion at the treatment of young girls and women….

    Danielle – Me too, I’ve long wanted to read it and yet my courage has repeatedly failed me when it came to picking it up. I do want to get further in, and then hopefully the story will take me through. You are quite right that it is the intellect of Humbert that makes it all so awful. We can almost forgive a stupid, uneducated person, but someone clever enough to justify his horrific mind is very chilling indeed. I should be reading this for Carl’s RIP challenge! 🙂

    Anna – thank you so very much! It is NOT an easy read, and yet there is much to admire in a literary sense, and I do want to continue with it if I can.

  8. This is one of the books I mean to read before I die. The passage you quote sort of has a Lovelace echo to it, but evenso it gave me chills. I saw the movie with Jeremy Irons in it and while it was good and disturbing, I don’t think it can quite compare to the book, at least that is the feeling I get. I do hope you keep reading.

  9. There’s a dreadful fascination here with how twisted HH’s mind is. I’m not sure I could stomach this but just reading that passage and your comments made me think about how really narcissistic people need to delve more deeply into their own twisted minds in order to be liberated from their own narcissism. Doesn’t sound as though HH achieves that enlightenment and as a reader you get infected with some of that toxicity. Do you think Nabokov saw part of himself in HH? And is there some sort of perverse pleasure in showing us such a depraved man?

  10. It’s not an easy book to read, in any sense, but it is well worth the unsettling effort, I think. I also still think that the book can be read as an incredibly complex and detailed metaphor for the emotional/political relationships between Europe and America, but that might be just me.

  11. For what it’s worth, and for obivous reasons, Lolita will be a key text in my attempt at a discusson of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters this week. Scheduled for Wednesday, I think.

    litlove, you’re tackling the book head on! Fine reading.

  12. From “On a Book Entitled Lolita” (near the end):

    “It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country or about a social class or about the author. And yet one of my very few intimate friends, after reading Lolita, was sincerely worried that I (I!) should be ‘living among such depressing people’ – when the only discomfort I really experienced was to live in my workshop among discarded limbs and unfinished torsos.”

    This is from an obviously untrustworthy source.

    David Rochester – earlier in the essay, VN addresses whether Lolita is “Old Europe debauching young America” or “Young America debauching old Europe.” So no, it’s not just you.

    • Glad to know it’s not just me. 🙂 Debauchery aside, I think the book has some very interesting and subtle points to make about the curious intertwining of innocence and vulgarity that defined American culture in the postwar decade when the book was written, and how that might have appealed to war-ravaged, cynical, existentially destroyed Europe. On some level, I think HH is the conqueror, and Lolita is his new land … he ravages and pillages her in fine European tradition, and yet he fails to understand either what he is trying to get from her, or what she is actually giving him. In a literal narrative sense, Lolita is a barely-pubescent girl; in a subtextual sense, she has a depth of savage resourcefulness that has nothing to do with the surface reality of the book, but much to do with the ways in which illusions of hopefulness tend to turn on the people who invest in them.

  13. Stefanie – I found it equal parts disturbing and fascinating – and it IS spectacularly well written. I’m sure I shall continue, finding the right moments and the right mindset for it, as Jenny wisely suggested. I would SO love to know what you think of this – don’t leave it too long to start it!

    Pete – I’d love to know what you think of this (if you ever read it) as it must be a book with a great deal to say to psychotherapy. Oddly enough, one therapist I knew said that the only client who had ever really scared him was a pedophile. He said he had been the coldest man he ever met, and he used his keen intellect to justify himself without remorse. I keep thinking of that reading this book. I know nothing about Nabokov (that won’t last – I’m getting curious) and am not sure quite why we have been given HH, except as the most extreme of all anti-heroes, perhaps. But it’s an excellent question and one I’ll be bearing in mind as I read.

    David – I very much like your reading of the American/European struggle in the text and will be looking out for it now as I read. I used to find it easier to read difficult (as in upsetting, disturbing) books when I was teaching them, as I had an inbuilt defence mechanism through the intellect. Lolita is not an easy read, I agree, but it is intellectually stimulating enough that it should mobilize that part of my mind!

    Amateur reader – I’m looking forward to that discussion already and will certainly be there for it. I am also looking forward to reading Nabokov on Lolita – but I’m saving it up until I’ve finished unless you’d advise reading it before then..? I’m interested in what you might advise on that point.

  14. Oh, definitely save it for the end – there’s a reason VN put it there. I just wanted to suggest to people that if they are curious about questions like “does VN see himself in HH,” well, they’ve been asked before. One can go straight to the source.

    Speaking of psychotherapists, you may find this funny – in the first printing of the 1994 Everyman edition, the publisher replaced the John Ray, Jr introduction with a newly commissioned intro by Martin Amis.

  15. I, like Becky, thought that Jeremy Irons’s narration was perfect. And the language comes alive even more when read aloud.

    I am so happy for the fact that when I was taught this book in college, our professor taught it from the perspective of an ironic satire of the typical love story, the idea that no one would read a love story that truly was happy, that all love stories had to be impossible, have some sort of conflict to them, even if they turn out all right in the end. Thus, we were told that Humbert Humbert was the quintessential man in love and that Lolita was (being only twelve) the quintessential impossible lover, a relationship doomed to fail. I’m not sure what I would have thought of it had I been reading it on my own and not considered that interpretation. Since that’s how I’ve always viewed it, though, I’m caught by your description:

    “Humbert Humbert is so busy dealing with himself, so locked inside his unruly emotions, that he can never have respite from them.”

    That so perfectly describes all of us when we are madly in love, doesn’t it?

  16. Litlove, your analysis of HH’s voice is just perfection!
    I read the book a few years ago in a Penguin edition “The Annotated Lolita” (just gone and found it: notes and introduction by Alfred Appel) and that was fascinating, really well done – also means I was aware of what all the complex references were, some (lots?) of which might well have passed me by.

    [Glad to find you in such fine form. I’ve been in France sans internet…and look what I’ve been missing out on!]

  17. Amateur Reader – that IS funny. I actually have the copy with the Martin Amis introduction, and am intrigued to know what he will have to say about it, but I am going to have to see if I can lay hands on the Ray intro for comparison. But I’m saving all that for the end too. I’m delighted to know that VN is going to be deliciously and entertainingly forthcoming.

    Emily – that is a most interesting and creative reading. How clever of your teacher to avoid all the obvious approaches and to find something that splits the story open so neatly. You’re right that that awful solipsism IS a kind of madness that accompanies being in love.

    Care – I found it most helpful too! 🙂

    Deborah – how lovely to hear from you and thank you for such a lovely comment. I will look out for Appel’s introduction, at least, if I can find it in the university library. A few well chosen words in the introduction can be such an aid to getting into a difficult book. And France – how lovely! Does this mean you are researching again? I must email – I’ve been meaning to catch up with you for the longest time.

  18. Wait, wait, sorry, wait – you have one of the books without the John Ray, Jr. introduction? You have a collector’s item.

    The John Ray, Jr. intro is part of the novel. It’s written by Nabokov. If you don’t have it, you don’t have the beginning of the novel! In the second sentence, for example, it tells you that “Humbert Humbert” dies in prison of coronary thrombosis “a few days before his trial was scheduled to start.”

  19. Oh sorry, Amateur Reader – my mistake. I didn’t connect the name with the name of the fictionalised forward writer as I hadn’t actually retained it. I’ve just gone back to your comment and reread it and can see now much clearer what you meant! John Ray sounded vaguely familar to me and so I thought it must be an American psychotherapist. Duh! What a shame it was just a mistake and I don’t have a collector’s edition. That would have been a much better outcome.

  20. As usual these days I am getting to the discussion a bit late, and I don’t have anything marvelous to add except that I love how carefully and slowly you are looking at HH and Nabokov’s writing. I loved reading Lolita, even while I hated reading Lolita. The writing (and by that I suppose I mean the voice) is so dangerously rich and neurotically dark, I think it is one of the most daring of all works of literature and I love it for what it attempts and succeeds. I also love looking to see the cracks, the places where Nabokov reveals his own fear at what he’s tackled.

  21. I gave up early on with this book, or it threw me out. I found it like watching an operation on tv, admired the surgeon’s amazing skill and precision, was fascinated by the event on one hand and repulsed on the other in equal mixture. That somehow is like the book – you want to look and want to turn away all at once. Stange feelings. Glad to see you on great form – hope my comment isn’t too late!

  22. Verbivore – what you say about Nabokov here is wonderful and I will carry your thoughts with me when I go back to it. Thank you for giving me some marvellous ways to approach it.

    Bookboxed – hello! and lovely to see you (virtually)! You are spot on that it’s a book you want to look at and to turn away from simulataneously. I’m certainly going to get further with it. Whether I make it to the end or not is in the lap of the reading gods still. It really is an odd, difficult and provocative novel.

  23. “Lolita” is one of my favorite all-time books – a true literary masterpiece.

    I have read it dozens of times over the years and, each reading seems to bring a fresh perspective, clever twist or linguistic gem previously overlooked.

    I’ve heard many people complain over the years that it is “difficult” to read – either due to the controversial subject matter or Nabokov’s rich use of dense language, puns, alliterations and literary allusions.

    However, it is well worth the struggle.

    I would encourage anyone who appreciates great literature and language to read this book more than once.

    For those who have difficulty navigating through the complex nature of the book, I would recommend reading “The Annotated Lolita”.

    Tip: Once you have read te entire book, be sure to RE-READ the “Foreword” at the beginning.

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