Not A Review of Lolita

Well I suppose it had to happen one day that a book would completely defeat me. I finished Lolita yesterday and was aware of only two things: that it was brilliant, one of the most extraordinary books I had ever read, and that I was incapable of writing about it. Lolita for me was narrative overload. It was a bilious attack of significance and meaning. I also suspect it of being about four or five books rolled into one, and each a deformation of its own genre. There’s a travesty of a poignant love story in there, a horrific farce of a dysfunctional family saga, the oddest buddy road trip narrative ever written as Lolita and Humbert crisscross America, and a distorted Bildungsroman, in which the coming of age of our hero is a black, monstrous one, an impotent recognition of a man’s inability to change despite the horror and the grief that he knows with lucid retrospect that he has caused. Oh and while we’re at it, we could probably discern, too, the outlines of a portrait of the poet as pervert, the tale of a criminal who is almost-but-not-quite redeemed by beautiful verbosity. But given that all these stories come from the voice of a narrator who is often hallucinatory, often misguided, often misleading – how can we be sure of any of what we are told? Maybe if I had 10,000 words with which to do it, or 20,000, I might manage some sort of analysis, but even one of my long posts here would only be enough to offer a distortion of my own. It’s too much for me to take on.

Lolita was not a book that I really wanted to read. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about, and I wanted to read Nabokov, who seemed to be rated so highly by many discerning friends. But I started off reading Lolita as if I were squaring up to a rather tedious qualifying match, something I had to get through if I were to prove myself a professional, a bread-and-butter sort of fight that might have marginal interest if I engaged myself properly. The first few chapters did little to change that opinion. Initially I found the writing overblown and sickly, full of the febrile excitement of an invalid who is feeling better that day, but silently aware that tomorrow will bring a relapse. And whilst the book surprised me by being funnier than I expected, it was laughter born of discomforting emotions – cruelty, disgust, gallow’s humour. It made me think of that adage: how to stay young and beautiful? Hang out with old and ugly people. Humbert Humbert is so awful, the only way the narrator can redeem him is by making those around him even worse. But the writing was amazing, and once accustomed to its richness, I could begin to see its baffling depths.

I actually regret having written on this book before having finished it. There are three stages to Humbert’s development, and in truth you need to see them all before you can write anything that is better than partially accurate. For me, Lolita begged the question of when reading happens. This is a question that I’d heard discussed theoretically, but I’d never experienced it quite to this level before. For instance, when we read a detective novel, we have a different experience of the story before and after the denouement is reached. When we finally find out whodunit, we are obliged to retrace our steps through the narrative, reading it in a different light. So the conclusion of the story involves a rapid act of rereading what has gone before. I found Lolita to be even more complicated in this respect. I had heard so much about Lolita as a legendary narrative that I had almost read it before I’d even picked it up. I had to shed those expectations in the early sections of the novel before I was reading what was in front of my eyes. By the time I had finished, my appreciation of the characters had passed through a number of transformations that were quite strikingly different. And then, it was only reading Nabokov’s essay on Lolita and the rather good introduction by Martin Amis that made me realize how little I had ‘read’ Lolita, how very much had passed me by in the thick current of its prose. Nabokov wrote of certain scenes that he considered to be the ‘nerves’ running through the book, and commented that most readers would have missed them. I gulped, reading this. Of a list of six or so, I could only recall two or three. Then Amis pointed out that some of the most important information about the story is given in the preface, which the reader reads for the first time in no position at all to understand its significance. In truth I ought to read the book again, but then I would be rereading it in a different way, and that shock of the first encounter would be replaced by a much more knowing appreciation. The book would keep changing over and over, under my gaze; we would never have a stable relationship.

As to what Lolita means, I couldn’t begin to tell you. It means so many different things, and all of them ambiguously. It’s interesting to note that even in the space of those two essays top and tailing the text by Nabokov and Amis, a disagreement arises over interpretation. Nabokov complains of ‘an otherwise intelligent reader who flipped through the first part [and] described Lolita as “Old Europe debauching young America,” while another flipper saw in it “Young America debauching old Europe.”’ But Martin Amis defends and supports the argument of a transatlantic clash. I tend to agree with him: Humbert is so European and so world-weary, Lolita so American and so youthful, the landscape and the culture of both continents is so intrinsic to their relationship. But to tie the book down to this allegory is to do it a reductive injustice. Any line of argument you care to take about the book become complicated by other strands of the narrative, other twists and turns, other vistas that open up in Humbert’s tricky, deceptive storytelling. As I said, I don’t think it would be wise for me to try. But I will say that by the time I had finished it, I was quite bowled over by Nabokov’s linguistic virtuosity, by the sheer brilliance and audacity of the tale he sets before the reader. There are some fights in which it is an honour to lose, and this for me, was one of them.


30 thoughts on “Not A Review of Lolita

  1. Ahem. You don’t sound very “brain dead” (as you indicated on my blog) to me. And I say you’ve done a brilliant job of writing about this, one of the most complicated and brilliant of all books I’ve read. Funny, I never thought of that Europe-America angle, but it makes sense. As you note, just so much to read into the book. If you do decide to reread it at some point, I highly recommend letting Jeremy Irons read it to you via audiobook.

  2. I think you wrote about the book just fine. And to me it doesn’t sound like you were defeated by it at all. It sounds as though the book is meant to be slippery, meant to keep the reader unbalanced and unable to pin anything down. Maybe it has to be read five or six or ten times before the reader can winkle out all the tricks. I’ve not read the book but I’ve heard about the story and seen one of the movies and of course it all gets boiled down to a simple plot. How nice to know how rich and deep the book is. Something to look forward to when I finally get around to pulling it off the shelf.

  3. You don’t sound at all defeated by this book, but I know what you mean about Lolita being a bit much. When I got through reading it, I felt mentally exhausted and had to read James Herriot for the next several days.

  4. Brilliant review and you have only made me want to read this even more now. I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the book but it is on my list and I will get around to it.

  5. Oh those crazy Russians and their big books full of meaning, trickery and beautiful, beautiful phrasing. They’re exhausting aren’t they, but well worth the hike through their books (in the end after the years of plucking up the courage to open them). I think you did a wonderful job of talking about the novel in a different way. Anyone can tell us what goes on, but only you can tell us how you read it (duh that was obvious wasn’t it?). I’m always interested in hearing about how we read and the reactions of different writers as well so I really enjoyed this post.

  6. I agree with Stefanie that Lolita is meant to be slippery. If you think you’ve got it, you probably haven’t. I read it back in college, and it’s one of those rare books that I only came to appreciate through studying it. (I never quite came around to liking it, though.) Every now and then, I’ve considered rereading it now that I know a bit more about what to look for. But, well, so many other books are calling.

  7. I am so glad you ended up feeling this way about it. I was worried for a bit after your earlier Lolita post that it wouldn’t come off for you, somehow. I am feeling overdue for a re-read after your lovely post!

  8. How can you write such an interesting review about a book that’s defeated you? My goodness, you never cease to amaze me!

    I do know what you mean about feeling the need to read something because it’s a piece of the literary canon you feel you should be familiar with. I feel that way about all of Charles Dickens. Nevertheless, I may go to my grave without that particular pleasure.

  9. Thanks for the review. I still haven’t managed to get over my disgust with the narrator and get beyond chapter 2 or so. One day maybe…

  10. Love your thoughts. I admit that I hit a snag right after they began that wacky road trip–but your post has me sighing at its direction. Thank you!

  11. Exactly the sort of ‘defeated’ review I wish I was up to writing! Still not sure I really want to try to read it again after giving up before, but you make it sound about as interesting and possible as it’s ever likely to be.

  12. I think you wrote about the book very well, even though you didn’t ‘write about the book’. I almost think your own personal reflection on the experience is more interesting and thoughtful (well to me anyway, to whom even the analysis might be a little too much). I’ve never had a huge burning desire to read Lolita or Nabokov in general, other than this is one of those books that seems so very important. Maybe someday I’ll pick it up–I’ll make sure I take lots of notes on that preface, though (and will likely cheat by reading the introduction as well!). It sounds like it was a satisfying read in its own way.

  13. I’m not sure if you can consider it losing to the author or the intent if you’re taking something away, no matter how small or misunderstood. No one reader can take everything away from one piece of literature and certainly even a simple piece will bring forth different interpretations in each of its readers. So, as long as you felt and were immersed, I think you won.

  14. Wonderful post! Nabokov is just great, and this post gives him his due, I think. I suspect he would be honored by your post, in fact 🙂 He should be, at any rate. I’m hoping you read Nabokov again at some point; I would really love to know what you think of Pale Fire or of Speak, Memory. But, regardless, I loved reading your thoughts here.

  15. I read Lolita 3 years ago and am still in awe of it. I don’t think I’ve read anything previously, or since, that has been quite so astounding – and so hard to pin down and quantify. My husband picked up the book after me but put it down after several chapters and declared the book “revolting”. I wish this had been a set text at University – it would have livened up seminars no end!

  16. Ok, you’ve convinced me. I’ll have to read Lolita after all. I think I was put off by my disgust but there’s something to be said for realising (as you do) that being defeated by your reading of it is part of the experience. It makes me think of talking to a client who I can’t stand and realising that I’m getting drawn into complex layers of misrepresentation and twisted relationship.

  17. BRAVO! How interesting that I haven’t stopped by here in a week or two and then today open to Lolita! I’m still not ready to write my own review (or not-a-review). I do sometimes think I should reread Lolita but, golly – I really don’t want to.

  18. Sometimes one just can’t write a review because of all the emotions the book has evoked. Where to start? I felt that way after I finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Foer. I just couldn’t put the feelings into words.

  19. Emily – I didn’t recognise you at first! But you always speak such sense, and the thought of Jeremy Irons reading Lolita is…..most definitely intriguing. I am liking that idea very much.

    Stefanie – when I first finished it, I thought, I’ll rent the movie! And then I thought twice as I didn’t see how what was best about the book could ever make it onto the screen. And thank you for being so kind! I’d love to know what you think about Lolita when the right day comes for you to read it.

    Jenny – lol!! I reached for the historical fiction. Same difference. It is a mentally exhausting read, although the pages turned much easier and quicker than I expected (which goes to prove that page-turning books are not necessarily fluffy!).

    Kathleen – I promise you I was VERY intimidated by this book! But I am so glad I read it, even if it took me two-thirds of the way through to feel that. My fault, not the book’s. But I’d love to hear what you think of it one day.

    Bluestocking – sweetie, you can like or dislike exactly what you please. I don’t mind one little bit (although I DO feel guilty when someone hates something I’ve recommended!).

    Jodie – that pleases me no end, that you see what it was I wanted to do with Lolita, which was to talk about the experience of it. And you are so right in your description of the Russians. I’d love to say I am fired up to tackle more of them now, and I probably will be – after a bit of a rest…

    Lilian – oh thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment!

    Teresa – oh I know! I can never reread for the same reason. Yes, I can see that this is a book worth studying, and it’s often the case that the appreciation we gain through such study is not akin to love (and why people hate dissecting books they do love). But I’m a fan of bookish admiration. And glad that you found a way into Lolita.

    nicole – it took me a while – my fault, not the book’s, as I had some sort of weird prejudice to work through. But I was very glad to appreciate it as much as I did by the end. It’s a special book.

  20. Becca – there’s quite a lot on my list of books that ‘ought’ to be read! And it won’t matter if I never make it through them. It’s the books we read that matter. As you might know, I am not a great fan of Dickens, although I would like to be. I guess we really haven’t got room in our heart for all the authors, but that does add value to the loves we loyally embrace!

    Andrew – I understand! I took a big breaks while reading this – it’s a book you can only attempt on your own terms, and at your own pace.

    Sasha – you are welcome! And I understand that snag. No modern novel would permit an author those first three, aimless chapters at the start of a second half. It is funny how times change and writing rules harden.

    Bookboxed – there are many other books out there, all calling your name. I reached a point where I felt determined to finish this, and picked it up again in that spirit. And then, against the odds and my own expectations, it enchanted me (in a sick and twisted way). But the best thing about books is that they come without obligations – no need to alter that!

    gumbomum – amen to that! I know exactly how you feel.

    Danielle – I was hugely intimidated by this book and wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read it. And then by the end, I just couldn’t do a critical appraisal, so I am very glad that this post turned out okay for you, as it was the strangest reading experience I’ve had in a long while! It is an amazing book, but you do have to pick your moment for it. I think it’s wise of you to wait for the right time.

    Walter Helena – quite right – such wise words there. It’s very true that you can never get everything out of a piece of art, no matter how many words you assign to it!

    Dorothy – oh thank you! I would love to read more Nabokov now, particularly Speak, Memory. I never knew what all the fuss was about, but I’m a real convert. Oh and I am also determined to read his lectures on literature too!

    Fiona – you put it so well, it is indeed impossible to pin down and quantify, and that start is very disconcerting. Another book I’d love to read now is Reading Lolita in Tehran – to think how such a novel would have sounded to a Muslim community is… well, let’s just say I really want to read that book!

    Pete – there is something so liberating in realising you are just NOT UP to something. I find it wonderful, when I remember that I may cry defeat. And I quite understand your disgust at those early stages – I felt the same. All I can say is that the ending is quite different. Would love to know what you think, when the time is right.

    Care – I’m not surprised you aren’t ready to review it! I got the impression that this is a book a reader might never be ready to review. I certainly didn’t feel that I could tackle it in the usual way. And it’s lovely to see you – always happy when you drop by.

  21. Grad – your comment came in while I was replying to the others! You’re right -some books are very emotive and you have to let the dust settle for a while before knowing what you think. I often put a book aside for a while before reviewing it for just that reason.

  22. I’m glad you made it to the end. It is not, upon finishing, what one thought it would be when one started … which is really a rarity in the world of literature; most books declare themselves fairly easily, at least as far as defining philosophy. “Lolita” is a book I have read repeatedly … in fact there are parts of it I can quote from memory, rather to my amazement … though I think it’s been about five years since I last experienced it.

    And then I do wonder, as Humbert does himself, why the story of Lolita is so profoundy disturbing, whereas, for example, the story of Dante and Beatrice (who was, if I recall Nabokov’s phrase correctly “a sweet girleen of twelve”) meeting fatefully on the Ponte Vecchio has been immortalized in art for centuries. Is it that Dante was a poet, and Humbert is a middle-aged dilettante? Is it that girls used to be married by thirteen way back in those dear dead days beyond recall, so Dante’s interest wasn’t as sick somehow? Is it the difference between forgivable wanting, vs. unforgivable having? Is it the crime and violence around the relationship … although in a different story, those elements would have been indicative of high romance and adventure?

    It’s those things, I think, that make the story particularly fascinating to me … the way in which it runs skull-crackingly into double standards of judgment. Humbert and Lolita are not Petrarch and Laura, nor are they Merlin and Nimue, nor yet are they Bonnie and Clyde … and yet, why not? Can these archetypes not exist in a story of middle-class America? Or would Petrarch be just as revolting as Humbert, were we to know what really went on in his mind? And of course, Humbert and Lolita are iconic archetypes now, of a different (and perhaps short-sighted) kind.

  23. I finally read Lolita for book club last month, and I had a similarly hard time talking about it! I also really loved the book, though, even though the characters never managed to win me over. If you want to read it, my full review is here. It’s much like yours, though – I didn’t really feel like I could probably put my feelings about it into words.

  24. If only I were this gracious and eloquent in defeat…! LL, I think this is all part of why personally I was very affected by Lolita. It’s a novel of trespass, I think, trespass both profound and mundane, and I experienced a full range of emotions in relation to that. It’s not a book I *enjoyed,* but it’s an experience of reading I shall never, ever forget.

  25. “As to what Lolita means, I couldn’t begin to tell you.”
    I felt the same thing after finishing this book (last night, in fact). Wondering what I was going to write about, all I could come up with was how I had been seduced by H.H. through his slippery and seductive narrative. I like Nabokov’s quote in his notes at the end of the book – “I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow.”

  26. Pingback: Best Book Club Books 2 | Tales from the Reading Room

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