Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cannonball Read #17: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Definitely, there are spoilers.)

While reading and talking about Lolita on the Internet, I noticed that people would often quote some Vanity Fair review where Lolita is said to be "the only convincing love story of our century." It piqued my interest that the rest of the article is never referenced so I decided to do a Google search for it. My quick search became an extensive comb of the interwebs, and the only thing (ONLY thing that came up! I mean, this is the Internet, so that's pretty amazing) that came up was a blog post written by an English Lit grad student. Once I read the rest of it, I realized that the original Vanity Fair writer would probably have preferred the next sentence to be the pull-quote "of the century":
[Lolita] simply stood as one of the great examples of passion in literature, a deeply touching story of unfulfillable longing, of suffering through love, love of such ardor that though it concentrated on its subject monomaniacally, it actually aimed beyond it, until it flowed back into the great Eros that had called it into being.

This would more accurately describe my feelings toward Humbert Humbert's and Lolita's "love story."

This is my second round through the book, and I'm still really unsure about it. I know there's the whole debate going on about it not really being about HH's love for Lolita, but an obsession with her – and I would absolutely agree with that. On the other hand, HH was able to respect her wishes about not following him, and allowed her to move on with her life, even giving her all the money that really belonged to her mother. I feel like the love that Humbert has for her started out as a fetish, one that came from never being able to "climax" his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Annabel. But he also stated, somewhere in the book (because I don't use bookmarks, so take my word for it) that Lolita became more than just an Annabel-figment; she is a more realized vision of whom he had always wished to be with, and whether if that vision started with Annabel, it really ended with Lo. Lee. Ta.

Whenever that above stops making sense to me, I only have to refer to the final paragraph in HH's novel. He stated that Clare Quilty should be killed because he, HH, had to make Lolita "live in the minds of later generations." Granted, the image of Lolita that we have is what HH sees, but what he sees is also what he falls in love with.

Wanting to express my thoughts on this is incredibly frustrating, and maybe the fact that this is so hard for me to put into words means that it is, indeed, just a mere obsession. Yet I can say that, and still I believe it's a love story. It is certainly not a good love, or a perfect love, and it is not the type of love we aim for in our relationships. But I have read those thousands and thousands of words and I can still feel the aching that HH has for Lolita. I connect that to something more than him wanting to possess her.

I can also feel my revulsion and skepticism for HH. Reading the book is especially painful when he gives the first few indications that Lolita is unhappy during his travels with him. She cries every night after they have sex while he feigns sleep; then he mentions this fact off-hand, like it's just a pesky little afterthought to their wonderful year-long journey. The problem is that HH was always aware that he was in the wrong, which is why he resisted for so longe. Right after they had sex for the first time (where she, he said, was the one who seduced him), HH writes:
The beastly and beautiful merged at one point, and it is that borderline I would like to fix, and I feel I fail to do so utterly. Why?

Before they had sex for the first time, he often congratulated himself for catching a caress without violating the child. This little self-righteous pat on the back is soon forgotten once we get into the second half of the book. Instead, he focuses on keeping her in his sight at all times, trying to limit her social engagements so that he can keep track of her friends, and he did all that in the pretense of being a "good father," which even he was aware was a flimsy excuse.

When Clare Quilty enters the picture, it was almost a relief. Nabokov often slyly refers Quilty as HH's brother, and we can see how they are "related" because of their taste for nymphets (I just winced after typing that but I can't think of anything else.) Quilty could be like the evil twin brother, but after I was done with the book, I wasn't so sure. Quilty never thought there was anything wrong with his pornographic/pedophilic life choices. HH does, but still persists in doing it; and even after admitting the wrongness and acknowledging his guilt, he still continues it.

I feel really lucky to have obtained an annotated version of the book because that absolutely helped me with my understanding of the second half. By that point, I was so frustrated with HH taking turns between self-flagellation and self-indulgence that I was just confused about how I felt about him, or even with what he feels about himself. I mean, the man voluntarily admits himself to psych wards on a routine basis, for heavens' sake. I do not sympathize with him, but Nabakov's use of language really helped me to feel what he felt.

For example, I read most of the book on the train, and in the beginning of the book when HH was describing his longing for Lolita, I could actually feel the need he had for her and I started feeling self-conscious about reading it in public. Towards the end of the book, I understood why he had to find Lolita to ask her where Quilty was so that he may kill him - and I got that! I have no idea why, only that Nabokov's language made it so self-evident to me.

So yes, it is one of my favorite books but saying "because of the language" just doesn't seem to be a sufficient enough reason. The subject matter kept me engaged though it was very icky. I don't know, I don't know. All I know is that when I got done with the book, I closed it and looked around me, and it all still looks like the subway train I take to work everyday. But I felt weirdly changed, like I had just gone through an incredibly heart-wrenching break-up and somehow, I'm the one who came out intact. And I'm so surprised by that.

I always feel sad when I hear that people didn't enjoy it. And perhaps "enjoy" is the wrong word to use with Lolita, but I just feel so much for it.

"No," she said, "it is quite out of the question. I would sooner go back to Cue. I mean –"

She groped for words. I supplied them mentally. ("He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.")


Jen K said...

Great review. Also, thanks for doing the research on the Vanity Fair quote - I'd still love to know why the publisher thought that quote would be a good idea, but I am no longer shocked about the comment itself when taken in context.
I really liked your review (I know a lot of times with CBR we say good review, and we mean it, but this one was really amazing). I wish I felt the same way about it but I might be confusing my anger at Humbert with anger at the novel. Still, it was better the second time for me.

denesteak said...

aw thanks girl.

Strangely, I couldn't bring myself to feel angry at him. Mostly repulsed and disgusted and really frustrated... It's not like I at any point condoned whatever he was doing. But I think Nabokov did such a good job of humanizing this sociopath that I felt the feelings he felt - which was mostly that he was pathetically "in love" and enslaved by his love for Lolita (love is a generalization...)

blakspring said...

i read this about 15 years ago, and forgot a lot of it. but i don't recall ever thinking that hh loved lolita, just that he was obsessed with her. didn't he try to kill her mom? i probably need to re-read it, especially after your insights.

denesteak said...

We had a discussion over on Pajiba for Lolita (http://www.pajiba.com/book_reviews/the-pajiba-book-club-lolita.php) and I was probably one of the VERY few who thought HH loved Lolita (towards the end at least) so please take that opinion with a grain of salt. Most of everyone else said "obsession" which I am not denying. He did fantasize about killing his mom, but he couldn't go through with it.