The Booklovers: Chapter One

16Jun08

Previously: Prologue

Vladimir Nabokov

Hello, little girl..

Of course I’d heard of Nabokov before this, and of course I’d heard of Lolita, his most famous and most notorious work. But I had not read it, nor seen the films, so I knew only the barest outline of the plot. It’s a book about a man who marries a woman to spend time with her daughter, right?

Yes and no. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, is middle-aged and troubled. Troubled by his lust for ‘nymphets’ – pre-pubescent girls that he finds sexually attractive. He finds himself lodging in the New England house of Charlotte Haze and her daughter Dolores: the eponymous Lolita.

Charlotte, a widow, has designs on Humbert, whom she sees as husband material. Humbert has designs of a different nature on Lolita. He marries Charlotte in order to stay close to her daughter, but after Lolita is dispatched to camp for the summer, Charlotte finds evidence of Humbert’s obsession. Sickened, she flees their house, but is hit by a car and killed. Humbert and Lolita become lovers and enter into a twisted relationship. He lusts after her and she manipulates him, at times innocent and at times intensely aware of her power over Humbert – and other men like him.

Humbert is a deeply flawed character, and sometimes he seems aware of it, realising that what he is doing is wrong. But he allows himself to be driven by his desires. The book is written in a descriptive, lyrical style, almost beautiful at times. It presents a dark contrast to the subject matter, and I found myself both loathing the narrator for his actions and loving the way they are described.

The secondary characters are grotesque when seen through Humbert’s eyes – either they are nymphets, to whom he is in thrall, or they are threats to his relationship with Lolita. Charlotte Haze in particular has no redeeming features, and she is tolerated and loathed by turns as Humbert uses her to get to her daughter. Lolita herself is a spoiled, childish, deeply irritating adolescent girl, which seems to make Humbert’s obsession, and the lengths he goes to to keep her, all the stranger. He paints a picture to himself of the girl he wants her to be, but the reader can see her true nature.

It’s a humourous book, with most of the comedy stemming from the way Humbert describes himself and the contrast with how he acts. In increasing desperation to keep his twisted love alive as the book progresses, he resorts to greater and greater schemes to keep his Lolita, and it eventually drives him to the climatic ending. But despite the disturbing subject matter, the writing is a joy to read, and the story, despite a little uneven pacing in the middle, is compelling to read.

Nabokov was a Russian-born writer, who grew up speaking English and French as well as his mother tongue. His family fled Russia after the Revolution in 1917, and he eventually settled in the USA. Lolita is full of little evocations of post-war America, seen through Humbert’s (a British man living abroad) eyes. It was written in English, though Nabokov seemed to regret not writing in Russian, a language he considered superior. But the prose of Lolita demonstrates his skill in this language, at least.

Not surprisingly, the subject matter of Lolita drew criticisms when it was first published in the mid 1950s. Though by today’s standards even the most explicit passages are mild, it is easy to see why. It was published initially in Paris, and passed with little notice until Graham Greene praised it in a British newspaper – prompting a rival newspaper to condone it as pornographic and the Government to seize copies entering the country. But despite this it was published with less trouble in the USA, where it became a bestseller and a critical success.

Nabokov described it as one of his favourite works. He seemed especially proud of the fact that there are few Dolores and even fewer Lolitas who were born since the book was published. And the book is one of those rare creatures – an important book which is also intensely readable. For someone like me, who enjoys wordplay and interesting turns of phrase, it almost cries out to be read aloud. But it is also thought-provoking. Because like Alan Bennett’s monologue Playing Sandwiches, it presents a portrait of a paedophile – one of the most reviled types of people in this day and age – that is unsettling precisely because, in some ways, it invites sympathy.

Lolita is definitely going on the rereading shelf.

Next: Chapter Two

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One Response to “The Booklovers: Chapter One”


  1. 1 The Booklovers: Chapter Two « Gin&Comment

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