Sunday, November 25, 2007

Reflections on Nabokov's Lolita

I'd been wanting to read it for a long time. Lolita, that is. The novel by Vladimir Nabokov. I finally did, and here's how it came about (from my 2005 Journal):


Friday, October 21, 2005 (12:37 a.m.)

Late this evening I walked down the moonlit driveway and crossed the highway (with flashlight lit) to fetch two boxes from Two of the books I ordered were waiting there for me. Thousands of books in my possession, and it’s always such a delight to get new books – especially these. These are Nabokov! I’ve never owned a work of Nabokov. A softcover copy of Lectures on Literature (edited by Fredson Bowers, with an introduction by John Updike) and The Library of America volume, Nabokov: Novels 1955-1962 (including Lolita, Pale Fire, and the screenplay for Lolita that Nabokov wrote for Stanley Kubric). I’ve already been reading in them – particularly the editor’s forward to Lectures on Literature, and a few random passages from Lolita. No doubt I will learn a lot about reading, about literature, and about how to craft my own writing to make it alive and vital.

[end of journal selection]

Lolita, following in the footsteps of other great works, such as James Joyce's Ulysses, has been regularly and frequently banned. When it was first published, Nabakov had to resort to a French publisher, because no American publisher was willing to take a chance on such subject matter -- a fictitious prison memoir of a relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12 year old girl. On its premier publication, one reviewer in London called it "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography," which probably assured the book immediate success. The great writer (and British spy) Graham Greene, on the other hand, called it one of the best novels of 1954.

The book is one of the finest I have ever read. We see into the head of Humbert Humbert, and far from being an apologetic for pedophilia, we see Humbert for the monster that he really is. Nevertheless, we also see him as a human being, which is the real magic of the book for me. The prose is exquisite, which is amazing in itself considering Nabokov initially established his career in literature in his native Russian and only began writing in English later in his life. Perhaps that is why he was such a master of the language. When he wasn't writing, Nabokov was most frequently pursuing his other great love -- chasing butterflies. He was an avid lepidopterist. What an apt metaphor, because one can imagine him chasing and capturing the most beautiful words and collecting them in his prose.

I saw this title on a list of suggested books for the local book group I recently joined, and I hope we will select this for one of our monthly discussions. If you've not given Nabokov in general, and Lolita in particular, a chance -- perhaps because of the "scandalous" topic, or because you are intimidated by "great literature" (remember, great literature is great because it is first of all good literature) -- I hope you'll take a look at it. The poetry, the sheer loveliness of language, is evident in the rhythm of the opening lines, some of the most beautiful in all of literature:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

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