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Lolita

I finally got around to reading Vladimir Nabokov's _Lolita_. Until this past week, my only exposure to him consisted of a) twisting past the assignment to read _Pale Fire_ in college, b) watching the film Stanley Kubrick made of _Lolita_, c) reading _about_ him a lot, and d) reading an entertaining interview with him that _Playboy_ ran in 1960s. The interviewer, Alvin Toffler, prepped by writing up his questions to make sure they were phrased just-so, as Nabokov was one of the great prose stylists of the century. Toffler rings the bell, Nabokov opens the door, and takes the pages of questions from Toffler's hand. He goes to his writing podium (like Balzac, he wrote standing up) and begins to compose answers. As he finishes the pages, Toffler composes new questions. They refine the typescript back and forth in this manner, never exchanging a word.

And anyway, I'd just watched _The Woodsman_, and I figured the time was about right to read this most notorious of novels.

So howzabout _Lolita_? I'm in awe. This is one of the finest novels ever written. Its main character is a depraved monster who writes like an angel. It is awash in desire, romance, self-delusion, cruelty and, ultimately, emptiness. It's a satirical look at America, as drawn through a clinically-accurate depiction of a psychopath. It's a book that begs for one kind of reading, but insinuates another approach in the mortar between the bricks.

A lot of people have been reading _Lolita_ with a sneaking admiration for Humbert Humbert. He's the narrator, the middle-aged European aesthete with a desire for young girls he terms "nymphets." And some readers warm to his condescending account of life in philistine America. He is withering on the second-rate "intellectual" culture around Beardsley College, and his accounts of life on the Great American Highway, with sani-kleen motels and retrograde morality lurking behind the "Family Style" advertisements. It's not surprising that readers in the 1950s and 1960s would respond to that: the guy's smart, cultured, and hey, he's in love with the girl, so who are these bourgeous Americans to stop him?

But pay careful attention. The narration, by Humbert, is locked within his obsessions. Every time he talks about Lolita's seductiveness, watch out: think of that creepy guy in the corner who's imagined a relationship with the coffee barista who'd merely smiled at him. And watch for the moments of ugliness that peep through Humbert's reverie. He'll catalog the times he'd coerce Lolita into a handjob in lyrical terms, and it's easy to _not_ notice what he's actually _doing_ to someone. It's a bit like watching another Kubrick film, _A Clockwork Orange_, and finding oneself caught up with Alex's colorful bad-boy enthusiasm-- as long as you don't think of his victims as real people. Humbert never registers that Lolita spends a lot of her time crying after he's spent himself with her.

Lemme side-track here for a moment. A have a friend, F, who's a film editor in England. He had to interview sex offenders for a film project a few years back. He told me (we were discussing _The Woodsman_) that pedophiles have a tremendous love for _Lolita_, and not just because it's about lusting after kids. Humbert matches their psychotic ideation _perfectly_. The solipsism. The rhapsodic flights of poetry to describe the Desired One. The unshakeable belief that it was the _kid_ who did all the seducing. But Humber Humbert writes about them with some of the most amazing prose ever set to paper.

It's a bit like that ugly serial-killer chic that burbles up in movies every so often, like _Se7en_ and _The Silence of the Lambs_ and _Hannibal_. You know, where a serial murderer is presented with some diabolically powerful ability to craft crimes that seem almost artful? Well, real serial murderers are _not_ like Kevin Spacey or Anthony Hopkins. But it's a sure bet that serial murders see something of themselves in these romantic depictions.

Which brings the satirical-irony stuff about everyone _else_ under suspicion. Sure, Humbert can affect superiority over the rubes with more disdain than a regiment of poststructuralists. Lolita's mother, Charlotte Haze, may be as blowsy and affected as Humbert portrays her... but once Humbert's heart-shaped blinders are put aside, one finds real tragedy in the poor woman.

Dolores Haze, aka Lo-lee-tah, is probably the single most difficult character to _see_ in the book. We have a book titled with her name, written by someone who professes all-consuming love for her, who kidnaps her and controls every aspect of her life for years. But two obstacles, or spectacles, distort our view; we cannot see Lolita properly through Humbert's delusions, and we have a hard time comprehending what she does because of our own expectations of what an abused child should be like-- a mournful waif in Wormwood Scrubs, maybe, scrawling crayon pictures of monsters so the heroic psychiatrist can decode the symbols and save her properly.

So when we read of moments when Dolores acts like, well, a normal teenager, we're surprised and a little befuddled. She's _friendly_ to Humbert? The battered, coal-blackened waif is NOT sobbing 24-7? What can this mean? Humbert takes those moments of Lo's happiness as a sign of her agreement to his use of her. Some readers may see it as a sign that Humbert's love was reciprocated in some way. Or others may suspect Nabokov of making the implication that pederasty isn't that _bad_ for kids. But Dolores Haze is, _despite_ the damage Humbert's done to her, pretty resilient.

That's one of the book's many tragedies. As long as Humbert posessed Lolita-- a tragedy in and of itself-- he could never comprehend her. At least, not until the very end, when he meets Lolita and her new husband. Suddenly, the human world rushes in through Humbert's barriers of self-delusion. The pages that follow are among the finest I've ever read. Nabokov captures, in exquisite language, true heartbreak; the churning condemnations of the self, the death of the dream of romance, and the constant reliving of once-pleasant memories as nightmares of one's own foolishness. No wonder he kills Clare Quilty at the end: the only alternative would've been to blow his own brains out.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
mauser
May. 31st, 2006 08:25 am (UTC)
Wow, now that's an amazing review. I too have never read the book, but seen a few bits of analysis of it. It's not like I have a history of having been abused, but still, when the topic comes up I have a cold and murderous fury that rises in me.

I once had the misfortune to read a bit of NAMBLA propoganda, which I'm debating trying to reconstitute here. But it was full of the same kind of self delusion about how young boys of 8 quite enjoy "accommodating" adult males. I think that one exposure cemented in me the idea that some people are just too sick to live.

I have another friend who is extremely vehement on this issue, and I was pondering pointing him at your review of that movie, and now even moreso to this. I'm not sure how he'd react.

On the other hand, I've long had a joke false quote kicking around:

"Thank heaven for little girls." - V. Nabokov.
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