Friday, October 7, 2011

Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov

For a book that started with a paragraph so amazing that it immediately became one of the most brilliant things I'd ever read, Lolita ended up being a very disappointing experience for me.

I knew the basic storyline, (even saw the movie...I think?) Indeed, how could one not know the premise?  It is the prime example of Books Which Are Unceasingly Banned.  The synopsis didn't put me off.  I've been reading long enough to know that it takes more than an unpleasant topic to make a book unenjoyable.  In fact, there have been plenty of books that I've loved despite the topic not being a natural favorite.  Examples: 
 - The Art of Fielding (baseball)
- Revolutionary Road (extreme marital discord)
- Star of the Sea (boats, ocean)
- Slaughterhouse Five (space/science)
- The Good Earth (ancient China)

I was ready for Lolita to fall into a growing line of books in which the writing overcame the topic, but it didn't happen.  Not only that, but it took a great amount of effort for me to finish it.  It was sucking the reading-passion out of me.  Perhaps that sounds drastic and extreme, but, believe me, the going was rough.

By page 70 or so (just after the first incident) I was tempted to quit.  The topic, from Humbert's point of view, was too much for me.  In my mid-book-procrastination, I did what I often do: read reviews of the book online, and read the author's note at the end of the book.  This often helps me refresh my frame of mind and jump back into the book, and it worked this time as well.  The scenes didn't progress as I feared they would, something else happened instead.  I got depressed.

I didn't see any loveliness in this book.  There wasn't any hope, any humor, any levity.  It was all imbalanced minds, selfish passion, and destruction.  Nabokov is a master of language, but he shows H.H. in such a rigidly realistic manner that it didn't do anything for me at all.  The perspective didn't engage me or compel me to contemplate the characters.  It was just sad, depressing, and I wanted it to be over.

I chased Lolita with a cleansing shot of Flannery O'Connor, which seemed to do the trick.  I read the short story "Greenleaf" (part of the collection Everything That Rises Must Converge) last night and enjoyed it greatly--my interest in reading is restored.  Where Nabokov shows unsavory characters in a moderated tone, O'Connor illuminates the ridiculous in us all.  Perhaps it's just a matter of taste, but I'm happy to put this one behind me.  All but the first paragraph, which I still love.
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.
Title: Lolita
Author: Vladamir Nabokov
Published: 1993 Everyman's Library (orig. 1955)
Read For: Back to the Classics Challenge, Banned Books Week
My Rating: great writing, depressing topic, averages out to 3 stars 


  1. I've never read this nor have I seen the movie...I'm glad to hear I'm not missing out on something special.

  2. We're going to have to agree to disagree on this one because I very much enjoyed it. And for the same reasons you didn't like it - because it was sad. I liked how Nabokov wrote H.H. in a way that you almost ended up complicit with him and almost agreeing with his view that Lolita seduced him.

    Here's my review, if you're interested:

  3. Peppermint, depends on who you talk to I guess...I feel like I'm in the minority on this one!

    Sam, see I never felt any sympathy towards H.H. at all. Not a bit. There was never a point in the whole book that I understood him or even felt bad for him. I'm not sure why...I guess that's one of the things that makes reading such a personal experience. I liked your review, by the way, (thanks for sharing) and really agree with everything you said except for the emotional/personal response (obv.) Nabokov's talent at writing in a non-native language is simply remarkable.

  4. I like the first paragraph as well. I read this book because I felt it was necessary to add to my literature library of 'Read books'. But, I didn't love it. I still don't see what makes it so very famous, other than it's rather twisted subject matter. I did feel a small amount, very small, of compassion for H.H. in the general sense of feeling for anyone who cannot overcome an addiction.

  5. Bellezza, yes I felt it was a necessary read too, as part of modern literature. I wanted to know what the buzz was about.

    It was sad that his struggle was so immense that he couldn't overcome it, not even for someone else's sake, but I think I was mourning for little Lo too much to feel any sympathy for H.H.

  6. We read this for our book club and I remember that I hadn't finished reading it by the time we met. Others loved it but I didn't. I did finish it and liked it a little more, or at least could comprehend why others liked it. It isn't a book that's stayed with me and that in it's own way says something.

  7. It's been so long since I read this, and I don't remember a lot of the details. I do remember liking it in spite of the troubling subject matter.

    (I'm not sure I can express the following without coming across as a little creepy, but nonetheless...) I think most men have encountered a few Lolitas in their lives - and they may not be necessarily Lolitas of young age, but tempting females who we know are 'wrong' to be involved with for whatever reasons. On that level there is some 'universal' resonance for many (at least male) readers in how HH fails to resist temptation, etc. Maybe this is the "appeal" for many readers.

    PS I loved your line about cleansing your palate by chasing Lolita with a shot of Flannery O'Connor. Very nice.

  8. Joan, part of my disappointment was just that I wanted the whole book to draw me in like that first paragraph did. Instead of being entranced by his poetic madness I was put off. I can understand why others liked it, but it just didn't affect me the same way.

    Jay, I can understand the power of an inappropriate infatuation, and perhaps I should have brought that to mind more often while reading this. It may have helped me have some compassion and connection with H.H.'s plight. Ultimately though, I think I kept seeing my 11 year-old daughter in Lo's place and identifying with being in too deep. I suppose that's the risk Nabokov took in telling this story in the way he did.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts (at risk of sounding creepy!) I appreciate the conversation!

  9. I have no idea how I missed this review of yours. I actually think you found more to redeem the book than I did, but I agree with you about the poetry of the book's opening lines. If the rest of the book had been as playful, or if HH hadn't been the narrator, or any number of what-if situations, I could see myself admiring the book, if not ever the subject.


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