Sunday, February 01, 2009

6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita Everyman's Library edition pictureWhew! Made the deadline! And let me tell you this was a bit tight. Some of the other 50 bookers thought it might be fun to all try and read a single book at the same time so we could discuss it together. Jarret suggested Lolita and we all agreed.

The deadline was set for Sunday, February 1st. I was caught up in other books and I couldn't get my hands on a copy of Lolita until last Wednesday. Well, what actually happened is that Meezly had a copy, but it was an old paperback in very frail condition and we had both sort of agreed that we didn't want to read that copy for fear of ruining it further. But I finished the Caves of Night on Tuesday night and had a few hours to kill. Meezly was sick so I was on the sofa bed. I didn't want to start a new book when I knew I had Lolita with a deadline, so I took Meezly's copy and carefully tried to read it. I did okay, really, keeping the book mostly intact, though the glue is basically gone. I got to the part where Charlotte reads Humbert's diary and runs out into the road before I went to bed. However, I left the book on the side of the bed and first thing in the morning, Meezly walks in saying "do you want some tea—hey! Why are you reading my copy of Lolita!" A scene ensued. It all felt eerily parallel to the part I had just finished reading in Lolita, except fortunately Meezly didn't go running out into the street (it was -15º) to post letters condemning me and then get hit by the car, followed by me taking the paperback on a year-long drive across the country.

No, I put the book back and made the trip to la Bibliothèque Nationale and took out a lovely, sturdy, hardbound Everyman's Library edition and read it steadily until finishing it this morning.

I'll skip any kind of general analysis or introduction as I assume everybody knows what this book is about and we are far beyond censorship arguments. I will say, though, that I, quite frankly, embarrassed myself over in the comments section of Crumbolst's blog when I wrongly accused him of being overly moralistic in his review. I read his passionate analysis as passionate moralizing, a tendency he has never before displayed, and for that I apologize. At that point, I hadn't read the book in over 15 years and based my response on a vague pastiche of the movie and my faded memory of the book.

What Crumbolt's review points to is how Lolita demands the reader to come up with a response to Humbert Humbert. Do you hate him? Do you ultimately sympathize with him? I think the general line is that he is portrayed as a horrible figure, but he portrays himself so sympathetically, and is so aware of his monstrousness, that by the end of the novel, you do tend to sympathize with him. There is a very lyrical passage at the very end where he relates a moment when he is on the side of the highway and hears the sound of all the children in a small town he can see below him.

I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

He feels remorse at Dolores' loss of childhood. Several other times in the text, he explicitly takes himself to task for being the person who deprives her of her childhood.

Now I agree with all this reasoning in general. He steals her childhood, he recognizes it and feels bad for it but he also recognizes that he can't control himself. That contradiction is made plain to see for the reader and it does engender some sympathy for him. Nabokov even takes his crime a bit further and you could argue that Humbert Humbert ultimately murdered Dolores Haze. In the false introduction, she is noted to have died in childbirth, which one could extrapolate happened as a result of all the sexual abuse she suffered at such a young age.

But I think this debate, of Humbert's crime and whether or not he deserves any absolution, sidesteps what for me was the more disturbing and impactful character flaw. He never treates Dolores Haze as a human being. Everything she is interested in, everything that makes her come alive as a person he discounts with educated snobbery or masculine jealousy. He is utterly disdainful of comic books, american movies, sundaes, her non-sexualized friends. He is utterly frightened of other boys, her participation in the theatre, her having any dialogue with her female friends. He actively works to suppress all that stuff in a being who started out as a lively, spirited and headstrong individual.

The contradiction is that despite his utter negation of anything unique in her personality, he falls deeply in love with her. So much so that even after she has passed her nymphet peak, he is obsessed with protecting her from Quilty and keeping her for his own. Even when he sees her years later as a pregnant 17-year old, he still wants her to come away with him, to live with him. But why? He doesn't even know her. He never did. His love is the obsessive, empty love of a high school student but it is all-consuming. He loves this woman to the point where he would ruin his life for her, but he has no idea who she is and won't allow her to develop an identity. The best he gets is a vague fantasy of her as a succesful tennis pro, her least favorite activity.

Part of me wants to say that I don't get it and that it rings false. Unfortunately, love behaves like this all the time. These obsessed losers or jilted FaceBook lovers who have this burning emotion in them towards a person who actually has nothing to offer them. I don't want to use the words "sin" or "crime", because Humbert's crime was that he raped and confined a minor, but ultimately for me, Humbert's greatest flaw is that he is one of these losers, a snobby, bourgeouis, European-mongrel, remittance man who comes to America, falls hopelessly in love with a girl that he doesn't even know and then runs around all over the country behaving like a giant asshole.

Perhaps it is this that makes him ultimately sympathetic. Where he is explicitly aware of his crime against Lolita, he is utterly oblivious to the falsity of his love. When you compare him to Quilty, who has the same moral fibre, the same intellectual superiority, Humbert comes off as being more sympathetic. Quilty knows what he is doing and revels in it. He doesn't fall in love. Quilty has taken his sins and turned them into mechanisms for financial, artistic and social success. Humbert has fallen under the control of his sins and is a pathetic failure because of that. Do we sympathize with Humbert more becuase of this? Possibly.

I would like to add, that despite my condemnation of Humbert's flaws, I quite like him. He's funny. He's snobby and removed, but participates. He gets in trouble. He parties a lot. I think the period after he loses Lolita and is just kind of a crazy, alcoholic is when I realized he could be one of those weird guys you might meet in a bar who are just living life. They are smart and interesting and great conversationalists and there is no mention of career or family in their dialogue. There is no longer much of a place for people like that in this modern world and I kind of miss them. Nabokov captures that insane freedom perfectly in the character of Humbert Humbert.

That's the main thrust (dear god, it's hard to write after reading Nabokov's english and not start second-guessing of choice of word, turn of phrase, le mot juste, that one uses) of my analysis, but I'd like to add two side points:

1) the ending dialogue between Quilty and Humbert is amazing. It's the only time that Humbert meets his intellectual match, but he's so wound up and unfun at that point that he can't appreciate it. Quilty is the rye, self-deprecating, hyper-intelligent and learned critic that Humbert is at the beginning. You wish they could just make up and party together for a while, because it would be hilarious.

2) I really want to see the movie again, mainly for Peter Seller's performance as Quilty. I suspect the movie may be pretty good but may not truly capture the essence of the book. It'sjust not nasty enough and probably couldn't be. But I still remember all of Seller's scenes and they were the height of frightening, comic genius.

We will be discussing this book in the comments section over at Jarrett's blog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant comment.
This is a book I started and never finished; this review almost! makes me want to try again.

Also lol about the domestic scene. So common, so true....