I finished Lolita last night. It was a very interesting read, and I have to say the book is very intelligently written. And just in case you made it all the way through the book and still “misread” it, Nabokov adds a few explanatory comments at the end, as himself.
First, however, let’s talk about the book. In my mind, it falls into five sections:
- Loving & Losing Annabel (his first sexual encounter)
- Finding Dolores (Lolita) (over 20 years later)
- Abduction & Travels with Lolita (covers > 1 year) (p.109)
- Losing & Searching for Lolita (covers >3 years) (p.246)
- Finding Dolly Schiller (p.266)
I’m not listing his murder of Cue as a separate section because, really, this happens in direct consequence of finding Dolly, who is now 17, married, and expecting her first child. Three years after having escaped Humbert Humbert, she is no longer Lolita, even though she is still technically the same person. When she writes a letter asking him for money (for the child, for their home) he finally tracks her down. She lives with a young veteran in a run-down shack of a house on the outskirts of a small town. The place is dismal and small. She is big with child and surprised to see him, but shows no fear.
To him, her life is over already because she is no longer a “nymphet;” however, he still cares for her. In fact, he cares for her so deeply he wants her to come back to him. When she refuses, he does not try to force his will on her — a change has taken place in him as well, not just in her. He gives her $ 4,000 in cash and checks (and this is set in the 50s, so that’s an enormous amount of money!) and leaves with the name of the man who helped her escape. In search of revenge, he wants to terrify and shoot the man (Cue), but this turns out not to be so easy: his victim, himself a pervert, seems fairly indifferent to his threats. In the end, he has to shoot him many times before the deed is done. A party has started downstairs and he openly tells Cue’s guests that he just killed their host. Everyone thinks he’s joking.
For Humbert Humbert, this is the end of the road. He has no desire to hide the murder. He’s really just waiting for the police to catch up with him. While he’s waiting, he kills some time going down the highway in the wrong lane, against traffic, until the authorities finally stop him.
Some more observations from reading:
Names. There is a definite thing going on with names. Not only is Humbert Humbert called various similar sounding names by several of the people he deals with (specifically the head of the expensive private school for girls where he enrolls Lolita), but there’s also a bleeding of names into each other when some people, for him, become virtually interchangeable. And of course there’s the “name game” — the trail of false names and addresses left by Cue for Humbert to find. Anagrams, literary allusions, wordplay, — both men are fascinated with words. You’ll also notice that Humbert intersperses little word games into his narration. They are easy to miss if you’re skimming or not paying attention, but they are there. Transposed consonants or vowels that change the meaning of a compound noun or a phrase, small things like that. The odd pun.
Humbert Humbert’s ethics. There is some irony in the fact that he seeks revenge on Cue because Cue sodomized Lolita (or attempted to). His own treatment of the girl was not much different, yet he cannot see this.
Now, I mentioned Nabokov’s comments at the end of the book. He adds those because he wants to leave no room for misinterpretation: he despises symbolism, as he himself explains, and does not want this to be read as a symbolic novel (314). Humbert Humbert frequently mentions Freud, whom Nabokov himself also despises. His comments begin with the explanation that John Ray’s introduction to the text is just as fictional as the text itself.
He continues: “Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as ‘What is the author’s purpose?’ or still worse ‘What is the guy trying to say?’” Nabokov’s answer to this: “I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm” (314-5). Also, a page later: “It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country or about a social class or about the author.” Zing! is all I can say. 🙂
This book is a very interesting, very intricate portrait of a pedophile’s love for a girl. Nabokov shows us that this is not a complete degenerate, that Humbert has quite an intellect while his emotions are strong and inappropriate.
Humbert Humbert — whose first language is supposedly French — lapses into French occasionally, for a word or a phrase, not long enough for a (non-French-speaking) reader to lose track of what’s happening, but long enough to remind us that this man is a stranger in America, as well as a man educated and intelligent enough to master two or more languages. Humbert’s elevated vocabulary in English suggests a high level of education, and he does mention publishing academically.
Nabokov is not on a crusade to defend or arouse (pardon the pun) sympathy for pedophiles. Humbert Humbert never becomes a like-able character: he is self-centered to the point of egomania. He points out his good looks more than often enough, and what at first may seem like regret on his part / a desire to make amends usually turns out to be self-pity. He asks us to understand *his* pain over what he has done to the child. *His* suffering is central to the narrative, not Lolita’s. His one act of decency is, at the end, to help her financially and, at her request, to keep the truth to himself — Dolly’s husband does not know about the abuse.
I have to say I expected the book to be more graphic, more offensive than it is. Yes, it is told from the perspective of a pedophile who has abducted and abused a child, but it is not offensive or scandalous because of overt sexual descriptions (there are hardly any). Rather, what would have shocked Nabokov’s early readers would be the rational narrator, as well as the fact that the book does not openly condemn Humbert and his kind and damn them all to hell.
This book does not simplify the issue to a moral binary, and while Nabokov certainly did not write it to advocate pedophilia, he didn’t write it as a moral treatise, legal advice, or a religious tract either. The book refuses to do the thinking for you. I like that kind of book.