Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita was listed by the following authors in their top ten lists:

Melissa Bank, John Banville, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Gaitskill, Arthur Golden, Michael Griffith, Donald Harington, A.M. Homes, Walter Kirn, Margot Livesey, Valerie Martin, Bobbie Ann Mason, Susan Minot, Ann Patchett, Jim Shepard and Scott Spencer.

I came to Lolita, already knowing -about- Lolita. I’ve heard about Lolita all my life (or so it feels). I’ve heard that it’s smut. I’ve heard that it’s amazing. I’ve heard that it’s disturbing. I’ve heard that it’s about old men f**king young girls. I’ve heard that it’s actually a love story, not about pedophilia.

Nabokov tells a tale, one prefaced by a fictional character as the “memoir” or confession of the narrator of the story. The narrator is one “Humbert Humbert”, a made up name he created for himself. He does this, as well as change the names of many of the characters to protect Lolita. Though, he has stipulated that the memoir not be published until after she dies, so though he never states it, it might be to protect her memory and also to protect his self-image as her “protector” and to clean a spot or two off of his love for her.

That’s the thing about Lolita. The narrator is complex. He’s a middle European man in his 30s who has come to the United States to live. All of his life, starting with a peer at 13, he has been attracted to what he calls “nymphets”, which he defines as girls who are between the ages of 9 and 14(I think those are the right ages, I didn’t mark the page where he defined it). But not just -any- girls, some of them are just, well normal girls. But some of them, Humbert tells the readers, have that extra “sauce”, a sexuality that is out of character but yet so in character for their age. Humbert has a hard time with sexual attractions to actual women, or even girls beyond the magic boundary age of 14. He finds them too fleshy. (And, I was right about the ages, I found the page. Here’s Humbert’s definition of “nymphet” which is better than mine.

“Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain betwitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets”.”

“Between those age limits are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.”

H.H. talks about himself in the first half of the book, alternating between third person narration about himself and first person narration. He falls in love with the 12 year old daughter of the woman whose house he rents a room from. He then marries that woman, who then dies in a freak accident, leaving H.H. in sole custody of the “nymphet” Lolita. In keeping with his defining of “nymphet” above and my statements about him finding adult women, or women above 14 kind of gross, here he is talking about Lolita.

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a “young girl” and then, into a “college girl”–that horror of horrors. The word “forever” referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood. The Lolita whose iliac crests had not yet flared, the Lolita that today I could touch and smell and hear and see, the Lolita of the strident voice and the rich brown hair-of the bangs and the swirls at the sides and the curls at the back, and the sticky hot neck, and the vulgar vocabulary—“revolting,” “super,” “luscious” “goon” “drip”–that Lolita, my Lolita, poor Catullus would lose forever.”

While Lolita is away at summer camp, her mother dies. H.H. takes care of affairs, in a growing state of excitement to get Lolita, then drives to the camp after requesting they not tell Lolita that her mother has died. He originally tells Lolita she is very ill and they are driving to see her mother. Then begins the “great American road trip”, but unlike stories like On The Road or the goofy Road Trip movie, this is a road trip of pedophilia. H.H. spends pages upon pages talking about historical and societal constructs and how he’s not -really- doing wrong. The first night they are on the road, he plans for them to stay at a hotel. He has planned a whole thing out about giving some sleeping pills to Lolita so he can fondle her safely. Yes. It’s disturbing. The more disturbing thing is how he had originally worked out the plan with mother and daughter both in mind, knocking out the mother so he could enjoy the daughter. He constantly says he was never planning to do more than fondle and caress. However, considering that when the sleeping pills didn’t work and Lolita makes a confession to him and they end up having sex, I think H.H. was lying just a wee bit to himself.

“Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! I had thought that months, perhaps years, would elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me”.

The cross country trip has begun. The trip starts with H.H. controlling Lolita through threats. When she wouldn’t seem conducive to his trysts and romantic gropings, he would threaten her with a farm she had hated to be at, he would threaten her with lurid tales of what happened to girls who went into foster care if she was to tell what was happening to her. Later it becomes money that is bartered.

“she proved to be a cruel negotiator whenever it was in her power to deny me certain life-wrecking, strange, slow paradisal philters without which I could not live more than a few days in a row, and which, because of the very nature of love’s languor, I could not obtain by force. Knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed–during one school year!–to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks, O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches; and in the margin of that leaping epilepsy she would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist, which, anyway, I used to pry open afterwards unless she gave me the slip”.

I just realized, you might be thinking that Lolita is the instigator in these things with the quotes I gave, about how she seduced him and the whole money exchange. But there are plenty of instances where H.H. talks about times she is crying or yelling at him or just ways he describes her that you can see the pain she carries because of it. When she’s not trying to be tough and doing what anyone might do in a situation in which you feel out of control, which would be to gain any type of control you can.

The relationship H.H. describes between himself and Lolita will sometimes make you (or it did me at least, maybe you have a stronger stomach ha!) feel ill. You will also hate and revile H.H. during parts of the book (or at least I did). You will find Lolita charming and fun. You will also find her pitiful. You will find her irritating you. You will ache for her.

Nabokov takes you into the heart and soul of a pedophile. He creates a character who is a bad guy, but unlike most novels, the bad guy is the main character and for much of the book does not believe himself to be that bad. He has a little bit of moral absolution at the end, in regards to his molesting Lolita, but still calls what he felt for her, “love”, even though he said the following about her at one point;

“Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth–these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things”.

I was having a hard time articulating what I felt about Lolita, even what to say, and asked Dave. He compared it to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (the movie with Christian Bale came after) and how a book can put you in the head of someone that you would never want to be in. Reading Lolita was like the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance (or at least how I like to think cognitive dissonance is), my brain would struggle with the disgust I felt about H.H. and his urges and his actions, at the same time that Nabokov’s writing was making me feel sympathetic at times towards him. It was the same experience reading American Psycho.

Dave also suggested another book that is similar for the above reason. Tampa, by Alissa Nutting.


“Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov

Having only read Lolita and The Defense before, I was totally unprepared for the kind of Nabokov that I found in Pale Fire. It is definitely the oddest book of his I’ve ever read, though possibly one of his most interesting.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Michael Chabon, 3rd for Mary Gaitskill, 1st for Michael Griffith, 4th for David Leavitt, 4th for Arthur Philips, and 3rd for Vendela Vida.)

To begin with, Pale Fire presents itself as a 999-line, four-canto poem by John Shade along with forward and commentary by Dr. Charles Kinbote. However, the poem, the forward, and the commentary are all fictional components of the novel. The poem is autobiographical, digressively examining Shade’s fairly ordinary life. The commentary, on the other hand, is anything but commentary on the poem.

Kinbote presents himself as Shade’s close friend, though he only knew him for a few months before Shade’s death and I get the feeling that Shade merely put up with Kinbote. Kinbote had tried to get Shade to write the poem about the escape of the king of a fictional country called Zembla and was disappointed to find out what the poem was really about.

Then, instead of actually commenting on the poem (which he pretends to do) Kibote uses the commentary to talk about his relationship with Shade, his own life, the colleagues he hates at the local college, and the escaped king of Zembla. Revealed through the commentary is the fact that Kibote believes himself to be the escaped king of Zembla (whether or not this is completely insane) and believes the unknown gunman who kills Shade to be a royal assassin named Gradus, actually sent to kill Kibote.

First, let’s look at a section from canto one of the poem (lines 13-28):

Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake
Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,
A dull dark white against the day’s pale white
And abstract larches in the neutral light.
And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view,
And in the morning, diamonds of frost
Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed
From left to right the blank page of the road?
Reading from left to right in winter’s code:
A dot, and arrow pointing back; repeat:
Dot, arrow pointing back … A pheasant’s feet!
Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,
Finding your China right behind my house.
Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose
Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes?

Next, let’s look at the commentary for a portion of this section:

Line 17: And then the gradual; Line 29: gray

By an extraordinary coincidence (inherent perhaps in the contrapuntal nature of Shade’s art) our poet seems to name here (gradual, gray) a man, whom he was to see for one fatal moment three weeks later, but of whose existence at the time (July 2) he could not have known. Jakob Gradus called himself variously Jack Degree or Jacques de Grey, or James de Gray, and also appears in police records as Ravus, Ravenstone, and d’Argus. Having a morbid affection for the ruddy Russia of the Soviet era, he contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus. His father, Martin Gradus, had been a Protestant minister in Riga, but except for him and a maternal uncle (Roman Tselovalnikov, police officer and part-time member of the Social-Revolutionary party), the whole clan seems to have been in the liquor business. Martin Gradus died in 1920, and his widow moved to Strasbourg where she soon died, too. Another Gradus, an Alsatian merchant, who oddly enough was totally unrelated to our killer but had been a close business friend of his kinsmen for years, adopted the boy and raised him with his own children. It would seem that at one time young Gradus studied pharmacology in Zurich, and at another, traveled to misty vineyards as an itinerant wine taster. We find him next engaging in petty subversive activities—printing peevish pamphlets, acting as messenger for obscure syndicalist groups, organizing strikes at glass factories, and that sort of thing. Sometime in the forties he came to Zembla as a brandy salesman. There he married a publican’s daughter. His connection with the Extremist party dates from its first ugly writhings, and when the revolution broke out, his modest organizational gifts found some appreciation in various offices. His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket, took place on the very day that an innocent poet in an innocent land was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night.

Now, I quote a fairly large portion here, but I think it is quite evident why. There is just no way to comprehend the oddity of Pale Fire without seeing how the poem and bizarre commentary interact. I think the above is the shortest section that illustrates this phenomenon quite this well.

For anyone like me who has only read Nabokov works such as Lolita and The Defense, Pale Fire is downright uncharacteristic. It is weird, metafictional, and darkly humorous. However, it is also incredibly good. Pale Fire may not have the same emotive power as Lolita, but it is much more unusual. I highly recommend it, though I do advise that it can take a little getting used to. It is well worth the effort if you hang in there.