I Finally Read Lolita
I finally read Lolita and didn’t find the experience rewarding. I run most of my reading through my mother. We both read a lot (as does Dad, of course: Mom is just more interested in bouncing text messages from phone to phone over the course of a few hours than is Dad) so I got a Goodreads account and she is my only friend. She sees what I read and I see what she reads. I’m not particularly interested in anyone else. I think her reaction to my having finally decided to tackle Lolita opens up the two major threads of thought that sprang to me from its pages.
The first: “I read it in college and was unimpressed. I read it some years later and was appalled.”
The subject matter is disturbing in the extreme. That’s nothing new. People have loathed or reveled in Humbert Humbert’s muck and mire for almost seventy years. There’s not much to say about it.
The second: “I just couldn’t shake the feeling that Nabokov –– or if not Nabokov than at least far too many of his readers – considered Humbert to be a sympathetic character.
So that we all go into this with our eyes open, I told Mom that I gave the book two out of five stars. Six stars for the writing and negative four stars for everything else. Separate and apart from my thinking it was brilliant and probably was Nabokov’s masterpiece (I’ve yet to get into Pnin or Pale Fire) I didn’t enjoy it and won’t read it again. But, within the eighty-four hour grimace that was my experience with Nabokov’s classic, there are a couple points to clarify, though I don’t like the idea of clarifying them.
To Mom’s second point: Nabokov or at least his readers seemed to revel in Humbert’s depravity, slip into rationalizing his behavior, shift at least some small amount of responsibility to his twelve-year-old subject, and consider him worthy of some measure of sympathy.
It seems to me perfectly clear that Nabokov had no doubt whatsoever in his mind about his protagonist. But scanning a few of the five star reviews of his work on Goodreads (easy access, best I had at the moment) revealed that even so many decades after its publication, there are readers who seem more conflicted than Nabokov. One reader compared reading the book to a sexual experience in its own right and expressed frustration that, upon his finishing it and asking the (female) clerk at his local bookstore if she’d read it, she told him that she didn’t and wouldn’t because the subject was disturbing. Putting aside that weak-kneed tendency of writers to swoon in the presence of Nabokov’s domination of the English language and over-write as a result, his metaphor was a pretty horrific one. Other reviews are more explicit, noting that Dolores (Lolita) was a “willing participant in the crime.”
That a person could read Lolita and not understand that Humbert Humbert is a predatory monster, that Nabokov clearly sees him that way, that Dolores is an unequivocal victim of his adult will, and that Nabokov’s genius lies in his utterly unreliable narrator says more about the reader than it does about Nabokov’s craft. Nabokov does not consider Humbert to be innocent or conflicted or anything but what he is. The trick is that Humbert is the narrator and considers himself innocent or, at the very least, a victim. The famous line (“She seduced me!”) must be read utterly without context to be taken as anything but the horseshit Nabokov intended it to be.
There are countless points in the narrative where that becomes clear. He uses the word “rape” several times to describe what he did (in his own tongue-in-cheek tone, of course, but the word is present nonetheless). Dolores uses it on one occasion as well. Humbert himself describes one of his fondest memories and takes the time to recall Dolores’s dead eyes. The first time Dolores defies him in any way comes just a page or two after Humbert’s famous declaration. She asks to call her mother. No, he says. Why not? Get in the car, he says. She gets in the car. Why can’t I call my mother? Your mother is dead, he says. He then proceeds to convince her to keep silent by threatening her with orphanhood and reform school in his absence. For two dozen pages, after Dolores’s mother dies, Nabokov and Humbert hem and haw about why he neglects to tell her. The answer becomes clear when Humbert uses the information to emotionally break his victim at the moment she is both most vulnerable to him and most ready to defy him. It’s telling in itself, that such a revelation comes in the last lines of the book’s Part I. It may have come at a major punctuation point for dramatic effect or it may say something about Humbert that, though he’ll wax endlessly about his own actions and state-of-mind almost any other time, he says absolutely nothing about his motives for saying what he said when he said it. He knows why he did it and can’t rationalize it. So he doesn’t. Nabokov’s clearest analysis of Humbert’s impact on Dolores comes in the same scene, only moments before he tells Dolores that her mother is dead:
It was something quite special, that feeling: an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed.
Nabokov’s implication is obvious. Humbert is sitting with the small ghost of somebody he has just killed.
The problem is that I can’t make Nabokov’s opinion of Humbert relevant except when it comes to my disgust for that certain set of his readers. He intends Humbert to be a predator and Dolores a victim but Humbert, himself, is unable to consider her that way –– and Humbert, not Nabokov (ostensibly) is telling the story. The problem is that, for the purposes of writing a good novel, Nabokov goes to enormous lengths to make his narrator sympathetic, self-aware, brilliant, funny, charming, and psychologically analytical. All of that stops when it comes to Dolores. He can’t analyze her. Maybe that’s realistic. Maybe a brilliant person with Humbert’s predilection might have to wall off that part of their intellect and observation but I don’t buy it.
Nabokov created an opening for people to sympathize with his deplorable narrator by denying a full rendering of his victim. I can’t figure out why other than to prove that he could. It takes an enormous degree of literary talent to put oneself in the shoes of someone confused or deranged or evil for a long period of pages. It takes still more to make that person authentic and relatable. Faulkner wrote seventy pages as Quentin Compson and Dostoevsky wrote five times that as Raskolnikov. The only thing I can think of is that Nabokov wanted to prove that he could go even further as both a matter of kind and quantity. I can’t move past the fact that his project is revolting and disturbing far out of proportion to any wisdom or insight Nabokov might’ve offered over the course of its completion. It just seems disturbing for its own sake. Dostoevsky managed to say profound things about justice, morality, choice, and the human condition without leaving the door open for people to revel in the sexual exploitation of a small child. Of course plenty of the responsibility lies with readers who gleefully miss all of Nabokov’s sign posts in the haze of humor and sympathy and wordplay that he builds around his character. But Nabokov built the character in the first place.
I will defend the man’s man novels of Saul Bellow to my dying breath. Bellow’s classic protagonists are intellectual men who find themselves collapsing under the weight of an increasingly complex, feminine, neurotic, and absurd world. He aims for narrow appeal, is enormously sexist on occasion, and has a thousand other shortcomings. There’s a lot not to like and, even with all of it, it’s unclear whether or not Bellow admires his Moses Herzog or Artur Sammler or Charlie Citrine though he certainly at least finds them sympathetic. Eugene Henderson is obviously a clown but Bellow treats him somewhat tenderly.
Bellow’s novels differ from Lolita in that they build, like life, on a series of profoundly banal and comic errors of judgement. Small things stack on top of each other until the whole structure starts to fall in on itself. Whether one finds Moses Herzog tragic, sympathetic, pitiful, deplorable, or some combination of all four, Herzog’s journey and insights remain meaningful. The story and the morals and the profound expressions of grief and confusion and despair and joy survive no matter where the reader’s sympathies lie. Bellow makes something nuanced and poetic and enduring. He fashions characters that are complex and self-aware even when they are unreliable as narrators and unable to survive the test of time as he might have intended them. They are so richly complex that the lessons survive and morph into forms that fit the reader’s needs the way that a sixty year old man will look upon his childhood differently than he did as a thirty year old.
For all Nabokov’s genius, his protagonist can’t do that. I’ll stop at saying that. That same something that puts Nabokov’s brilliance on glittering display raises unyieldingly rigid barriers around what his masterpiece is able to do. No one else could embody so completely someone so despicable and make him so human. But, because he chooses to do so, he locks a masterpiece in the box of its own controversy. I can’t help wondering if someone else couldn’t have done better with Nabokov’s gifts. I can’t help wondering what was the point of the whole thing for him. What does a writer get out of this? What does a reader get that couldn’t be got from elsewhere?