Book 47: Lolita

Lolita is a 1955 novel written by Vladimir Nabokov.

“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight”

It’s ubiquitous. We’ve all heard about Lolita without having read it. It is renowned. I’ve had people tell me that it was taught to them as part of their syllabus as a detective novel. I’ve had people tell me that theatre students learn the opening lines off by heart and must recite them before a performance. We’ve had snatches of quotes from this book floating around our general cultural consciousness for decades.
I get that the writing is brilliant, but what’s the point when I can only enjoy a quote only after making it thoroughly devoid of its original context. Enjoy the above quote? Yeah, well it’s directed to a 12 year old. 😬
And I know there are monsters in this world. There are perverts and pedos galore. What I don’t get is the REST OF THE WORLD. How can they continue to laud this as a romance novel? I just can’t get on the Lolita fan train, I don’t even want the train to exist. At least, not if it’s as a love story (which I will maintain forever that it is NOT).

I also got a tad defensive when he wrote “She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul” ? SIR, I’LL SHOW YOU SOUL. Even though that’s actually the least offensive part of the whole book, and the protagonist IS in fact a monster with a teeming, larva-riddled cesspool for a soul. Still, don’t come at my book club.
This whole book is supposedly ABOUT Lolita/Dolores. 90% of the time is spent describing her, and of course being the typical white narcissitic male, the author didn’t even do a good job of developing her character. You would think that he would at least be able to conjure a well-developed female character with the devotion of 350+ pages but, no… A girl will always remain a 2D prop and the subject of a very twisted fetish.
It’s time to talk about what I did like about the book (even though it is very hard to get over the revulsion).
I really did enjoy the writing. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”. I love the parts where American slang was sharply contrasted with the hoity-toity, Eurocentric elegance and eloquence peppered-with-French style used by the main narrator. It was also funny. Don’t ask me how funny mixes with deep moral affront.
But, oh, how my stomach turned when he described in detail all the emotionally manipulative tactics that he used to make sure she went along with this daddy-daughter nightmare. And he still maintained that he was innocent and it was the 12 yo girl who made the first move. WHAT. Ugh, just ugh. Also, he convinced himself he was a wonderful father and friend. Okay, can we just talk about how it’s those who believe themselves to be the most righteous who are in fact the absolute worst? Scum tactics 101, believe in your own sainthood over everything.
And we’re back to square one. Why did this become a cultural icon? Why do some people maintain it to be a love story? Keep in mind, this book is the basis for two movies, musical adaptations, ballets, stage adaptations, a Russian-language opera, spin-off novels, bizarre fashion subcultures, and more. It has a pull that’s lasted for more than six decades.
The weird thing is, I kind of get it. This book really takes you on a ride.
“And the rest is rust and stardust”

I think what’s special about this book is he actually makes you stumble from your moral high ground for a second, and that split second is what ends up making you second guess yourself, opens you up to a possibility you never considered – which is that all of us are a few circumstances away from what we consider to be our basest selves giving in to our base desires. And that he takes us to that point so lyrically, with prose dripping with diction and madness, is what makes this novel stand out.

Honestly, this book has me shook. A veritable orage. It’s left me standing with my moral compass reeling, no idea where it’s pointing. It’s absurd and ludicrous but I couldn’t stop reading. I went down a rabbit hole of essays and articles and op eds just trying to make sense of it all. Which way is up?

Find the trail to my rabbit hole below:

The trailer of the 1997 movie adaptation.

The New Yorker

The Atlantic

The New York Times

“Nabokov’s novel spawned two films, musical adaptations, ballets, stage adaptations, a Russian-language opera, spin-off novels, bizarre fashion subcultures, and memorabilia that runs the gamut from kitschy to creepy: from heart-shaped sunglasses to anatomically precise blow-up dolls. With the possible exception of Gatsby, no twentieth-century American literary character penetrated the public consciousness quite like Lolita. Her very name entered the language as a common noun: “a precociously seductive girl,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Gatsby, by contrast, had to settle for a mere adjective: “Gatsbyesque.”) At a certain echelon of pop music megastardom (the domain of Britney, Miley, Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey) they are all Lolitas now, trafficking in the iconography of lollipops and stuffed animals and schoolgirl outfits. In the sixty years since she first appeared, Lolita transcended her original textual instance: She became an archetype, an icon of youthful desirability. Lolita became America’s sweetheart.”  – New Republic

The above article links Lolita to imaginary paedophilia that exists in pop culture today, a lot of food for thought (also, that GQ Glee controversial shoot is something I never saw or heard about!)

“Humbert calls her by various names—for example, “Lo” at home, “Dolly” with her friends and teachers, and “Dolly Schiller” after her marriage—but reserves “Lolita” to signal her role in his fantasies and memories. As a result, “Lolita” comes to represent not the novel’s heroine, but rather her construction as a nymphet within Humbert’s imagination.

How she would choose to name herself is unclear—she signs her letter to Humbert, for example, as “Dolly (Mrs. Richard F. Schiller)” (266)—but it would certainly not be as “Lolita”. And yet, until very recently, reviewers and critics always referred to her by Humbert’s pet name, as if there were no difference between the actual child and her role in his fantasies—or, indeed, her afterlife in his memoir. “Lolita” comes to represent not only Humbert’s imaginary construction of a nymphet but also his desperate attempts to make that construction permanent within his text. The fact that most readers still refer to the novel’s heroine as “Lolita” suggests that Humbert’s efforts have generally succeeded.

Electing to call the child by this romantic, “foreign”, exotic diminutive, rather than by her given name, parallels and reinforces Humbert’s other attempts to appropriate her person for his own purposes. Calling her “Lolita”, in other words, is another way of denying her a separate, autonomous existence.

A close reading of the novel suggests, in fact, that “Lolita” is not her name any more than “Annabel” is—no matter how frequently it may appear in Humbert’s narration.

Nabokov designed his most famous novel so that it would be misread—initially, at least—in keeping with its narrator’s unreliable representations of the heroine. Such techniques may also persuade readers to identify with Humbert’s point of view, only to discover eventually—as he himself gradually does, in the process of remembering, drafting, recopying, rereading, and revising his memoir—that they know little about the title character apart from his construction of her.”

The above journal article really engrossed me because I found it AFTER my whole, Lolita was never developed as a character. So it really resonated with me but it’s quite lengthy (sorry for the super long extract, you’re probably not even going to read it LOL but I found it fascinating.. WHAT IS IN A NAME?).

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