Friday, 4 November 2011

Book Review: 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov

When I finally picked up Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, it was for two reasons.

I'd been curious about the controversy surrounding the story for the longest time, one which centred on the book's plot:  a middle-aged man's attraction to a sexually precocious 12 year old girl.

My second reason was a passage from Lolita that I'd come across in a book on writing tools; a passage that was written so beautifully, so economically, so evocatively, so damn well in fact, that it piqued my interest and made me wish to discover more of the voice Nabokov had created in this infamous story.

I guess this is where I quote the passage that caught my eye in the first place. I wonder if it will grab you and never let go the way it did me.

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita."

These lines set the stage for protagonist Humbert Humbert's unhealthy obsession with 12 year old Dolores Haze, to whom he affectionately *shuddering with distaste here* awards the pet name 'Lolita'.

Soon, we are introduced quite intimately to the desperate, near-monochromatic world of seduction, corruption and self-indulgence that makes up Humbert Humbert's entire world view. And we are made to watch with a kind of horrified fascination as his sometimes hilarious methods to obtain the object of his infatuation come closer and closer to success.

Humbert Humbert's ruthless manouvering into Lolita's life (to the point of becoming her stepfather) and the subsequent swift unravelling of her world - and his - occurs with a deft, graceful hand.

But what surprised me most about Lolita was the sheer honesty in Nabokov's writing.

Nabokov isn't pulling any punches here. There is no pretence. This story is blatantly about the sexual attraction felt by a man for a child.

Yet, Nabokov handles his tale with the touch of a master. There is no explicit erotica, not in the modern sense of the word anyway; matters which occur under the sheets are hinted at more than painted in excruciating detail.

It's the emotional pain of the participatants in this tragic travesty of familial life that is so well drawn out. The  pain of innocence betrayed is breaking at the seams throughout the book. This, if anything, is what can make Lolita such a difficult book to read; it's impossible to remain removed from the plight of Nabokov's remarkable characters.

Young, vulnerable and precocious Lolita is gradually stripped of her freedom and innocence through choices quite beyond her control. And - in the saddest way - though it is impossible to sympathise with Humbert Humbert, there is definitely a sickening sense of fury and horror at being faced with the existence of this damned, selfish and utterly weak-minded personality who is so enslaved to his desires that he doesn't hesitate to wreck the lives of those too powerless to defend themselves from him.

Vivid and elegant prose aside, Nabokov's grasp on the dynamics of the human personality, his sensitivity to nuances of abuse, manipulation and deception that are often ignored, misunderstood or - sadly - left unvoiced by victims and onlookers alike, and his courage to tackle a subject that was taboo for reasons that are truly beyond me (shouldn't the protection of the defenseless be a priority over issues of potentially erotic subject matter?) has been eye-opening to me.

As a writer, and as an individual, I feel a renewed responsibility to speak for those who don't have a voice to fight for their freedom from abusive situations/relationships.

Lolita's storyline is one of perversity, yes, but it is a perversity which not only reveals the unreliability of the source of the story, Humbert Humbert, but also society's wilful turning of a blind eye to matters that disturb its clean and shiny persona.

Issues concerning the lack of care/protection of children is woven into the entire story in tiny, veiled glimpses, both in terms of Lolita's youthful confusion and heart-breaking need for a truly loving family, and in Humbert Humbert's clearly predatory attempts to make her his own.

At the end of the book, we are left to wonder: where was the rest of the world as this single individual systematically betrayed a child's trust in the most dissolute way under our very eyes?

Suffice to say, Lolita has surpassed both my curiosity and my expectations. Disturbing, thought-provoking, so well-written I couldn't put it down... Lolita is one of very few books that has succeeded in turning the story of a monster and victim into a subtle, personal lens on the way our world works to hide uncomfortable truths.

A subject that is so very distasteful is infused with authenticity, truth and a subtle undercurrent of blame towards those who take the innocence and care of children for granted despite the existence of predatory, diseased minds among us.

I've come to the conclusion now that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the best books I've ever read. Chilling, and written with power and perception, this is Lolita. If the subject is within your comfort zone - or maybe even if it isn't - do give Lolita a read. I'm certain it will be a book you'll never forget.

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1 comment:

Hindi SMS said...

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.My sin, my soul. Lo-Lee-Ta.The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps..."
This is a gem of a book.
I read it once, and I am reading it again. Somehow the book has managed to become even more beautiful and entertaining.
An absolute must-read to anyone who loves reading.
Despite the controversial subject matter of the novel, Lolita is a comedy, and simply, a joy to read.