Monday, July 1, 2013

Book Review: Lolita


Contrary to what the picture might illustrate, I do not want to grill “Lolita.” As a kick-off to summer and my first official book discussion on The Unlaced Librarian, I wanted to do my favorite naughty classic, and, well, I was in a pinch. The grill it was.
I read Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” in the back of a semi cab in early June a few years ago. My husband was an over-the-road driver and I was a cab-wife who had just graduated with a lit degree. I had a huge, teetering pile of books I had been wanting to read, but during school I had to read what was assigned and as a literature major, it was hundreds of pages a week, leaving sparse room for supplemental books. I snagged Lolita off the top of the pile and indulged as we made our way from Fargo to San Antonio.
There’s a shroud of severity around this book, and I began reading it with a heavy, serious tone. Especially after all the pop culture and impressions about this book, where a character becomes ravenous and sexual with a little girl, how could you not be heavy minded about it? “Oh,” people had said, “It takes you into his mind, it’s so intense and maddening and you really understand how a person would think like this, ooh, ahh!”
Well, at least that was my impression, which is why it confused me into the first few pages that it was so damn funny! Not funny like pathetic, but genuine humor. Not from mere situation, but from the voice of the narrator, the social attunement of the author.
But it’s not all humor, as the dark overtones of the book surface within the first few pages as well. Even as a whimsically linguistic book, a real passionate craze unfolds. Though there is dark humor sprinkled throughout, this is, in many ways, a tragedy. The slight detail given in the Foreword of the book reveals the destinies of the characters before you get a chance to know who they are. Yet another layer that makes the book better upon a second or third read.
Loads of other people have reviewed this book, and I truly don’t have much new to say about popular fiction, but here are some things I took away from it.
A. I think the narrator is an unreliable narrator. I think even the intolerable, suffering Charlotte Haze would not have been so bad if not described by Humbert Humbert. I think he has his flashes of genuine observation, but they’re usually when things are falling apart for him, when he can’t keep his delusion in a happy, tidy bundle. I think this is especially relevant with the transformation of Lolita at the end, as far as I could see.
B. I didn’t have much sympathy for Humbert. People had told me that the narration would make me understand and sympathize with him. I didn’t. I certainly got how he worked, how he planned. I traveled on his meandering path and felt the urgency he felt in traversing it. But I didn’t particularly sympathize.
C. I didn’t like Humbert at the end. I didn’t like Lolita at the end. I didn’t really like anybody at the end, but I still give this book 5 out of 5 stars. Why? Keep reading.
D. The language and storytelling are fantastic. Even though English was not Nabokov’s first language, he commands prose better than a lot of English language writers do. I usually hate rereading books, but I’ve reread many sections of Lolita. It never gets old.
E. The pop culture rumors about this book are mostly untrue. I’ve heard it painted as a wild orgy of twelve year old children, where a thrill could be found by turning to any given page. So not true. Most people that give bad reviews of this book cite how boring it was, and that’s a shame. I think the hype really misleads readers. Then again, I love language and slower plots with character-centered progression don’t bother me, so maybe this book really is boring :P In the notes after the book, the author warns of trying to find too much meaning or a really sharp “point” to the book of which he says there is none. Perhaps some readers need a point so much they tack on all the intrigue and mystery and shock value. Who knows. In the end, there are psychological and erotic elements. But to categorize it as an erotic novel, I feel, is a misrepresentation. (Though it explores many aspects of eroticism. Confused yet? It’s okay.)
There is a “revelation” at the end many readers find satisfying, but I didn’t really need that either. I just simply liked the book and the blossoming, if not fumbling, of the way the story unfolds.
If you enjoy your own thoughts about how a book makes you feel rather than a knock-out plot, then this is a great read. (Though the end has some twists and turns, in my opinion.)
Lolita will always be my epic summer read in the cab of a flatbed semi. If you’ve always been curious about the book, I encourage you to pick it up, and form your own thoughts on this capstone work by Vladimir Nabokov.

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