“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue making a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Thus starts Nabokov’s Lolita, one of many books I felt obligated to read, and appreciated its art and literary significance, but desperately wanted to end so I can get back to reading about contemporary real-life tragedies and science goodness.
As you can see, the writing is absolute poetry, so dense and rich it’s almost impossible to believe that English is not Nabokov’s native tongue. And considering the subject matter, the poetry is how Lolita can work as a story. At its barest, you’re following a story about a near-40 lit professor who obsesses over prepubescent girls, marries a woman to be close to her 12-year-old-daughter Dolores, and becomes her primary caretaker / rapist. For several years. Then she dies. Everything is funneled from Humbert Humbert’s unreliable point of view, and the “nymphet” who is central to the story is never given her own voice. It was very challenging to let myself be led through the narrative by somebody who made my skin crawl. I couldn’t see Humbert as anything less than a monster – or, at the very least, I didn’t want to. The beauty of the prose couldn’t balance out the fact that I was reading about an erudite rapist who’s trying to justify a relationship with, and pin the blame on, a naive preadolescent girl. It’s ironic, I know, but it’s asking too much from me.
There are genuinely funny parts, like Humbert’s depiction of Dolores’ mother “the Haze woman,” and when he meets his double Clare Quilty right at the end, but it took me about 3 months of ugh, I should really finish Lolita to reach that part because of its lyrical density, its subject matter, and the French phrases peppered throughout that broke up the narrative for my functionally monolingual self. Plus the novel didn’t seem to be following a trajectory or building up to anything for the middle 150-or-so pages. It gets interesting again when Humbert starts cracking at the seams, but I skipped most of the poems he writes (they don’t add much, and the prose is challenging enough / more artful). I’m glad I finished it, but I don’t ever see myself revisiting it.
One more thought from my perspective as a grad student’s wife in the current economy: how could a professor of literature, rich European background or not, afford to go on a two year roadtrip and fall into a job immediately after returning? Then make enough money to go on another roadtrip just months later? In 2014, that’s the most ridiculous thing in the entire novel.
If you like dense, reference-laden prose, also try: Ulysses by James Joyce.
If you don’t think you could handle Ulysses, try: The story story collection The Dubliners. Joyce is a master of beautiful prose, and it’s a shame his most inaccessible works overshadow the rest of his canon.
For further watching: Breaking Bad also challenges you to sympathize with a character who grows more evil with every new season. However, you’re shown Walter White’s redeeming qualities, and his narrative doesn’t overpower those of other characters.
Want to see a film adaptation?: try Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film. I tend to automatically assume that films are shot in an objective POV, so when I saw this a couple years ago, I found Lolita to be a complete spoiled brat. I think I’d get it now after reading the novel and knowing it’s completely Humbert’s story. However, Kubrick’s characters are so verbally reserved, and his visual style isn’t stunningly beautiful and wouldn’t echo the prose, so I think it might lose something without Humbert’s constant narration.