Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 16, New York: Oh Lolita, Lola, Lo. This clever little book that so many have loved and hated. I read it in college, like so many others, and instantly fell into ironic love with its premise and actual love with its prose. It’s a perfect book for cocky nineteen year old pseudo-intellectuals to whom “banned book” is about the funniest phrase in North America. How sweet it was to offend. My college class was called “Deviance” and in it we discussed “the monster” in various forms, scattered across a steady drumbeat of books, discussed by the class weekly. Lolita was supposed to occupy two or three weeks of class time. We easily spent six dissecting it. We spent one entire class period debating, as a group, whether or not Humbert Humbert achieves orgasm in the scene when Lolita first sits upon his lap.

Reading this as a full adult the answer is clearly yes. It’s obvious that he, stealthily concealed behind flowery language, does indeed climax and then hide it from the child. And it is terribly uncomfortable to read. Which ended up being much of my experience of reading Lolita this time around. It started off so clever (and so well-written!) and then it became an absolute horror. Exceptionally disturbing.

This is a part of Nabokov’s genius— and I think he does so very consciously— to draw the reader in with such beautifully gilded prose and then from time to time remind with a brutal, physical detail. Paragraphs of love showered upon Lolita with a quick sentence or two that hints at awful rape, almost so slight a mention as to be missed. The beautiful American scenery marred by the horror of the nights spent in motels; the pastoral time spent at Beardsley College blackened by the monetary exchange for child sex.

Yes, it was still worth reading and yes, it’s an incredible book. But I no longer felt titillated. I was no longer gleefully in on the secret that was Lolita; there’s a big difference between the ironic indifference of 19 and the sympathies I’ve developed at 33. Mercifully, Nabokov gives us a scene toward the end where Humbert himself recognizes the monster in himself, and that makes it a bit better. But man oh man, this was a hard book to read.

And yes, how did they ever make a movie out of Lolita, which was this movie’s tagline?

Buy Lolita. If you’re reading it again, know it will have changed on you. If you’re reading it for the first time… well, I warned you.

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