Reading Backwards

Book reviews by your favorite Git.


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By Vladimir Nabokov
I got mine at the library, but, hey, your call.
Rating: Odd
Read: June 2005

I felt compelled to read Lolita this summer, and I followed it immediately with Reading Lolita in Tehran, which was an excellent idea. But, both books will have their own reviews, so lets carry on.

Lolita has a scandalous reputation, but it’s much tamer and more bizarre than anyone seems willing to let on. Our narrator, Humbert Humbert (or Humbert Squared as I like to think of him), is a handsome middle-aged man with, yes, an unhealthy taste in very young women. He prefers girls between the ages of 11 and 14- but not just any young girls. Humbert has put a name to a very specific type of girl, a sort that is instantly recognizeable, even to those who know nothing about the subject. He calls them nymphettes, girls who radiate a certain awareness and whose very manner is both bewitching and seducing. They are succintly manipulative, and poor Humbert is dreadfully attracted to them.

The novel begins by explaining that Humbert is already in jail, and writing his account of what happened to lead up to his arrest for the crime of murder. The tale is a very long one, and everything relates to the affair he had with a girl named Dolly Haze- and nymphette if ever there was one.

Dolly is 12 when they meet. She is rude, crude, and self-serving. Her mother resents her, and so she is fairly independent, but emotionally vulnerable. Her father died when she was very young. She is just barely becoming a woman, and Humbert stays on as the Haze family houseguest for the sole purpose of being able to observe her. He is very specific in this: His aim was never, ever to corrupt any young girls. He has been careful throughout his life to never let a girlchild know that he was watching her, or what he took from the merest brushing of shoulders down a street. His time with Dolly, however, makes him bold. She also has a crush on him- and so does her mother. Charlotte Haze plots to send Dolly away to summer camp and then boarding school so she may spend more time with Humbert, who decides that he shall bite the bullet and marry the mother in order to be closer to the daughter. The net outcome of this is that Charlotte is killed in a car accident, and Humber becomes Dolly’s- Lolita’s- sole guardian.

It is Dolly who ‘seduces’ Humbert. She is not ignorant of sex, but sees it in a very detached way. Humbert is, of course, overjoyed- and afraid of being found out. They travel the nation, hotel-hopping. Humbert’s greatest crime against Lo is in mentally and emotionally manipulating her to stay with him, as well as spoiling her.

I believe that she made a conscious decision to enter into a sexual relationship with him- at the time she believed him to still be married to her mother (as she did not know Charlotte was dead). Dolores Haze is not so much of a victim as critics would make her out to be, neither is she a monster. She is a vulnerable girl who, like most teenagers, thought she knew everything and discovered that she knew very little indeed. She lacked good parental figures and sought love and approval from HUmbert instead.

He, also, is not so much a monster. Yes, he is ill- but he had a certain control over his urges. Dolly was the only young girl he ever so much as kissed, and that with her permission. He is less of a sex abuser, and more of a fearful manipulator. He learn in the early stages of the novel that he has a history of being unstable, and went through several hospitals for treatment for depression (melancholia) and ‘madness’ (ie, depression and his perversion twisting themselves together). He speaks blithely of how he learned to manipulate his doctors, leading them in circles and inventing symbolic dreams to send them a-twitter. He also bullied his first wife, and then Charlotte. Sex is not the issue.

And there you have the great irony of Lolita versus its sordid reputation. The book is not about sex. Nabakov does not describe the act, and in fact barely refers to the details of their lovemaking after the initial coupling. Many references are made to Dolly’s outside attractions- tan skin, etc- but never things we, today, would think of as pornographic.

I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but it was certainly fascinating getting into the head of someone like Humbert. I found myself rather insulted every time Humbert deplored ‘curvacious’, developed women, whom he finds quite disgusting. It was most unsettling, probably in the same way that I might be insulted by a gay man shuddering at the thought of being forced too near a woman in heat.

I’m glad to have finally read it for myself. Its reputation is one fabricated by conservatives and nuts. Go read the damn thing and figure it out for yourself.


Written by Shen

July 12, 2005 at 9:23 pm

One Response

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    I’ve gotten very tired of hearing the prudish harping of sex-starved Conservatives berating Nabokov for such a ‘morally questionable’ book (I can’t remember who used those words to describe it. Some moron.)

    Lolita, as you’ve said, is as much a sexual figure in her own right as anything–more-so than an abusee. And what most of Nabokov’s critic don’t realize is that Lolita, as a sexually-aware child, is the powerful one in the relationship. Being the object of an older man’s desires can make even the most gawkish and awkward girl feel attractive and omnipotents. Of course she does: she’s charmed someone over twice her age.

    Anyway, it’s good to hear a more open view of the book.–>


    July 25, 2005 at 10:49 am

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