Friday, August 18, 2006

Lolita revisited

...just briefly. but i was inspired to pick the thing up again after a recent discussion at Feministe; it'd been a while.

about a fifth of the way through it, a few thoughts in no particular order:

-uncomfortably, I remember identifying with Humbert in that the tortured "these attractions are Wrong, and I can't do anything about them; meanwhile I'll go through the motions with the people I'm supposed to be with" reminded me of, well, the whole coming-to-terms-with-being-gay process.

What I'd managed to block out, I think--perhaps because I wasn't much older than Lolita when I first read this, and thus wasn't as inclined to see her as a little girl as I am now--was the creeptastic molestation angle of the whole thing. The flowery prose was another distraction, of course; a second look reveals his skewed double vision of the whole thing--and how much he's fooling himself, reading between the lines, with convincing himself that she doesn't notice a thing (when he's groping her); that it's all perfectly harmless and delightful; that she really is something other than just another tween-aged kid. It is disturbing as all hell.

-If you look at it from the perspective of Lolita being the protagonist, you realize that it's this dark and awful fairy tale, in a way. You know: the mother, filtered through the double lens of Humbert and Lolita's reactions, is the wicked witch (and what teenage girl doesn't see her mom that way at least to some degree?); the hnadsome prince is living in her house; she longs for mom to die and the prince to carry her off...and this is literally what happens. And, of course, it's a fucking nightmare.

-as I said over there:

I guess what I do like about the book, and one reason why I can see why it’s propelled from “huh, interesting” to “okay, this has lasting value” is the kind of skewed-yet-somehow-accurate impression of America from a jaded European perspective. If you look at Humbert and Lolita as symbolic of their respective places at the time, it makes a certain kind of sense: then it becomes not just about some pervert, but about the longing of the weary and decadent (and war-torn) for something new and fresh and “innocent,” even as the “innocence” is simultaneously viewed as appallingly puerile.

I'm still not totally clear on why this is considered as universal/timeless/Canon a classic as it is, though. I mean, well-written and interesting, but...I dunno. guess I'd better finish it. For damnsure it isn't a "love story," as is commonly trumpeted.

11 comments:

dagger aleph said...

Interesting post.

You're right that this is not a love story. Humbert Humbert is a classic narcissist and therefore incapable of loving anybody.

Richard Rorty has a very interesting essay on Lolita called "The Barber of Kasbeam," in which he explores the theme of cruelty. The indifference to Lolita's autonomy is obvious, but there are all kinds of subtle ways in which Humbert's narcissism and obsession make him oblivious to the minor characters in the book too.

I particularly like Nabokov's description of American motels. There's some awesome writing in that book.

A White Bear said...

It's an interesting task to pick Lolita up again. When I read it at 16, it was heartbreaking. As you say, I didn't think of Lolita as a little girl; I identified with her desire to escape and explore sexuality with inappropriately older men. Like her, I attributed value to myself because older men had a taste for me, but as I came of age I realized I was just a target for pedophiles--not uncommonly beautiful or mature or special in some way only they could see. And HH, when I was 16, seemed pretty amazing, but now, I find him unreadably horrible.

In retrospect, the book accomplishes something I wish it didn't, in a manner I adore, for reasons I'm not sure of. Emotional conflict!

The Adrian Lyne film of Lolita is among the most-watched in my collection. I love it, love it, love it. The music, the performances, the atmosphere--it's divine.

The Goldfish said...

I think it is one of the best books ever written about obsession. But then I also think it is one of the best books ever written.

Lolita, remember, isn't a real character. She's entirely made-up by HH (there is no little girl who goes by that name - there is only Delores), so the reader only gets glimpses of what she's really like and what she's going through from HH's warped perspective.

In a sense, it is about the fictionalisation of a human being, by HH who is obsessed with some idea of a nymphette he happens to have projected onto her, but also by her mother, the teachers at the school and perhaps even Delores herself.

belledame222 said...

Well, you get little glimpses what the other characters are really like from the actual dialogue, assuming he's even being honest about that.

jackadandy said...

Yeah, I'm one of those who thinks it's one of the world's great books. I read it when I was, I dunno, 19?, and very uneducated but a booklover nonetheless, and it blew me out, totally.

Okay, I admit I identified with HH (doesn't everybody? oops, did I just reveal something...? *blush*), and therefore felt viscerally the twists Nabokov imposes on our ethical senses. My overwhelming impression at the time was the knock-out of how Nabokov gets you to sort of unthinkingly sympathise with this guy, and by the end makes you realize what a total shit-head you've been. Even though, of course, HH never realizes that about himself. Masterful.

As a young person I considered this book to be an amazing lesson in ethical humanity and in great writing.

Natalia said...

Do you have the annotated version? I got it for my birthday, and it's really helpful.

***but as I came of age I realized I was just a target for pedophiles--not uncommonly beautiful or mature or special in some way only they could see.***

A very similar thing happened to me, White Bear.

belledame222 said...

No, but I saw other people talking about it, the annotated--sounds interesting. I'm just reading the ancient dog-eared yellow paperback while I'm here at my folks'.

the other thing is that his creepier moments are so couched in purple language -and- so by-the-way that it's easy to blink and miss them. The bits about how he would've twisted the wrist or hit his first wife; or a line where he "betrayed" Charlotte with one of Lolita's anklets. (different level of creepy than wife-beating, that, of course, but still: um, yeah, romantic).

a feminist said...

"In retrospect, the book accomplishes something I wish it didn't, in a manner I adore, for reasons I'm not sure of. Emotional conflict!"

You have an excellent way with words, White Bear; you've just described my thoughts exactly.

Interestingly, I purchased the DVD of Lyne's Lolita on impulse a few days ago, having wanted to see a film version of the novel for years. Imagine my disappointment when I found out there are 2 renditions - I'd clean forgotten about Kubrick's earlier work whilst in the store! So you've made me feel a little better about the purchase since you say it's a worthwhile watch.

Now to find the time to sit down and actually watch it without a million and one interruptions...!

"guess I'd better finish it."

Without wishing to give away any spoilers, I felt the book kinda changs pace halfway through - the first half is very different to the latter parts of the story. The pathetic side of HH comes out strongly later on, which I guess increased my sympathy for him, even going back and reading the tale recently in my twenties with more mature eyes as opposed to reading it at 15 (as seems to be quite a common occurrence judging by the comments here). What I'm trying to say is... keep going with it until the end. Maybe even post an update on this for us when you've finished reading? That would be interesting :)

piny said...

One thing I liked about Lolita--I'm hoping to bring this up in that post I've been planning to write after I finish that book I've been planning to read--was that it wasn't afraid to tackle the issues of romance or eroticism. Some depictions of child molestation and incest just don't touch on the way that sexual abuse is intimate violation. The timid ones obscure the problem; the exploitative ones end up being prurient. The successful ones understand that it's possible to talk about the abuser's perspective while making it clear to the audience that the sexualization was profoundly damaging and wrong. How I Learned to Drive is a good example; so's Mysterious Skin.

So I liked that Lolita spent so much time talking about Humbert's pretensions at sentiment, how they made him a big romantic sop. His florid imagination was a big contributor to his ability to create Lolita and then abuse Dolores. He committed rape because he couldn't acknowledge the possibility.

belledame222 said...

Yes, "How I Learned to Drive" was very good. (Molly Ringwald in the lead role was a bit jarring, but well nevermind).

So I finished the book and...hm. I don't find myself having more sympathy for HH; pity, but not really empathy, you know. It is interesting how he has these vestigial pricklings of conscience that come bubbling to the fore; where he finally is able to admit that yes, he robbed the girl of her childhood, pure and simple. And that she never loved him or even saw him as a human being (he objectified himself at least as much as her, he realizes very late in the game; and the fact of his abuse made him lose out on what could have been a much deeper intimacy had he gone with his first fleeting instinct after the wife's death and simply been a parent to her).

What really interested me, and what was what I remember had me relating in a strange way during my own dully torturous adolescence, were the moments where he looks at the girl and is, for the moment at least, seeing her clear of the eyes of lust/obsession, for whatever reason (some intimation of ugly reality came through; or he just wasn't in the mood, or who knows what). The weirdness that happens when an unreciprocated crush that doesn't sit well suddenly lifts for a moment; and then resettles.

What interests me -now- is the bit where he notes that perhaps the fact that he's so able to project his own shit onto her--that there is such a wide discrepancy between fantasy and reality--is exactly what attracts him to her, and to "nymphets" in general. As dagger aleph notes: this is classic narcissism, albeit a bit more self-aware than the norm, perhaps.

The whole Cue storyline was...odd. I'm still not entirely sure what I make of it (I mean, besides as a plot device, obviously).

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