Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Book 5: Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov

This is my "reread" for the Read Harder challenge. I originally read Lolita back my senior year of college, for my Cold War Fictions seminar, and while I remember liking it, I definitely don't remember it hitting me like the work of genius that it very clearly is. Probably this is because I had to burn through it to read another book for another class (but it could just also be stunning immaturity).

Lolita is famous enough that I don't really need to get into specifics, which is nice, as it will make for a quicker review. The stuff that Lolita is famous for, however - the relationship between Humbert Humbert and his underage stepdaughter - is really a small part of the novel. Lolita is really just a dizzying exercise in genre, I think - romance to travelogue to almost a noir fever dream in the final third. Throughout, the repellent wit of Nabokov's narrator and the scathing indictment of America's (at the time nascent) consumer culture are the glue that hold the entire thing together.

I couldn't help but think about the impact this book mu
st have had in 1955. A grown man opening lusting after and then dry humping a preteen girl? Constant droll David Sedaris-level sarcasm? Describing the great American highways as nothing more than connecting bumpkin-filled dots on an endlessly repetitive map? None of this fits the narrative I have of 1955 America, even peeling away the rose-colored tint that infects even some of the revisionist histories of the time. And when you consider this criticism comes from an immigrant who had left Soviet Russian and Europe as it was plunging into WWII, it is especially poignant.

(This said, the final third of the novel felt a bit much for me. Judging from a few conversations I've had with others, this isn't a unique opinion. My wife had read the book twice, and for the life of her, couldn't remember who it was that Humbert Humbert killed at the end. I couldn't, either. Honestly, after 200 pages in H.H.'s mind, I was ready to move on. But that's no doubt part of what Nabokov was doing - the charm of this sociopath inevitably has to wear off.)

As a final note, I made the active choice to be reading this book while my AP Language and Composition students were writing an essay in class on Friday - as Donald Trump was taking the oath of office. I found it very fitting to be reading the narrative of a narcissistic, truth-bending sexual predator, as Lolita provides more than a little warning about what could easily become (and what has become) Trump's America, 60 years before it happened. Time and time again, Humbert Humbert fools people who should know better, and even the people who suspect things wind up totally unable or unwilling to stop him. He provides just enough surface-level charm and convincingness to skate by, until finally he doesn't, and the consequences are disastrous for everyone involved. Oh, boy! America!

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I think Nabokov reveled in the idea of his books being "too much."

You should read Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, which is about a woman who opens a bookshop in a small English coastal town where it's not really wanted. Her biggest success turns out to be stocking a bunch of copies of Lolita, which the repressed townsfolk go mad for.