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"Try to discern the doe in me",
This review is from: Lolita (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
It's natural to be disturbed and upset by this book's subject matter, but those with an interest in great prose should read Lolita even if they squirm away from it. On the level of pure craftsmanship this novel is perfect. Despite sometimes briefly dipping into other languages, a technique I find assumptive and pretentious, there's no fault I can pick with Nabokov's storytelling. There were times while reading this book when I paused, drew breath and reflected on what I'd just read, my consciousness stunned by its uncompromising beauty. That what Nabokov writes about is strange and perverse is kind of beside the point. His main character, Humbert Humbert, could be a compulsive car thief and this book would be no less haunting. The prose often resembles poetry, evoking spiritual images and internal rhythms. There's even an actual poem towards the climax, by Humbert for his victim, which stands alone as a great work of literature.
Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged scholar haunted by paedophilic urges. He describes young girls as "nymphets", and after renting a room from Charlotte Haze, a widow, he becomes obsessed with her twelve-year old daughter, Dolores (also known as Lolita). She resembles Humbert's childhood love, Annabel Leigh (an Edgar Allan Poe reference; Poe's poem "Annabel Lee" inspired this novel), whose death Humbert considers the beginning of his obsession with female children. Charlotte falls in love with Humbert, and he marries her so he can stay close to Dolores. But as fate would have it Charlotte discovers what he is, and in trying to flee is killed by a passing car (one of the novel's most memorable passages).
I normally dislike such pieces of fortune, when logically a plot should end but needs to continue, so the author manufactures some chance event, but in Lolita it didn't matter. I was so compelled by Nabokov's telling of his tale that I could forgive him a trick or two. After Charlotte's death Humbert gives Dolores an ultimatum: go into foster care or run away with him. She chooses the latter, and so their doomed odyssey begins.
Humbert isn't presented or received (by me at least) as a very sympathetic character. I understood that he didn't choose his desires, and like Dolores is ultimately destroyed by them, but he was also weak, selfish and pathetic. He views Charlotte's death as a chance to snare her daughter, and does so, proving that what conscience he has is subordinate to his lust. The road trip he takes with Dolores is rich and evocative. Both their eventual fates are tragic, and great violence occurs before the story is finished.
Canadian writer Robertson Davies said that Lolita isn't about "the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child." I don't agree with that assessment. Though Dolores shows cunning in some of her decisions she seemed fundamentally innocent to me. Being on the cusp of pubescence her sexual awareness is immature. She lets Humbert molest her because she doesn't have much choice; he's her guardian, and if she wants or needs anything it's up to him if she gets it. Humbert chose to risk damaging her, and even when he acknowledges what he's done there's an air of selfishness about his thoughts. I think he ultimately sees himself as a tragic character, not a selfish monster. "Try to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity", he says at one point, and throughout the novel he seems more concerned about the doe than the forest.
Lolita is among the best novels ever written. It could certainly be described as the best of the 20th century without raised eyebrows. It's subject matter is probably even more controversial now given the hysteria about child molestation, but if you're a passionate reader you shouldn't deny yourself this masterpiece. To quote Roger Ebert, "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it." That also applies to books, especially Lolita, which will electrify the blood of anyone who loves poetry.