Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was nothing like I thought it would be. Nothing at all.

Prior to reading the book the things that came to mind when I heard the word Lolita were perversion (after all, it's about a psuedo stepfather's lust for his 12 year old psuedo step daughter), Don't Stand So Close to Me by The Police, and Amy Fisher.

I also thought Russian, serious, heavy, and classic. What finally got the book down off the shelf were several recent articles in which Lolita was named as one of the greatest novels of all time. Most recently, 125 current authors voted Lolita to be the top novel of the 20th century and Nabokov as one of the top 10 authors of all-time.

It was nothing like I expected.

You know how when you're out to dinner and you're choosing a nice bottle of wine? You get all serious and business-like while scouring the wine list and then there's the ritual of opening the bottle, inspecting the cork, and swirling that first glass. That's mostly all theater. All you really need to do is see that the cork is wet (for god's sake don't sniff it) and make sure the wine doesn't taste like vinegar. Then just enjoy. All the theater is a reaction to having to do something supposedly serious and important about which you are mostly ignorant. Wine is important, they say. Don't screw this up! But it's really just a drink.

It can be like that with good literature. Upon starting some books there's a girding of the mental loins as you brace for wrestling meaning from the author's words. But really you should simply read and enjoy. It sounds funny, but why not approach Nabokov the same way you'd approach Tom Clancy? I fell into the same trap I advise others to avoid with Shakespeare. Opera today is all hoity-toity but back in the day it was the equivalent of Guiding Light. But I digress.

Instead of a heavy dose of Russian prose, Lolita yields the darkly comical guilt of Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov told with the rye wit and irreverence of Salinger's Holden Caulfield. There are no direct portrayals of sex in the book. Indeed, as Nabokov himself said in this two-part video interview (Part 1, Part 2), the book is about love, not sex. Forbidden love, certainly. But not sex. (In fact, you can make and argument that death is a central theme, but that'll take another reading for me to figure out.) Furthermore, Nabokov says the inspiration for Lolita was a news story he read about a gorilla in captivity who was taught to draw. The first drawing the ape made was of the bars of his own cage. Along these lines, Nabokov's protagonist is caged by his lifelong obsession with young girls and therefore his view of the rest of the world is quite distorted.

But drop the seriousness. Even Nabokov said he had no agenda, no goal, no intention in writing Lolita other than giving the reader a shiver at the base of the spine. His writing is wonderfully spry and twisted and humorous. The tragedy is all the more wicked because the protagonist is also the narrator and is quite self-deceiving, with flashes of stark guilt, about the nature of his crime. The narrator's lack of trustworthiness makes attention to the telling of the story that much more important.

Lolita will definitely get a second reading (and a third and...) if for no other reason than to start the book without the mental baggage I brought this first time. Do I consider it great? Not yet. But I can appreciate why others think so.


Francis Shivone said...

Great review. I have never read. But I get your point on the book. And agree.

Early opera as well as classical Greek theater is not unlike our early 20th variety clubs. Pretty common-man.

Shakespeare was to be watched not read and all of the above could get pretty bawdy. . . all that to say I agree and like the idea of reading good books for enjoyment.

John said...

Thank you, sir. I think a lot of times the problem is trying too hard to read, see, hear, taste correctly. Just let it happen.

John said...

P.S. Upon re-reading this post I am compelled to clarify that the bold (bolded? emboldened?) statement is not meant to signify a stunningly significant insight. Rather, the bold text marks the gist of the review, the rest being window dressing that can be skipped.