Monday, 13 April 2015

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.

This is the famous opening lines of this famous book, which, in spite of the theme, became a classic. Why is that? I think because it is so very well written, and in spite of the theme, it stays within boundaries.
Nabokov was born in St Petersburg in 1899. The family left Russia as the Bolsheviks seized power and went first to London and then to Berlin. He completed his studies in Cambridge, and had a very successful academic career alongside his writing. In 1940 he and his wife and son moved to America.

“In the words of one critic Nabokov is ‘one of the most strikingly original novelist to emerge since Proust and Joyce…Not only did he gain a magnificent command of his second language, English and develop an extraordinary narrative and descriptive skill, but he brought to his task a visionary insight, a romantic verve and a grasp of human character that seem peculiarly his own.”

The main character Humbert Humbert has a youthful experience with his friend Annabel Leigh. However, the experience is not fulfilled and Annabel dies a year later. He takes this as his ‘excuse’ in being attracted to young ‘nymphets’ (girl-children between 9 and 14). To get away from it all he marries a young woman with girlish manners. However, the marriage does not last. He goes to America to work and ends up in a small town called Ramsdale. His initial idea to stay with a family, with a young girl, is turned over when their home is burnt down. By fate he is offered to rent a room with Mrs Haze. He is not really interested, but goes there out of politeness. He changes his mind and stays when he sees her young daughter Dolores Haze. He gets totally infatuated by her.

Humbert keeps a diary. One day when Dolores, or Lolita as Humbert calls her, is away on summer camp, her mother manages to get hold of the diary. She reads of his infatuation with her daughter and threatens to reveal it all.  She writes letters, but on her way to post them, she is run over and killed.

From here on we follow Humbert as he picks up Lolita from the summer camp. He does not reveal at once that her mother is dead but says she is injured and in hospital. They will drive around and finally visit her. On their first night at a hotel, he drugs Lolita and intends to rape her. However, the drug was not strong enough and Lolita is awake when he returns to the room. She somehow feels his intentions and tells him that she already slept with a young man in the camp. In the morning she more or less seduces him.

Now an odyssey starts that will take them all over America. They move from hotel to hotel. Since this is a first person narrative, we don’t really get to know the feelings of Lolita, since her behaviour is all described from Humbert’s view. After some time Humbert gets ‘paranoid’(?) and thinks that they are followed. Lolita falls ill and ends up in hospital. One day when he comes to visit she is gone. 'Her uncle' picked her up, paid the bill and off they went.

He looks for her everywhere but can’t find her. About two years later, he receives a letter from her. She is now 17 years old, and  telling him she is married and pregnant. He manages to find her and they talk things over. She is sort of happy with her present life and Humbert has to give her up.

“I’ll die if you touch me,” I said. “You are sure you are not coming with me? Is there no hope of your coming? Tell me only this.”
“No,” she said. “No, honey, no.”
She had never called me honey before.
“No,” she said, “it is quite out of the question. I would sooner go back to Cue. I mean—“
She groped for words. I supplied them mentally (“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life”).”

A friend of mine said, it is terrible to say you love the book because of the story. But it is really well written and I loved it as well. That does not mean that you approve of Humbert’s actions. However, it is written with tragicomedy, with riddles, play with words and wry observations of American culture. During the narrative Humbert explains that he is not proud of what he is doing. He feels guilty that he has robbed her of her childhood. However, he still loves her and cannot stop. “Nabokov himself described Humbert as ‘a vain and cruel wretch’ and ‘a hateful person.’

All in all it has become a classic and are on most list of 100 best books to read. It also established the name ‘Lolita’ as synonymous for a sexually precocious girl. Considering the writing I am all for reading something else by Nabokov.

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