Msnowe's Blog

Golly Gee, Dolly

Posted in Lolita, Nabokov by m.snowe on April 6, 2009

where M.Snowe talks of Lolita.

Lolita/Lolita is a lot different than what m.snowe was led to believe prior to opening the book. And by that, m.snowe means both the whole book as well as the character of Lolita.

This phenomenon should really be studied more often: the idea of a book before reading it, to the actual experience of reading and then the feeling you are left with once you finish (reading it the first time, that is). Novels have a way of surprising readers, unlike most other mediums of art, because of the sheer length, and the different voices of different authors. Picking up a book by an author you have never read before is always an interesting pursuit–because no matter what expectations, or research you did beforehand, nothing competes with the act of reading the text.

Okay, so most readers, staring at the cover of Lolita, would know a few things, just from its permeation into the realm of pop culture, of which we’ve all been steeped since we were zygotes: Lolita is this small, young little mischievous sex pot who causes the downfall of a much older lover. In comedy, in references, Lolita is shown as a clever minx who dresses scantily, and has her wits about her–she uses her sexual guile as power. Perhaps m.snowe has been misreading all the references to Lolita, but this was her impression before opening the book. Yes, there was the messiness of pedophilia always lurking towards the back of these references, but it was never made so prominent so as to disturb the image of this lustful young girl. The last real reference m.snowe saw that evoked Lolita was a scene from Broken Flowers with Bill Murray, where a lithe teenage daughter of Murray’s ex lover walks around in front of him, naked. Oh, and her name is Lolita. Very subtle, people.

But the Broken Flowers instance is a perfect example of the largest misconception people have before they read the book–Lolita as seducer. She is not. She is, even by Humbert’s submission, too young to fully understand, and is forced to do things she certainly would not choose to do. but even if she was a seducer, we would have no way of knowing, because the entire book (except the introduction) is written from the perspective of Humbert. And not only that, but Humbert makes it quite clear, even through all his lies, double entendres, and sheer lunacy, that Lolita indeed rejects him, and never seriously considered their sexual behavior as consummate. Perhaps m.snowe is reading it “wrong,” but she thinks not. This bothers m.snowe’s sense of fairness–how is it, that a book about an obsessed pedophile becomes an instant classic, enters the cannon and thereby mass culture, and then Lolita is culturally turned into villain, or at least into the stand-in campy seductress? Lolita surely deserves the acclaim, but Lolita the character got a bum rap.

There’s another part of Lolita that the outside observer might never have known without at least reading a very astute summary of the book: it’s hilarious. It’s hilarious in so many ways: the word play of Humbert, his dark and bitter commentary of others he meets, etc., etc. When people think to quote Lolita, they often quote the opening lines, which are very memorable, but they are also the most sincere, and really are the at the end of Humbert’s life. It is not representative of the whole. Humbert is appealingly (and yet paradoxically) frank. And this frankness, we believe in one instance (ex. when he judges women) and disavow in another (ex. when he pleads his case for sanity, or tries to qualify his lust for nymphets.) And that is the other great triumph of Nabokov’s work, surely: the person of Humbert, the narrative he weaves that makes us completely secure in the story, while simultaneously not believing a word that comes out of his filthy mouth. Humbert (and by extension, Nabokov) is very careful in his insanity to gloss over what the reader would be shocked to hear–and although there is bitter honesty contained in the book that might make the reader blush or be affronted, it is never so gross as to detail the deepest reaches of Humbert’s pedophilia.

M.snowe recommends you read Lolita, if, like her you’ve been putting it off. If for nothing else, to reevaluate what pop culture told you it was about. But you’ll be pleasantly surprised how beautiful an ugly story can be.