“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.’
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita still manages to raise eyebrows despite belonging to the literary world for over half a century. Then again, perhaps paedophilia and statutory rape are timeless taboos – especially when approached with finesse, a raw sense of humour and a poetic flair. I never thought I’d chuckle along to such sordid and morbid affairs, but I am not the only one to admit that poor, doomed Humbert Humbert’s tale is perversely fascinating.
So what’s it about?
Middle-aged Humbert Humbert likes little girls… whom he fondly dubs ‘nymphets’. The catalyst for such dangerous longing stemmed from an unconsummated love with childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh. Decades later, HH finds the perfect object of transference; the plain yet feisty nymphet, Dolores Haze – aka, Lolita. His obsession for the twelve year old grows and spills over into the shadier side of his psyche, the murkier muck of his mind. Needless to say; their journey together is a rather bumpy one.
Narrated in the first person, we hear this story from the man himself (or the monster, the madman, the poet, the academic – take your pick). Humbert Humbert dazzles us with his intellect and charms us with his excessive and sophisticated vocabulary which is finely tuned to conceal the harrowing filth lurking in the depths of his memoir. We know the personal narration is unreliable and yet this sophisticated academic still sucks us in and forces us to take residency in his warped mind among his darkest delusions. His charisma gently lulls you into a moral and ethical trance and you’ll unwillingly follow his journey, blinkered by his bright brilliance.
Well, I loved it to start with. I enjoyed the way the words worked on my mind and one can savour and revel in the richness of the literary realm Humbert Humbert conjures with every sentence. But there comes a point where enough is enough. For a start, there’s too much French in it. And it’s too time-consuming to Google translate every French phrase. Yes, the integration of language is no doubt a reminder that HH is ever so well-educated (and perhaps a reminder that Nabokov is too), but it’s rather irritating. Also, I had to look up a handful of very tricky words on more than one occasion. Tiring.
I read for a combination of pleasure and stimulation – but when the scales tip and I’m made to feel like an idiot, I do NOT enjoy. There’s only so much linguist trickery the average brain can handle (and yes, I’m confessing to an average brain, a typical mind, a standard level of intelligence, an OK IQ). My cerebral cortex started dribbling out of my ears by page 250. Not bad going, I guess, but the last chunk was a massive effort. I nearly pulled the plug. But I persevered… hurrah.
I’m pleased I’ve read it; it’s definitely a must-read for those interested in literature and all its glory. I owe Nabokov a debt of gratitude for kicking my lazy vocabulary up the arse. I shall endeavour to use some of these newly learned gems in everyday speech… probably to the horror of my friends and colleagues. It was an experience… but I’m glad it’s over.