Our book club chose Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as our month's shared read, and I was very happy to re-encounter this old friend of my own adolescence. But I definitely appreciated it far more several (!) decades on.
I particularly love what Preeta calls "voicy" novels, in which we hear the voice of the main character, especially when he or she is not telling us the truth, and sometimes not even aware of their own self-deception.
Humbert Humbert, we learn right from the first page, is a murderer and the paedophile abductor of twelve-year old Dolores Haze alias :
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.The novel is his confession, written later in prison, and it is a meticulous study of obsession. And right from the start it puts the reader in a very uncomfortable position: while we know that what Humbert is doing is morally repugnant, while we are horrified by the chilling tyranny he exerts over his stepdaughter, we are disarmed by his honesty, seduced by the sensuality of the writing, and drawn into collusion with him in this most perverse of love stories. It's a very strange and unsettling sensation.
It's hard to imagine too that the book was written 50 years ago, because it seems so contemporary ... and thanks to the internet perhaps we are more aware of paedophilia now than we were back then.
I felt terribly sorry for Lolita, for although she is no innocent (having gleefully lost her virginity at a summer camp, and knowingly strung our narrator along), HH finally faces towards the end of the book the extent to which he has damaged his step-daughter. Having escaped HH's clutches, she eventually marries a war-veteran and, little more than a child herself, dies in childbirth. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all is where HH recalls Lolita talking to a friend about death, and realising that the nature of their relationship utterly precluded being able to reach her on a deeper level.
Lolita is also an early example of the genre referred to as a road novel, and I loved the way the essence of the whole journey criss-crossing small-town America moving is so skilfully distilled into a series of vignettes.
Is Lolita porn? Well, it was certainly seen that way when Nabokov first approached American publishers, five of whom rejected it, fearing that they'd be prosecuted on obscenity charges. The language of the book though is never sexually explicit, and all the more potent and sensual for that.
This is the climax (pun of course intended) of one of the most shocking scenes :
She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled on in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola, the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock …What dazzling, what shameless writing!
Stephen Metcalf in Slate magazine (asking the question Is Lolita Still Shocking?) says :
Lolita is a disgusting book. Furthermore, the day will never come when it is not a disgusting book.and certainly it changes the reader's inner landscape. Not so long ago Woolworth's stores across the UK were forced by furious parents to withdrawn the sale of beds named Lolita which had been designed for six-year-old girls.
(And Muntaj in our book club - a more respectable pillar of society you could not hope to find - said that the book had severely messed with her head and even when in the supermarket found herself weighing up which young girls HH might consider "nymphets"!)
If you haven't read Lolita yet (hey, where were you hiding?) but are considering picking it up, I'd recommend the Penguin Classics annotated version which seemed to be very helpful when I glanced at a friend's copy (especially as HH throws in a lot of words and phrases in French).
I really enjoyed the radio programmes about the book on NPR, and you can listen to the lovely Jeremy Irons reading the opening of the novel.
Lo. Lee. Ta.