Tuesday, September 1, 2009

244. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

August 2009
History: First written in English and published in 1955 in Paris. The book is internationally famous for its innovative style and infamous for its controversial subject. After its publication, Nabokov's Lolita attained a classic status, becoming one of the best-known and most controversial examples of 20th century literature. The name "Lolita" has entered pop culture to describe a sexually precocious young girl.
Plot: Lolita is narrated by Humbert Humbert, a literary scholar born in 1910 in Paris, who is obsessed with what he refers to as "nymphets". This obsession with young girls is suggested by Humbert himself to have been a result of his failure to consummate an affair with a childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh, before her premature death from typhus. Shortly before the start of World War II, Humbert leaves Paris for New York when his first relationship with a grown woman turns sour. In 1947, he moves to Ramsdale, a small New England town, to write. When the first house he was promised burns down, he ends up at the door of Charlotte Haze, a widow, with something of a crush on Humbert, whom she sees as a European sophisticate. As the two tour the house, Humbert rehearses different ways of turning her offer down, but after being led out into the garden he notices Haze's 12-year-old daughter, Dolores (who is also variously referred to in the novel as Dolores, Dolly, Lolita, Lola, Lo, and L) in the garden. Humbert, perhaps seeing Annabel in her, is instantly smitten and eagerly agrees to rent the room afterwards.
When Lolita is sent to summer camp, Mrs. Haze gives Humbert an ultimatum by letter that he must marry her (for she has fallen in love with him) or move out. He is horrified at first, but sees living with Lolita as his stepdaughter as a way to make her part of his living fantasy and so agrees. Charlotte marries Humbert and appears oblivious to Humbert's distaste for her and his lust for Lolita until she reads his diary against his permission. Horrified and humiliated, Charlotte decides to flee with her daughter, writing letters to Humbert, Lolita, and a reformatory boarding school for young ladies to which she apparently intends to send her daughter. Charlotte confronts Humbert when he returns home, ignoring his protests that the diary entries are just notes for a novel, and bolts from the house to post the letters. But upon crossing the street, she is struck and killed by a passing motorist. A child retrieves the letters and gives them to Humbert, who destroys them.
Humbert picks Lolita up from camp, telling her and the mistress of the camp that her mother is desperately ill in a hospital. He then takes her to The Enchanted Hunters, a nearby hotel, where he meets a strange man (later revealed to be Clare Quilty), who seems to know who he is. Humbert attempts to use sleeping pills on Lolita so that he may molest her without her knowledge, but they have little effect on her. Instead, she consciously seduces Humbert the next morning. At breakfast he discovers that he is not her first lover, as she has had a sexual affair with a boy at summer camp. After leaving the hotel, Humbert tells the "trouble-making" Lolita that her mother is dead. Alone and frightened, Lolita has no choice but to accept her stepfather into her life on his terms.
Driving Lolita around the country in Charlotte's car, moving from state to state and motel to motel, Humbert bribes the girl for sexual favors. He subsequently fosters a kind of love for her, but is conscious that she does not reciprocate this and shares none of his interests. Likewise, he is also unaware of her mentality as a human being. Eventually, after a year's tour of North America, the two settle down in another New England town, Beardsley, with Humbert posing as Lolita's father and Lolita enrolled in a private girls' school. The headmistress views Humbert's possessive supervision as that of a strict, old-world European parent as he continues to deny her the chance to learn acting.
Humbert nevertheless is persuaded to allow Lolita to take part in the school's theatrical club, although he extracts additional sexual favors from her in exchange for his permission; however, even this becomes increasingly more difficult. Ominously, the title of the play — The Hunted Enchanters — is an inversion of the name of the hotel where he had his first sexual encounter with her. Lolita is enthusiastic about the play and is said to have impressed the playwright, who attended a rehearsal. Just before opening night Lolita and Humbert have a ferocious argument, and Lolita bolts from the house on a bicycle. Found nearby by Humbert a few minutes later, Lolita declares that she wants to immediately leave town and resume their travels as they had used to. Humbert is delighted, but becomes increasingly guarded as they again drive westward, nagged by a feeling that they are being followed by a convertible, and that Lolita knows who the man is. He is right. Clare Quilty, an acquaintance of Charlotte's, the nephew of the local dentist in Ramsdale, and the author of the play being performed at Lolita's school, is himself a pedophile and amateur pornographer. He is tailing the couple in accordance with a secret plan of escape he has devised with Lolita. Lolita tries to escape from Humbert at more than one point on the trip, but always fails to elude Humbert.
While Humbert becomes increasingly paranoid, Lolita becomes severely ill and recuperates in a nearby hospital. Humbert is forced to cut short his vigil over Lolita by night because of the hospital's rigid operating hours. One night, she checks out with her "uncle", who has paid the hospital bill. Humbert, still clueless about the identity of Lolita's "abductor," makes farcical and frantic attempts to find them by inspecting various motel-register aliases, which have been laced by Quilty with insults and jokes flavored with literary allusions, some of them supplied by Lolita herself. Eventually, Humbert gives up his search for Lolita, a broken, dejected man.
During this period, Humbert has a chaotic, two-year love-affair with an alcoholic named Rita who, at 30, is 10 years younger than he and a passable physical substitute for Lolita. By 1952, Humbert has settled down as a scholar at a small academic institute. One day, he receives a letter with no return address from Lolita, now 17, who tells him that she is married, heavily pregnant, and in desperate need of funds until her husband is able to start his job in Alaska. Armed with a loaded gun, Humbert discovers his young obsession's residence after asking for directions. After finding Lolita, Humbert gives her the money she needs as well as her rightful stake in her mother's estate. During their conversation, Lolita explains that her husband, a nearly-deaf and crippled war-veteran, was not her abductor, whereupon Humbert offers to give her all the money he has if she will reveal the man's identity. Lolita complies, saying that she had really loved Clare Quilty, but that he threw her out after she refused to perform in a pornographic film he was making. Humbert asks her to leave her husband and follow him, but she refuses, breaking Humbert's spirit.
Leaving Lolita forever, Humbert attempts to surprise and kill Quilty at his mansion in an act of revenge. Quilty is in a daze as Humbert's gun is pointed at him, and Humbert does not shoot immediately as he wants his victim to understand who Humbert is and why he is there, seeking to get Quilty to admit his part in the abduction of Lolita. Humbert appears to reject Lolita's earlier admission that she loved Quilty and her failure to say that she loved Humbert. After a long standoff and a subsequent struggle for Humbert's gun, Quilty, who is now mentally unsound, responds unusually as Humbert repeatedly shoots him while chasing him around his own house. He finally dies with a comical lack of interest, expressing his slight concern in an affected English accent. The eventual killing of Quilty fails to offer Humbert a sense of satisfaction and he ends up leaving Quilty's mansion for his final journey in Charlotte's old car. Seeking a sense of release from his present condition Humbert decides to drive on the wrong side of the road, a minor act of defiance following the murder he has committed, but one that offers him satisfaction. Arrested for murder, he writes a book he entitles Lolita or, The Confessions of a White Widowed Male, while awaiting trial. The narrative closes with Humbert's final words to Lolita in which he wishes her well and states he hopes her child will be a boy. According to the novel's fictional "Foreword", Humbert dies of coronary thrombosis upon finishing his manuscript, which had been days before his trial was to begin. Lolita dies giving birth to a stillborn baby on Christmas Day, 1952.
Review: The novel's scandal-tinted history and its subject—the affair between a middle-aged sexual pervert and a twelve-year-old girl—inevitably conjure up expectations of pornography. But there is not a single obscene term in Lolita, and aficionados of erotica are likely to find it a dud. Lolita blazes, however, with a perversity of a most original kind. Nabokov's Lolita is not an endorsement of pedophilia, since it dramatizes the tragic consequences of Humbert's obsession with the young girl. Several times, Humbert begs the reader to understand that he is not proud of his union with Lolita, but is filled with remorse. At one point, he is listening to the sounds of children playing outdoors, and is stricken with guilt at the realization that he robbed Lolita of her childhood. Wild, fantastic, wonderfully imaginative, it is a style which parodies everything it touches. Lolita seems to me an assertion of the power of the comic spirit to wrest delight and truth from the most outlandish materials. It is one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read; and the vision of its abominable hero, who never deludes or excuses himself, brings into grotesque relief the cant, the vulgarity, and the hypocritical conventions that pervade the human comedy.
Opening Line: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Closing Line: “This is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
Quotes: “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.”
“Solitude was corrupting me.”
“In fact, I would have the reader see 'nine' and 'fourteen' as the boundaries - the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks - of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast misty sea. Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholets, would have long gone insane. “
Rating: Superb.

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