Review by Autumn
In honor of Banned Books Month, I chose to review Lolita, perhaps the ultimate banned book. In speaking to people about the story, I found that many had heard of the book, or at least the author (courtesy of The Police, who referenced “… that book by Nabakov” in “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”), but it had been read by only few and with good reason. I’ve come to refer to this as “The best book I’ve ever despised.”
Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, an Ã©migrÃ© to the United States, who develops a passion for the twelve-year-old daughter of his landlady. He is a long time observer of “nymphets” (a word Nabakov coined and which has stuck with us), but has never before been bold enough to actually physically molest a child, though his mind has been very active. The child, Dolores Haze, is childishly attracted to her mother’s handsome lodger; so is the mother, who appears to be blissfully unaware that her charms are not what keep Humbert in her home. Eventually, she makes her attraction clear and gives Humbert an ultimatum. In order to stay close to the child, Humbert marries the mother. Fortune smiles on him (and abandons Lolita) when Mrs. Haze is killed in a freak automobile accident immediately after finding Humbert’s diary and perceiving his intentions toward her daughter. Seeing his chance, Humbert collects Lolita from her summer camp and they embark on a two year, cross-country journey during which he repeatedly molests Lolita, telling himself that they are a couple. Eventually, he loses the girl to another pedophile, this time one who uses her for pornography. Three years later, Humbert finally finds her, married, pregnant, and desperately poor. She refuses his request to come away with him; Humbert then pursues and kills the man for whom he was abandoned.
Technically, Lolita, is a lovely book. Nabakov is truly an artist with his adopted language, combining vivid vocabulary with allusion to both classical and contemporary ideas and works. He weaves many stories within stories, creating characters that linger in one’s mind long after the book is over. That is wonderfully evocative, and makes it clear why this novel stands the test of time and is still a “living” book. Paradoxically, that is also a negative.
Humbert is one of the vilest characters that I have ever come upon in any novel. He is an avowed pedophile, and absolutely irredeemable. Though he gives lip service to shame, calling himself variously a “monster”, “murderer”, “despicable”, “brutal”, these are more than balanced by his assertions that he is just following historical precedent, that twelve is a marriageable age elsewhere… that she wanted it, even as he relates in an offhand manner that she cried herself to sleep every night, and notes, after yet another molestation, that “her grave grey eyes (were) more vacant than ever-for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation.”
Humbert bills himself as Lolita’s ‘dream man’, but does not notice her silence when he does so. He justifies his perversion by reminiscing about a his own “lost love” at age thirteen, theorizing that his attraction to young girls comes because he was not able to consummate his ‘love’ for that girl. He even goes so far as to consider himself a candidate for sainthood when he considers keeping his Lolita after her “nymphet” stage ends, impregnating her, and then perhaps having a third generation of Haze “women” with which to dally. Though some critics point out that the initial rape came when Lolita made the first move, I find that judgment specious at best. The book is written in first person and just judging by the way he changes his stories about himself and his motivations (at first saying he’s “attractive”, later “gorgeous”, and finally a “dream man”) it is clear to me that he is the ultimate unreliable narrator. If we cannot believe what he says about himself, how can we believe what he relates of Lolita’s actions?
Written in 1953-54, Lolita was deemed “too shocking” by four American publishing houses before being quietly published in Paris in 1955. American publishers came around by 1958, when the book was a fairly big success worldwide. Lolita has spent many of the intervening years between then and now on various ‘banned book’ lists. I cannot condone censorship, and so do not support a general ban; however, this book is definitely not for everyone. Surprisingly, it’s not because of “smut”. Nabakov himself jeers at those who picked up his book expecting a lurid read, saying:
In modern times the term ‘pornography’ connotes mediocrity, commercialism…certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be replaced by simple sexual stimulation… thus…action has to be limited to the copulation of clichÃ©s. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to… logical bridges of simplest design, brief expositions and explanations, which the reader will probably skip…Sexual scenes…must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations…therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.
Sound familiar, fan fiction readers? This is just not true of Lolita. Incidents are couched in “acceptable” terms, and decline in description as the novel progresses, though it is very clear that the molestation continues unabated.
The true horror of Lolita is the peek inside the mind of an unrepentant pedophile, and the resultant realization of how easily his perversion was satisfied and nurtured in society. As a mother, this book haunts me. As a reader/writer, I am awed by Nabakov’s mastery of his craft.
At the end of the day, my mother’s heart wins. It aches for Lolita and cheers Humbert’s death.
Vladimir Nabakov was a Russian writer who published nine novels in his native language prior to the publication of Lolita, his second book written in the English language. He is considered a master of English prose and many prominent authors have cited his work as very influential. Nabakov also had a very distinguished career in Entomologyâ€“his dissections can be found on display at Harvard University.
The most recent challenge of Lolita was aimed at Marion-Levy Public Library System in Ocala, Florida. Â The Marion County commissionersÂ voted to have the county attorney review the novel that addresses the themes of pedophiliaÂ and incest, to determine if it meets the state law’s definition of “unsuitable for minors.”
Autumn is a college educated wife and mother of four. She’s completely convinced that her passion for stories and love of observing people are what drove her interest in her university focus areas of political science and history. Autumn is in the midst of a lifelong love affair with words, written, spoken, or sung. Having begun reading at two years, she estimates that her reading runs into the tens of thousands of books. Aside from her family, her dearest interests are movies, music, and books (and she has the book shelves and Amazon bills to prove it). Currently, she cares for her family, writes grants for a non-profit, and is working on launching her first novel, which is in final edits before publication.
A Giveaway to Celebrate Banned Books Week 9/25/10 – 10/2/10
To celebrate the books that push the boundaries, provoke us with uncomfortable language and give us a new perspective with their harsh points of view, Fictionista Workshop is participating in the American Library Associations Banned Books Week. During Banned Books Week we will post reviews of frequently challenged books and we invite our readers to participate as well. Please leave a comment on any of the banned book reviews with your own review, why it should or shouldn’t be challenged or answer any open ended questions we pose in the review and be entered to win a first edition, autographed copy of Ray Bradbury’s A Pleasure to Burn, a short story compilation that acts as a companion to Fahrenheit 451.
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