I have a confession to make: I didn’t enjoy Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Given my posing here as a lit blogger I thought it high time I read something by the man so often spoken of in hushed tones of reverence. Given Lolita’s prominence and its controversial but classic status, I thought it a good place to start. This won’t win me any points with CAAF or The Rake (who are Nabokov fans I believe), but I found it heavy sledding and rather ponderous. Sure, at times I recognized the brilliant word play and the creative skill involved, but in general I felt I was wading through a deep river of words and ideas that never quite took off for me. In fact I was reminded of this post and its comment section while reading. Despite my pretence to intellectualism on occasion, I really don’t enjoy novels that require frequent trips to the dictionary (in this case French as well as English) or a chart to understand all the inside references and ironic motifs.
For those of you unfamiliar with the work, Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert a older European man, living in America, who is sexually attracted to young girls. Humbert finds the perfect set up when he encounters Dolores (Lolita) Haze, the twelve-year old daughter of the women with whom he finds lodging. Humbert goes on to marry Lolita’s mother, become her sole guardian when the mother – his wife – dies, and take her on a cross country journey which allows him to impose his paedophilic urges on his young step-daughter.
It wasn’t the ugly subject matter that tripped me up – although Nabokov’s skill in weaving the dark and sordid in with the witty and romantic, his ability to tell a cruel yet comic “love story,” can make one uncomfortable, but not in a prudish way – but the lack of a compelling narrative pull. The story seemed to get caught up in itself, to lead the reader through a sort of Byzantine maze of language and symbol, where the trip itself is the point rather than the destination. I can understand some of the attraction and nod at the explanations of those who love the work (see Martin Amis’s introduction or the Complete Review’s Review) but it just didn’t do it for me.
Most of the above is rather subjective and repetitive, sorry about that, but I am not sure how else to describe my reaction. Perhaps my expectations were too high or I just couldn’t concentrate enough to appreciate the finer points. I am glad I read it, however, as it is an important touch point in literature and culture and one worth being acquainted with; sometimes learning isn’t all easy reading.