My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Written in a confessional style, Nabokov’s masterwork tells the story of a middle-aged intellectual, Humbert Humbert, and his hebephiliac obsession with a twelve-year-old girl named Delores Haze — whom he calls Lolita. Early in the novel, Humbert is renting a room from Charlotte Haze (Lolita’s mother,) and Charlotte starts sending him heavy hints that she is interested in a more intimate relationship. While the Humbert that we get to know as readers is a creepy, obsessive stalker, in person the man comes across as articulate and suave – in other words, a fine marriage prospect for a single mom in the market for a husband. Eventually, Humbert does decide to marry Charlotte — not because he loves her, but because he is obsessed with Delores / Lolita and wants to stay close to the girl no matter what it takes.
One day after the couple has settled into marriage, Humbert comes in to find that Charlotte is freaked out; she has read his journal and now knows what the reader is already aware of: that Humbert isn’t right in the head, that he secretly detests Charlotte, and that he desperately wants to possess Lolita. This would be the end of the line for Humbert’s ruse, but Charlotte, in a mad flurry of preparation to get away from Humbert, dashes in front of a speeding vehicle as she is crossing the road to post letters that would have outed Humbert as a hebephiliac cretin. But Charlotte is not around to tell the story, and Humbert is handed the unopened letters (no one has any reason to think he’s anything but a loving and devoted husband, so good is his mask.)
At the time of Charlotte’s death, Lolita is away at camp. While Humbert’s obsession may have been news to Charlotte, it seemed the mother was always keen to keep her daughter at bay. In part the mother – daughter never got along, but, on some level, Charlotte seemed uncomfortable having Lolita around Humbert, whether Charlotte was just jealous of the girl’s youth or whether she had some inkling of what was really going on can’t be known. [We only have Humbert’s perspective, and he is an admittedly unreliable narrator – though he does offer his own speculations about other character’s mindset, and – as will be discussed – his unreliability is in specific domains. In some ways, he’s unexpectedly forthright.] At any rate, Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip, at first telling her only that her mother was not well, and not until an emotional outburst much later, letting the girl know her mother is dead. [Lolita seems to suspect that Humbert killed Charlotte, but seems unperturbed by it – perhaps because she never got along with her mother, or perhaps, because she’s a bit of a psychopath, herself.]
After some time on the road, a time during which Humbert both has his way with Lolita and discovers that she isn’t the innocent little girl he’d imagined, Humbert and Lolita settle into a town where Lolita can go to a girl’s school and where they aren’t known. This settling in creates a number of challenges for the possessive Humbert because he would ideally like Lolita to spend no time whatsoever with other males and as little time as possible with other females, or at least with females who might learn about their unusual living arrangement. For instance, Humbert has to be convinced to let Lolita participate in a school play via a meeting with faculty and administration from the school.
Intriguingly, shortly before the play is to take place, Lolita insists they take their show on the road again. [There are many points at which it seems Lolita is playing Humbert, but this is the most intense subversion of the power dynamic. Lolita makes clear that they are leaving, and they will be going where she wants. She has come to understand her leverage, and is willing to exploit it.]
In the second part of the novel, as they are traveling around, Humbert begins to notice that they are being followed. Humbert describes cars tailing them, and men running away or talking to Lolita while Humbert has stepped away from the girl. Of course, we know Humbert is unreliable, and even he is not sure how much he can trust some of these “sightings” as real, as opposed to being products of his imagination. As we are on the subject of Humbert’s unreliable narration, it’s worth discussing that the particular nature of Humbert’s unreliable narration is a central to our relationship to the Humbert character. One might expect an unreliable narrator to hide or rationalize bad behavior, but Humbert not only lets the reader in on his bad behavior but frequently lets us know that he knows what he’s doing is societally (and / or morally) unacceptable. Knowing that he’s behaving badly or irrationally, and still making said choices would seem like it should make Humbert more despicable, but that’s not necessarily the case, at least not fully. Because Humbert is forthright in some regard and because he is so articulate and sensible (if not rational,) one’s reaction to him becomes complicated. I should point out that Humbert does rationalize his behavior, but he does so in a specific way, by acting as though his relationship with Lolita is a loving and, at least somewhat, healthy one.
This distorted worldview can be seen in his perception of Clare Quilty, who – to the reader – is Humbert’s mirror image; but to Humbert, Quilty is a monster. On their second road trip, Lolita falls ill and Humbert must take her to the hospital. As he is taking care of business, an unknown individual takes possession of Lolita. Searching high and low, Humbert can’t discover who took her and where they’ve gone. Then one day, after years have passed, Humbert gets a letter from Dolly Schiller (the now married Delores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita) asking for money to get them through until her husband’s new job starts paying. Humbert goes to her, intent on killing the man who dragged her away from him, but – once there – he realizes that Dolly’s husband wasn’t involved in her disappearance. Humbert begs Dolly to come back to him, only to realize that he is to her as Charlotte had been to him, a relationship she put up with to get what she wanted (or, with youthfully naiveté, thought she wanted.) Humbert willingly gives Dolly some money and goes, but only after she tells him who actually absconded with her, i.e. Clare Quilty. The concluding sequence of the novel involves Humbert’s confrontation with Quilty — surreal and almost comic as it is.
This book is definitely worth reading. Nabokov uses language with masterful poeticism, and builds a fascinating character in Humbert. Reader’s who loved “Confederacy of Dunces” will recognize that one doesn’t have to like a lead character to find their life-story intensely readable. But, while everyone hates Ignatius Reilly, one’s feelings for Humbert may be more complicated. He’s both detestable and sympathetic at the same time. The version of the book that I read had a nice epilogue by Nabokov, himself. While I don’t always find such ancillary matter is useful in works of fiction, in this case I got a lot out of it because the book is quite nuanced. If nothing else, I learned that Nabokov reviled all the “symbolism” that critics liked to attribute to his works. I’d highly recommend this book. While it deals in challenging matter, Nabokov leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination, and so it’s not graphic or explicit as one might expect from a book that’s been so often banned. [Of course, being so banned was reason enough for me to read it.]
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