Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lolita (1955)

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is no doubt far more notorious than read, a book that it's dangerous to be seen with in public even today. It's understandable enough because the argument against it is so flatly dismissive and easy to make that it's hard to counter, particularly in this day and age: "I don't need to read anything about a pedophile to know it's a bunch of garbage," etc. And that argument comes from all corners, not just fundamentalists and other professional prudes. That's just a shame, of course, not least because the thing is done so well; it's humorous, light, deft, and clever as hell without ever pulling its punches about the events it describes. It is never close to salacious, describing instead grimly pathetic and desperate lives. It is most convincing in those moments when the tragedy of the girl—Dolores Haze, by name, and note even there how well Nabokov understands how hard she is to see, as are most children—is most plain to see, as when she realizes she is well and truly trapped at the side of this man, Humbert Humbert, sobbing at night in their motel beds after she thinks he has fallen asleep, or, later, when the direction of her life as an adult is revealed. That's when the profound grasp of the material that Nabokov has brought to this is most apparent. Yes, it's a story about rape and murder and abuse. It's also a story about America and hypocrisy and the good life—in its second half, it even turns into a genuine road story, Jack Kerouac's raw material given substance and urgency and meaning two years before Kerouac's novel was ever published. The main trick with this book, I think, is simply to sit down and read it. Forget the outrage and especially forget all the highfalutin literary gimcrackery that gets claimed for it and about it. There's plenty of time for that and plenty of critics to read if you're interested, because Nabokov is performing entire series of literary feats within these pages. But first read it. Because perhaps the most significant stunt Nabokov manages here is that he has made it so engaging, so perfectly and rapturously entertaining without ever skipping past any of the unpleasant implications inherent in the very nature of the story. It's really impressive.

In case it's not at the library.

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