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The Book Club

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

1. The general feel of reading. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” does contain certain elements or brief scenes of eroticism; however, to conveniently dismiss the novel as being generally “erotic” would be to overlook the complexity of the Humbert Humbert character. Though frivolous and unrestrained in his sharing of the brief sexual escapades and the numerous attempts to keep Dolores Haze – an especially precocious girl, or in Humbert’s words, a “nymphet” – the book evolves into a psychological analysis of Humbert’s characteristics, and even the reasons for his affection towards Haze. While there is no question that his desperate pleas of sympathy do little to obscure the horrors of his wrongdoings, the Lolita obsession consumes him and destroys both their lives. The flamboyant style – with unique linguistic patterns and entertaining puns and coinages –adopted by the narrator smoothly dampens the tensions within the otherwise tragic plot.

2. Importance of a good family upbringing. Humbert’s unusual paedophilia is the primary driver of the relationship that evolves between him and Dolores; still, it takes two hands to clap. Humbert’s evaluation of Charlotte may not be that accurate (largely based on looks, and her advances towards him), but the lack of motherly concern towards Dolores is evident and damaging. Although the mother and daughter were never on the best of terms – with the lack of meaningful communication or home-based education leading to Dolores’s wildness, laissez-faire attitudes and lack of discipline – the former at the very least stood as a physical protection against Humbert’s advances.

3. Opening lines of literary panache. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. 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 … You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns”.

4. Narrative perspective (I). It is also important to understand the significance of the narrative perspective; basically, the reader is experiencing Humbert’s life through his point-of-view, with the book labelled as a “confession” and a “memoir”. There is no question that Humbert (Nabokov’s storytelling) is a very skilled linguist (describing “Dolores Haze” – Lolita – as being dolorous and hazy), and attempts to persuasively convince the reader of the motivations and justifications behind his actions – such as the claim that it was Haze who had seduced him instead (the reader cannot completely dismiss this proposition as well, even though all our insights and judgements of Lolita are based upon Humbert’s words) – nonetheless, the nagging possibility emerges that Humbert could have been encouraged by love all along. This is evidenced when he is stricken by guilt when he hears the sounds of children playing, and realises that his affections hold firm even though pregnant Lolita is no longer a “nymphet”.

5. Narrative perspective (II). This feeling is especially poignant towards the end – when he acknowledges how he had ruined Haze’s childhood with his selfish adventures and psychological preoccupation – perhaps because he is nearing the end of his life and becomes more aware of the ramifications of his decisions and actions. Ultimately, it seems evident that the reader himself must be able to form judgements and interpretations independently – beyond the fluff and smokescreens masterfully painted by the European professor – and consider all possibilities of the scenarios presented.

6. John Ray, Jr.; the provision of a third-person’s perspective, and the additional value of the novel. “More important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac – these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. Lolita should make all of us – parents, social workers, educators – apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.

7. Elements of humour. Humour also plays a huge role in complementing the aforementioned; because in spite of Humbert’s sexual involvement and obsession with “nymphets” and Lolita in general, and his purported unreliability as a narrator (though mainly premised upon his interactions with Lolita and the corresponding personal defences), the narration allows space for the reader to laugh at the extent of how ridiculous or coincidental events can be. There is an assortment of events and person-based descriptions: the exaggerated physical undesirability of Charlotte Haze, her naivety and ignorance of Humbert’s distaste for her, the unpredictability of her death, Humbert’s continued fetishes, the yearlong North American tour, the exchanges (and sexual favours) between Humbert and Dolores, as well as the Beardsley School For Girls et cetera.

8. The role of Clare Quilty? The contrast between Humbert and Clare Quilty is a major instance of the employment of “doubles” in the novel; both men pursue their interests towards Dolores with almost the same intensity and enthusiasm, but the reader (at least me) is convinced that Humbert is the lesser of the two evils. It strong contrasts the possible genuine love that Humbert has always – probably subconsciously – possessed towards Dolores, and the utilitarian nature of Quilty’s motivations. Opponents will be quick to point out the obvious fact that Quilty never did actually exploit – physically or psychologically – Dolores. Also, Quilty does not really get the chance to defend or justify himself because he was not exactly sane, which also highlights the importance of speech and expression (emphasises Humbert’s complete dominance in narration).

9. Nabokov’s “nerves of the novel. “Mr. Taxovich, or that class list of Ramsdale School, or Charlotte saying ‘waterproof’, or Lolita in slow motion advancing toward Humbert’s gifts, or the pictures decorating the stylised garret of Gaston Godin, or the Kasbeam barber, or Lolita playing tennis, or the hospital at Elphinstone, or pale, pregnant, beloved irretrievable Dolly Schiller dying in Gray Star, or the tinkling sounds of the valley town coming up the mountain trail”.

10. “I realise very clearly that these and other scenes will be skimmed over or not noticed. It is interesting to note what an author believes to be particularly poignant within his own book, for it grants valuable insights into the approaches or writing methodologies adopted by him (therefore, making it worth flipping back to identify these scenes). The class list is allusion-laded, with references to different parts of the books (according to academics who have studied the names one-by-one), or to aspects of Nabokov’s life. “Waterproof”, initially enunciated by Charlotte, is interpreted as a reference to Quilty in the end (highlighting the importance of memory). The conversation Humbert had with his Kasbeam barber showed his inattentiveness towards people and things that were outside of the sphere that he and Dolores shared. All these little discoveries post-reading do make me cognisant of how carelessly I read sometimes, and hence serves as a timely reminder for better, closer reading (or rereading) in the future.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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