My favourite characters have always been hedonists.
Dorian Gray. Claudine. Robert Forbisher. Blair and Serena (book versions). Holly Golightly. The narrator of Invisible Monsters.
They may not have been the nicest of people, but compared to the staunchly miserable Jane Eyre and the dime-a-dozen noble gentlemen featured in Dracula, they were alive.
It doesn’t matter whether it is for learning, or entertainment, or both, we read because we are none other than voyeurs, living vicariously through the characters on our pages. So I find it far more engrossing spending time in the head of a person who isn’t constrained by the same rules I am.
We all know who she is. She began life sucking popsicles – amongst other things – in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, but she also strode confidently into popular culture, and resided there ever since as that sexually precocious girl. Which is probably why, since 1955, no unfortunate babies had been named Lolita. Because that would be awkward.
The novel’s (anti?) hero is Humbert, an erudite European living in America, who is sexually attracted to nymphets. Nymphets, as defined by our charmingly disdainful Humbert, are girls aged between nine and fourteen, who are, at least partly, aware of their burgeoning sexuality (and how to use it). These creatures also share similar physical characteristics; Humbert likens Lolita to Botticelli’s Venus. It makes sense, then, that dear old Humbert, a man in his forties, falls in love with twelve-year-old Lolita and farcically kidnaps her for an impromptu road trip over America. Yes, they have sex. No, he wasn’t her first.
Throughout my reading of Lolita, I noticed that friends seemed fond of giving me sympathetic looks: “Oh poor you, having to get through such a disgusting book.” Look, I’m not exactly into macking on pubescent girls or anything, but the book? Was good.
If you are looking for porn, sorry. There were very few sex scenes, and zero four-letter words; Lolita, both the book and its namesake, wasn’t obscene.
Vladmir Nabokov was the son of a prominent politician in Russia, and grew up in a tri-lingual household. French. English. Russian. A bit off-topic, but you’ll see where I am going with this. His family fled Russia after the Bolsheviks rocked up and seized power (fun fact: I, too, was born in Russia), and he lived in many countries since then, one of which was America. His inspiration for the setting of Lolita was tangible in all its tacky, suburban glory, complete with plastic flamingos in the front yard, and an obsession with sodas. He wrote Lolita in English, not his native Russian.
It is one of, if not the, best-written books I’ve ever read. The wordplay was titillating, the metaphors were rampant, the euphemisms were gratifyingly unique, the characters were delightfully believable, and the entire novel accomplished a successful tiptoe between comedy and tragedy.
The biggest testament to Vladimir’s skill I can give you is this: not once, in the 300 or so pages, until, perhaps, the very end, was I outraged or repulsed. It was only after I had finished, and dragged my eyes away from Humbert’s eloquent gaze did I realise that I had just read a book where a child was abused. And enjoyed it.
The character Lolita reminds me a less refined version of Colette’s Claudine (my review here), who, of course, would be one of Humbert’s nymphets. Humbert, on the other hand, is a slightly more eerie, but no less humorous, Robert Forbisher from Cloud Atlas. Needless to say, both Lolita and Humbert have joined the much exalted ranks of yours truly’s favourite characters.
If you read the book (and you’d better or I will hunt you down and force you to purchase kitschy garden ornaments) keep your eye out for The Funniest Death Scene Ever; Lolita’s report card, which focused less on her knowledge of Shakespeare, and more on rating her attractiveness to possible husbands; and a detailed diagram – complete with trajectory lines – drawn by the man who ran over Lolita’s mother, who created it to prove without a doubt that the entire accident was the woman’s fault. Laugh out louds, guaranteed.
P.S. I plugged a few of my stories into http://iwl.me. Evidently, statistical analysis of my word choice and style means I write like none other than Vladimir Nabokov. Or, at least, a poor man’s version; I imagine Vladimir as a benevolent god, peering down from the clouds, and fondly, if not condescendingly, patting his disciples on their heads – “Sure, little ducklings, you can write just like me,” he says, “but only if you eat all your vegetables.”
P.P.S My blog posts are, apparently, in the style of H.P. Lovecraft? I’ve never read anything by the man, can anyone attest to this?