62. An ode to Lolita, the fire of my loins.

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.

Enter Lolita.

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.

Lee's infamous Lolita-themed ad campaign shot by Terry Richardson

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.

Vladimir Nabokov

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.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaption of Lolita

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?

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26 responses to “62. An ode to Lolita, the fire of my loins.

  1. Pingback: 100 Books To Read … Or die trying | The Friande

  2. You’re definitely not alone in your love for Lolita. Many other blogs have very positive reviews also. I can’t wait til I get to this one…which sounds weird to say.

    • That’s good. Honestly, I was a little worried I’d get creepy people telling ME that I was a creep for liking this book. I think you’ll definitely like Lolita, just a feeling haha.

  3. Lo Lee Ta, the tip of my tongue takes a step. love this book although you can be struck down by the moral brigade if you say it too loud, but the reality is that the majority of said brigade, have never actually read it. Based on the characters you like, you may like Bunny Monro (The death of Bunny Monro – Nick Cave) to say he’s a bad boy, is a bit like saying Adolf Hitler wasn’t very neighbourly.

    • I’ll have to check it out, thanks for the heads up. Actually, the name Bunny reminds me of that character in The Secret History. I should have added him and the other characters to this post as my favourites, but oh well. I read that when Lolita was originally published in Paris, the UK warned customs officials to ensure no copies got into the country. I’m glad all the furore has calmed down a bit, and we can just appreciate amazing writing when we have it.

  4. Ps. my writing style is James Joyce & Cory Doctorow

  5. Lolita is one of my favorite books ever. I absolutely loved your review. And hey, The Blue Bookcase would LOVE to feature a guest review of yours if you are so inclined. Our email is thebluebookcase@gmail.com. I’m actually not the one that replies to emails, Connie is the one that takes care of that, but if you do shoot an email that way let her know that Ingrid recommended that you write a guest post. She will give you more details.
    Seriously, you have a great writing voice and intelligent things to say beyond “beautifully written, compelling story.” You would be a great asset to our blog.

    Thanks again for being awesome! I added you to my google reader.

    • Lolita is now one of my favourite books ever, too. As soon as I find that exact same cover my library had, I shall buy it. Mmhm.
      As for a guest review – that sounds fantastic, and I’m really honoured that you offered me the chance. I’ll be sure to shoot Connie an email. Thanks heaps for the nice words!

  6. I remember reading the first line of Lolita and feeling terribly sad and excited…sad because I realized there was a whole other level of craft I wasn’t aware of and excited because I had found it and could now enjoy and attempt to learn it.

    Great review.

    • The first line was brilliant wasn’t it? It’s also sad in another way, because this book is widely acknowledged as one of the best written books of the 20th century, and I’m worried I won’t find anything quite as good ever again. Not even by Vladimir. But it’s ok, since now I get to re-read Lolita at my leisure.

  7. Okay, I thought I read somewhere that you’d just graduated. I thought it was from high school, but I taught high school and never had a student who was capable of writing such a wonderfully engaging and inspiring book review. Maybe you’ve recently finished university or grad school, and I’m just confused. I read Lolita many years ago, when I was an undergraduate. It’s on my short list of books to reread.

  8. Now at first, I was thinking, oh my goodness, Ilona is writing a review about a pornographic novel. Of course, I did not read the entire title of my email alert, I seen the name “Lolita” and I was like ‘what is Ilona up to?’ Spicy review, I must say and I must read this book now, not because you insist, well okay, maybe it is because you insist…but this title is rather curious.

    Rather curious.

    • The first line of the novel has ‘Lolita’, ‘fire’ and ‘loins’ in it, so I decided to use that as my title. A bit tongue-in-cheek, since no loins were fired up in the reading of it, and the book was controversial due to its subject matter.

      Definitely read it. Lolita is so much more than a few sex scenes, it’s funny, subversive and amazingly written. Or there will be kitschy plastic flamingos on your trail :)

  9. You’re not alone in your admiration for ‘Lolita’. Nabokov is an incredible writer; like you I also found that his way with words kept me away from the thought that this was a novel of child abuse. I attribute it to the fact that he didn’t paint Lolita as a girl who was fraid of what was happening to her. Of course, it is from Humbert’s perspective (who only sees what he WANTS to see), but that’s not the point.

    That first line is legendary. After I read ‘Lolita’ I went and got some CD’s of Nabokov. To hear him talk is to hear Humbert Humbert all over again. Absolutely hilarious.

    • What I like about Lolita was that she made the best she could have of a bad situation, especially as she wasn’t a wilting flower that needed to be “rescued” by a big, strong man. But like you said – we can’t trust Humbert’s perspective. I miss Humbert’s way of speaking, so getting some CDs sounds like a wonderful idea. But, er, what are the CDs about?

  10. They were actually a collection of audio recordings of authors talking about their craft. I forgot what they were called, but it was a 2 disc set and it was fascinating learning about the art of writing FROM the best authors the world has ever known. My favourite was Nabokov (cause he talks funny) and Steinbeck (so lucid, he made a lot of sense).

  11. I am SOOOOO glad that you loved this book. It is one of my all-time favourites but it has such an undeserved stigma attached to it that if you tell people you like it and they haven’t read it, they simply cannot understand how you could. Did you read the annotated version? I did and I think it made the experience even the richer for it. And I completely agree with your opening statement that it is the unusual, strange, complex and quite frankly interesting characters that keep me riveted to a book hence why I love Jay Gatsby – so completely flawed yet also so fascinating! Can’t wait to see what you will read next!

    • No! I didn’t read the annotated version, I wish I had :( But then I think it would have distracted me from the beauty of Nabokov’s prose. When I re-read it, and I definitely will soon, I’ll seek out the annotate version.
      I’ve been trying to get The Great Gatsby for ages from my library, so I’m glad you gave me the heads up about Jay Gatsby. I’m going to try harder now.

  12. Pingback: The, incredibly literate and rather fabulous, Picture of Dorian Gray | The Friande

  13. I found a copy of Lolita in Canterbury Tales Bookshop in Pattaya Thailand, it turned out the book came from a collection bought at Auction and is signed by Nabokov the Author, a nice find.
    The previous owner was a German guy who had passed away and all his stuff including books were in the Auction, also a copy in mint condition A Woman of Bangkok by Jack Reynolds a 1956 first published version.
    The bookshop owner an English guy told me he had found a few real gems in the lot.

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