Friday, April 15, 2011

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita

The novel "Lolita" is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest works of fiction from our past century.  It is on Time's list of the 100 best English-language novels and #4 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century. It is characterized by masterful prose, descriptive detail and unique word play, as well as its controversial subject, the seduction of a 12-year old girl by an older man.  The success of this novel has entered our common vocabulary; the noun "Lolita" is used for any young vixen who could captivate and allure an older man.  

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia where he learned to speak fluent Russian, English and French and later wrote novels in all these languages.  Following the Russian Revolution his family fled to the West and Nabokov eventually settled in the United States where he became a citizen in 1945.  He was a man of diverse interests, at one time teaching tennis, boxing and comparative literature, composing chess problems, and as a research fellow at Harvard University he was responsible for organizing the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The finacial success of Lolita, published in 1958 in the US, gave Nabokov the ability to concentrate full-time on his writing.

I doubt there is much I can contribute to the discussion on Lolita that has not already been said.  The main character, Humbert Humbert, fantasizes about young women whom he calls nyphettes. Eventually he seduces 12-year old Lolita and, after her mother dies, travels with Lolita across the US staying in motels and visiting tourist attractions. Lolita seems more or less happy with the arrangement until the end, but Humbert is clearly paranoid about being caught. After about two years Lolita runs away, marries and starts a family.  Humbert is devastated, even though Lolita was growing out of her "nyphette" stage anyway.  Humbert exhibits a great amount of self-delusion as he tries to justify his love for nyphettes and he claims, in fact, that Lolita seduced him. 

Publishing a novel with this subject matter today would be quite controversial, so it is almost unfathomable to me that it was printed in 1958 during the conservative Eisenhower era.  What I found most attractive about this novel was the rich, creative writing style of Nabokov.  Sometimes I felt like I was reading music and the words were flowing off the pages.  I was also impressed at how he used adjectives and nouns in contexts I would have never have thought possible.  It was almost lyrical.  His synthesis of imagination and linguistic skill results in a really unique writing style and I found myself reading the same passages several times.

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