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Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov, Craig Raine


This review contains SPOILERS, but if you've been living on this planet, you probably knew about them already...

Daddy, are we there yet? Are we there YET? Daddy, how much longer still? I want to go home!
Hush little one, now
Say your prayers
Don't forget my little nymph
To include everyone
I tuck you in
Warm within
Keep you free from sin
'Til the sandman he comes

Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight

Exit light
Enter night
Take my hand
We're off to never never-land

Something's wrong, shut the light
Heavy thoughts tonight
And they aren't of snow white
Dreams of war
Dreams of lies
Dreams of dragons fire
And of things that will bite, yeah

Sleep with one eye open
Grippin' your pillow tight

Exit light
Enter night
Take my hand
We're off to never never-land

Now I lay me down to sleep
Pray the lord my soul to keep
And if I die before I wake
Pray the lord my soul to take
Hush little baby don't say a word
And never mind that noise you heard
It's just the beast under your bed
In your closet in your head


Vladimir Nabokov slyly catches the reader in plenty of traps with his twisting perspectives in this wrenching tale of brokenness, passion, insanity, obsession, and, ... love?

A broken, sociopathic middle-aged man with strong pedophilic tendencies, plots, lies and connives his way into gaining control over a pubescent 12-year old orphan girl, and intimidates and bribes her into having daily sexual relations with him, until she manages to escape, and then...? Well, this is where the plot thickens, and where the novel's real punch lies.

The characterization, these shimmering, phantasmagorical mirages that are Humbert Humbert and Lolita, this is where Nabokov has exhibited pure genius. We initially see Lolita only through the eyes of Humbert, our typical unreliable narrator, so the reader has to constantly "read between the lines" to try and figure out what is really going on with the girl, and Nabokov does a beautiful job of creating a sympathetic portrait of the trajectory of a painfully tragic young life.

As for Humbert, from the outset one gets the impression that Nabokov is toying with the reader, when he introduces us to Humbert, creating the perfect unreliable narrator who even, right from the start, mentions that he has been institutionalized for bouts of insanity, also showing his sociopathic side by mentioning the games he likes to play with psychiatrists and therapists. He also makes no bones about the fact that he is a raging pedophile who can barely restrain his lust at the sight of 9-12 year old girls.

So, definitely not a sympathetic character. Plus there is ample reason to distrust him and to watch out carefully for inconsistencies in his version of events. Indeed, inconsistencies in what Humbert tells us, are rife.

Watch carefully what he tells us at the start of the novel, and see how what he says tends to be contradicted later on either by himself, or by what the other characters tell us.

Nabokov lays it on so thick, that Humbert, who finds 17 year olds abominably "aged", and who talks about a fourteen-year old as :" my aging mistress", appears almost like a caricature.

Humbert nurtures a fantasy that a large amount of pubescent and pre-pubescent girls are dangerous demonic little seductresses just ripe and waiting to be picked, whom he dubs "nymphets".

There is a lot not to like about this character for most of the novel: In the first sections of the narrative, one learns that he sees women (and actually all humans, for that matter) merely as vehicles to further his own pleasure, to be disposed of if they don't serve his personal interests in some way.

He is uncommonly uncharitable towards his first wife, as a start. He sees all little girls purely in terms of how sensually appealing and therefore potentially sexually satisfying they may be for him. He often fantasizes about visiting violence and even death upon those that get in the way of his needs. You think to yourself what a misogynistic, uncharitable, selfish, violent, conniving, sociopathic freak this narrator is. How much more hateful can a writer make a character?

Quite a bit more, it would appear, as one reads on. Humbert marries the hapless Charlotte, being in her thirties much too old for his tastes, for the sole and only reason to get to her "nymphet" daughter of twelve, and here enters an interesting ingredient of the novel, being Nabokov's use of irony.

Humbert plots to kill Charlotte to get her out of the way, at which point Nabokov's bits of ironic black humor in the form of fate's role, humorously referred to by Humbert as "McFate", comes to the fore.
It turns out that if Humbert had followed through with drowning his wife as planned, he would have been spotted by the local landscape painter, and therefore he was "saved by the bell" of his own inaction. Fate then "rewards" him when his wife, blinded by tears when she finds out about his secret passion for her daughter after reading his diary, runs in front of a car and is conveniently killed.

After spinning a web of lies and connivances, Humbert is now finally free to fetch his stepdaughter from summer camp in order to "enjoy" her.

He plans to feed her nightly doses of sleeping pills in order to rape her in her sleep, but once again Mc Fate intervenes, and after finding that the sleeping pills don't work, Humbert is delighted when Lolita willingly submits to him. ..or did she? Throughout the novel, Nabokov spins a shimmery web of illusion. How much of what Humbert says is true? After all, we already know that he is a lying, conniving sociopath, right?

Mc Fate keeps intervening in interesting ways, but fate is not the only source of irony in the novel. Another source of irony, for instance, is the way that Humbert views himself.

One of the tongue-in-cheek aspects of Humbert's character is his narcissism. Right from the start, Humbert keeps referring to his own "good looks" but Nabokov cleverly makes the reader aware that he is actually a huge, thick-fingered, hairy dark beetlebrowed creature resembling an ape.

He also constantly speaks of his: "polite European way" while we realize that he is actually just a dork.

When Lolita, who had apparently already lost her virginity to some young boy before Humbert has intercourse with her the first time, says, later on, that Humbert had raped her on that first day, is she merely being playful, or is this a clue towards what had really happened? Why does Lolita have to be bribed into every caress, bullied into every act of intercourse-- into "doing her duty" as Humbert sees it, just as if she were his little medieval wife and owed him a wifely duty. (A 'right' which he claims very often, to the poor girl's chagrin.) Why, if she was really happy to go along with things, does Humbert have to keep threatening her, why does he refer to her as his captive?

Through his genius, Nabokov does not immediately reveal these clues, he sows increasing seeds of doubt throughout the text as one progresses with the plot.

Only in increments, does one see the damage that is being done to Lolita.
The first thing one realizes, is that Humbert is robbing her of a sizable portion of her education, as he keeps her out of school for at least a year on road trips designed to camouflage the fact that what he was actually after, was to have sexual relations with the girl as much as was practically possible.

As their life together progresses, Nabokov shows how she is being deprived of the normal social development so crucial to humans in this early phase of life, as Lolita starves for young company, and eventually for *any* company outside that of Humbert's oppressive presence.

Toward the end, Humbert relents regarding his descriptions of Lolita as an evil seductress when he admits that Lolita is actually a "conservative" person, deeply damaged by the incestuous nature of their relationship. (While she was under his control, Lolita was coerced to act as if the couple is father and daughter, creating a psychologically incestuous situation, which must have added to her confusion and increased the sense of helplessness at being left a sudden orphan.)
Who could Lolita have gone to, where to for help? Humbert kept pressing on her the idea that if she were to "tell" she would lose her freedom and end up in the equivalent of a prison for children.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote:

"My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way."

Well, let's just say that if Nabokov's Russian prose is even more idiomatically apt, readable, and beautiful than his "second-rate" English prose is, then I oh so wish I was fluent in Russian so that I could read him in Russian! I would subtract half a star for all the French inserted into the text, though, which is fine, since I gave the novel six stars to start with.

Something else I would subtract half a star for, is the rather undisciplined way in which paragraphs of woolly rambling which does not further the plot (or really anything else) were not excised.

Beautiful, riveting prose aside, the real genius of this novel becomes apparent towards the end. Plotwise, I had expected different things to happen. For instance, possible outcomes which did not materialize, I had expected Lolita to become pregnant with Humbert and become a tragic child-mother. Another possibility I might have expected, would be Humbert having shot Lolita in revenge after she ran away.

There are many possible ways in which this novel could have ended. The most unexpected thing that happens, though, is the character growth/character revelation one experiences both regarding Humbert and Lolita. For the first 80% of the novel, I never, ever, in a month of Sundays, could have imagined that I could feel the slightest twinge of sympathy for such a selfish, deluded, depraved monster such as Humbert.

...and yet, as we start to see him suffer, really suffer, faint twinges start to ripple under the surface.

For the first 80% of the novel, I fully believed, as did Humbert himself, that he was simply a sex-crazed fiend, completely incapable of anything even closely resembling love or empathy. After all, for all of his self-professed tenderness, he knew full well that he was keeping Lolita a prisoner against her will; knew that he was making her miserable, knew that what he was doing, was not only against the law but was morally wrong as well, inasfar as human judgement of affairs go, and never gave a thought to her well-being beyond her role as a vehicle of his pleasure.

For most of the novel, Humbert merely uses adult women as a front while he was indulging in his voyeuristic fantasies with multiple schoolgirls. Humbert maneuvering himself into a position where he could ogle prepubescent girls at play whilst masturbating in some way, through frottage or whatever means, becomes a familiar theme, not least sickening of where he makes Lolita stimulate him genitally whilst he is ogling "other nymphettes". (One can only conjecture how this must have made her feel). ..and Humbert makes it very clear that his attraction towards Lolita is simply as one girl-child amongst many, he is constantly sizing up the charms of other girls, even with Lolita at his full sexual disposal.

In one of the most offensive phrases to be found in the world of fiction, Humbert says:

" I now think it was a great mistake ... (not to) marry my little Creole; for I must confess that I could switch in the course of the same day from one pole of insanity to the other — from the thought that around 1950 I would have to get rid somehow of a difficult adolescent whose magic nymphage had evaporated — to the thought that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960; indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time — bizarre, tender, salivating Dr.Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.

This passage reminded me of the Fritzl case , which took place after Lolita was written, so, truth may still be stranger than fiction.

Another thing which made me really hate Humbert, was where Lolita becomes ill with bronchitis and is consumed with fever, and he nevertheless does not desist from having sexual intercourse with her.

A passage that I found exceedingly creepy reads as follows:

" How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty. And I was such a thoughtful friend, such a passionate father, such a good pediatrician, attending to all the wants of my little auburn brunette's body! My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys. " .

Beside the exceeding creepiness of the vivisection image, note the dark sarcastic irony of the second sentence. Not to mention, in the first sentence, the irony about servicing Humbert being Lolita's "duty"!

Yet another thing that struck me, was how Humbert never seemed to give a thought about how much Lolita's mother's death must surely have traumatized her, though he certainly cashed in on her helpless status as an orphan.

So, despite one knowing that Humbert was intentionally painted as a caricature of a heartless, selfish, callous, duplicitous sociopathic monster, (Humbert even makes it clear from the start of the novel, that he is a murderer - one only learns the identity of the victim at the end) it speaks of Nabakov's genius that, as things start to fall apart for Humbert, one actually feels the twinges of a softening in one's attitude towards him.

And then comes the twist in the final scene between Lolita and Humbert. All along, I had been primed by Nabokov's clues to believe that Lolita, although a brash, impudent youngster, had been innocent of many of the things Humbert had suspected her of - since he himself questions his own sanity and writes off a lot of his suspicions to paranoia.

The first clue that Humbert really has no clue about his own psyche or reality out there, is when Lolita indeed does escape with the help of an outsider. But then, in that final confrontation, the famous phrases as uttered by Humbert:

"...and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.

She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past; an echo on the brink of a russet ravine, with a far wood under a white sky, and brown leaves choking the brook, and one last cricket in the crisp weeds... but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshipped.

What I used to pamper among the tangled vines of my heart had dwindled to its essence: sterile and selfish vice, all that I canceled and cursed.
I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another's child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine;[...]

No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn — even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita.

At last we see some humanity in this ghastly caricature of a character, and it is a humanity that tears at your soul, when you realize along with the character himself, that he has finally transcended the narrow confines of his selfish myopic obsession with youth and young girls, when he declares that, even heavily pregnant, even as an adult, even when stripped of her youth, he loves Lolita, and will continue to love her and wants to spend his life with her, even when she has lost all vestiges of that youth that he had worshiped so.

It is almost with shock that ones realizes how much the narrator's viewpoint has matured at last towards recognition of his culpability, towards responsibility for his crimes, when he intuits Lolita's thoughts:

"She groped for words. I supplied them mentally (" He (Clare) broke my heart. You (Humbert) merely broke my life")."

..and now, seeing her trauma and brokenness before him, it finally presses on Humbert's mind how helpless Lolita must have been feeling all along, and how hopeless her situation:

"I happened to glimpse from the bathroom, through a chance combination of mirror aslant and door ajar, a look on her face... that look I cannot exactly describe... an expression of helplessness so perfect that it seemed to grade into one of rather comfortable inanity just because this was the very limit of injustice and frustration..."

...and, after we had watched with horror the final dissolution of his character in the tragicomic events at the end of the novel, in which he can be seen as symbolically killing the bestial aspect of lust in a supreme act of violence, his final parting words mitigates the monster:

" Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges.

I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive.

...one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.

And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

In Lolita, Nabokov takes an extremely uncomfortable subject by the scruff of the neck, and turns it into a tour de force of modern literature.


ADDENDUM: ..but how do we know that what Humbert says at the end, is really genuine?

Throughout the novel, it is less helpful to listen to what Humbert says, than to look at what he does. Previously, he had acted in immeasurably selfish ways, right up to the point where he set out to take revenge with a gun in his pocket. Yet why would he need to take so much money with him? He knew that Lolita was older now, not a 'nymphet' anymore, so, if his motive was pure selfish revenge, why the money?

One has to carefully consider the evidence placed before you, and then you will see that the final actions HH took before he was taken into custody, point towards a huge shift in his attitude from being focused inward on himself, toward finally truly caring for the one he had falsely claimed to love so often before.