Saturday, March 4, 2017

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"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..."

I read Lolita for the first time in high school and now, after my current re-read, it seems to me that I had then read a completely different book. It should not be a surprise: there is no way that awkward teenager of 1960s and this cynical geezer of 2017 are the same person. While the teenager was fascinated with the taboo topic and oh-so-adult plot, the geezer could not care less about the taboos and the story but is awed by the magnificent prose. So these two different people agree that - for different reasons - this is indeed an extraordinary work, and its inclusion in various lists of best English-language novels and the most celebrated books in the history of literature is justified.

In his Lectures on Literature (according to Martin Amis' The War Against Cliché) Nabokov tries to teach people how to read, tries to make the readers "share not the emotions of the people in the book but the emotions of its author." In my own uneducated way I have been following this advice, caring less about what the authors are writing about and more about how they write. In simpler words, when reading a serious book I focus on the prose. And from the lush and lovely alliterations of the first paragraph to the ending invocation, Lolita is an amazing, jaw-dropping celebration of English language. One can find a dazzling language jewel on each of the three hundred or so pages and spend hours deciphering the elaborate structures of word plays, allusions and puns. I have been amazed by the unparalleled virtuosity of style, the constant changes in literary conventions and narrative structures and strategies.

This very dark comedy is a vicious satire on the American popular culture, the moronic world of commercials, the travel industry, road trip literature, etc. But then there is the ostensibly main topic of the novel that has offended and disgusted thousands and thousands of readers and I should at least mention the general subject of Humbert Humbert's (HH from now on) "pederosis." Yet unlike that teenager with whom I share the body, now I can only view the subject from the perspective of art, Nabokov's exquisite art of language. When reading I often make little notes to myself and when I read through the scene that happens on the candy-striped davenport, after HH catches the apple that Lo has been eating, I just sat there in amazement, and wrote in big letters on my note paper "I am stunned." Yes, some the most extraordinary pages of English prose I have read in my life.

A perfect novel then? Oh no, definitely not! The "afterword" entitled "On a Book Entitled Lolita", where the author seems to defend the novel, weakens the book's impact. As a work of art - great art! - the novel completely defends itself. Also, the author writes:
"Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss [...]"
Maybe I am obtuse but what then does Nabokov mean when he quotes "an old poet":
"The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty."
Of course, Nabokov is right when he says that literature is not in the business of conveying "morals", but then - as I see - he seems to flout his own rule.

I actively dislike the very short fragment that takes place in Beardsley School when HH notices "another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck," and the text suddenly escapes the world of metaphors where the rest of the novel safely resides and moves for a moment, along with Dolly's red-knuckled hand, to the physically literal sphere. The movie-style ending also seems incongruous with the rest of the novel: the film adaptations have cheapened the novel enough.

So while it feels unnatural to assign any rating lower than maximum to Lolita, my reverence is muted by reservations.

Four and a half stars.

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