Lolita, troche by Vladimir Nabokov, pilule in my opinion, buy cialis is the most masterfully written English language novel I have read. What can I say about its prose? Jaw-dropping. Breathtaking.
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The control. The vocabulary. The pacing. The sharp sharp humor. And all from a non-native English speaking author. There's really little here that I can say that hasn't already been said before, so I won't. Except that Lolita is a wonderful novel, and you do yourself a disservice in not reading it.
That said, I believe that Lolita, considered by New York Times as the 4th best novel of all time, has a fatal flaw. Two of 'em, actually. These flaws in my opinion will keep it from the Pantheon of Great Books when we're all done and all is over with. These flaws? Well, what is Lolita about, anyway? I mean, what is its heart and soul? Where can it bring us where we haven't been before? What does it offer us?
In 25 words or less: a pedophile thinks with poignant clarity and learns how to love too late.
Okay, so letâ€™s parse this: The first part is “a pedophile thinks”. Yes, that does sum up Humbert Humbert, doesn't it? The man is, in many ways, the crowning achievement of Western civilization. Brilliant, sophisticated, urbane, multilingual, and broadly educated from the classical to the psychological to the philosophical. Dropping keenly observant erudite references in a way a bodybuilder flexes muscles, he must have an IQ off the charts. And yet, wellâ€¦he's obsessively addicted to sex, especially with preciously young girls. He has a demented single-mindedness about it, too. It's really too bad, if you think about it.
Okay, so here's the first flaw: what can a protagonist like this offer anybody? Anybody who isn't a pedophile, that is? Humbert knows he's a criminal. He knows what he is doing is grotesque. He has no desire (at least by the time the story starts) to contribute to society. He is willing to live the vagabond life in automobiles and hotels just to feed his perverse obsession. This is a man who marries a woman just so he can get closer to her nymphet daughter, and then drugs her into a near coma at night just so he can get even closer to her nymphet daughter. Nice. Does he feel any remorse as he does this? Not really.
And when Lolita finally escapes his clutches, what does he do? Well, he drops everything and goes after her with murder in his heart, of course. Of course, he does this! Wouldnâ€™t you? Wouldn't anyone? Because underground criminal hedonistic lifestyles must be maintained at all costs, even if it means living a cheap, cramped life incognito. Even if it means risking jail time. I mean, everyone knows that. Right? Right?
At this point in the narrative, that is, when old Hum is tracking down his lost Lola with a heavy heart and a loaded semi-automatic handgun, we are 245 pages into a 281 page novel (at least according to my 1983 Berkeley Books paperback). Clearly, our man has not undergone any great Raskolnikovian transformation. There's no redemption he's on his way to earning, no heroic sacrifice for the greater good, no deep-seated childhood demon he must face, no great moral battle he must win. Naah. It's just the same old humdrum Humbert trying to get his funky groove back, by the barrel of a gun if need be.
So I ask again. What in the world can a repulsive protagonist like this offer us? What can we learn from him? How could our minds thrive by contemplating a world in which a lunatic like this runs loose? Unless you are a pedophile looking for a role model, I cannot think of any satisfactory answers to these questions.
One litmus test I use for serious literature is imagining how I would feel if I ever met the characters I read about. I think about this constantly, especially when stimulated by great literature. Thomas Buddenbrooks, Huck Finn, Ignatious Reilly, Jay Gatsby, Nikolai Stavrogin, yeah we've had some great conversations. But a craven pervert like Humbert Humbert? I'd be sorely tempted to punch him in the face if I ever met him, knowing what I know about him. And if it were my 12 year-old daughter he were repeatedly raping, I would do a lot more than throw punches, that's for sure.
Emotions aside, I think I am standing on pretty good ground here when I say that upon meeting Humbert Humbert and knowing what we know about him, the moral thing to do would be to call the cops so they can separate this child predator from society forever.
So this is flaw number one: By placing the novel in the perspective of Humbert Humbert, it sacrifices the story's soul. The story is about the crimes and agonies of a man so far removed from the mainstream of modern civilization as to lack relevance to those of us not inclined to deflower prepubescent girls.
Flaw number two goes back to the second part of the logline, the “poignant clarity” business. Put simply, the book is too well written. Let me re-phrase that. The language of Lolita is far and away too magnificent to realistically pass for a first-person narrative. Who else can write so well in English other than William Shakespeare and a few dozen other guys throughout history? Are we to believe such beautiful prose can burst forth fully formed from Humbert Humbert's sex-addled mind? And if so, the thoughtful reader will be forced to ask why our droll libertine isn't a professional writer instead of some obscure literature scholar? He clearly has a genius with words and ideas. He clearly has a mastery of a whole menagerie of erudite topics. So why doesn't he write great novels or plays or something so he can move to a part of the world where abusing twelve year-old girls is less frowned upon and collect royalties at the same time? Doing such a thing requires rare talent, it is true. However, the talent and brilliance that composes the language of Lolita is rarer still. It's not like he lacks the money to support such endeavors. Further, Humbert Humbert is not faking it. He really does love literature, history, philosophy, and other highbrow topics. Wasn't one of his reasons for hating Clare Quilty was that Quilty wrote bad plays? Humbert Humbert has no reason not to become a great writerâ€¦except that author Vladimir Nabokov didn't want him to for whatever reason. And that's never a good reason.
There are two counter-argument to this objection that I can think of:
1) Humbert Humbert is insane and therefore cannot be expected to lead a truly productive life. I don't buy this. Old Hum is crazy for nymphets and nymphets only. Other than that, he is quite sane and capable. See his trip to the Arctic in Chapter 9 of Part 1 to see what he can accomplish when there aren't any nymphets around.
2) Within the idiom of the first person narrative, it can be argued that what you see on the page is the protagonist's pure perspective, not necessarily what he is capable of actually writing or saying. In other words, a first person narrative does not have to be a diary, it can be literature of the mind and we can accept it as such. The language of Lolita can be Humbert's ideas and recollections crystallized in art before his waking mind and limited talents can make a botch of them. Thus we see Humbert Humbert as God sees him, as the flawed, tragic, beautiful creature he 'really' is, rather than the shabby wretch he comes across as to his fellow man.
Imagine encountering someone who speaks your language, but with an exotic accent. Then later you try to recreate that accent to someone else. In your mind, the accent is perfect, just like you remembered it. But your recreation of that accent? Somewhat less than perfect, isn't it? What you get with a first person-narrative is that perfect version of the accent, not what actually spills from the protagonist's mouth or pen.
Okay, fine. I accept that if you view Lolita from this perspective then the second flaw I point out carries less weight. But I choose not to. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because we're proposing that Humbert Humbert is the omniscient third person narrator of his first person mind. And that, to me, seems to resist the very point of a first person narrative. A first person narration is supposed to be flawed and limited. I have always believed that a first person narrator tells two stories: the story he is aware of telling and the story he is unaware of telling. But with Lolita, you get one story, the story Humbert Humbert tells from on high. There can be no interpretation of what goes on because there is no second story here. Within the expanse between thought and expression, Humbert Humbert knows it all, and that's that.
I can respect it if that's your cup of tea. But it isn't mine.
One aspect of Lolita that I cannot let go in any discussion of its merits is how wonderful this novel is, despite its flaws. Yes, there is the language and the sheer vision behind it. Buy the book and experience this singular prose for yourself. But there is something else.
Part three of my little logline describes a man who learns how to love too late. That to me is what would be the heart and soul of Lolita if indeed it had a heart and soul. There is one passage in the novel, without which, in my opinion, the novel would be half as good despite its brilliance. Part 2, Chapter 29. Humbert tracks down his beloved nymphet after a two-year search. He meets Lolita face to face outside her ramshackle home with her yeoman husband. She's a grown woman now, no longer a nymphet, and very pregnant. Andâ€¦what? He still loves her. He realizes he still loves her. His love for her goes beyond mere sex and his perverse obsessions. And he didn't realize it until that very moment.
If you are going to find a truly human moment for Humbert Humbert, this would be it. Here is where you will find pathos for the man. This truly is a tragic moment. A man engulfed by the prodigious sins of his past realizing too late that he was made of better stuff all along.
This is sad, but even here Nabokov gets it wrong. It happens too late, and Humbert Humbert never acts on this realization. So as a plot point it's worthless. Humbert Humbert had set out to murder Lolita's abductor, and by golly, that's what he does. The fact that he is now filled with contemplative remorse matters little in my mind. The only thing this newly discovered love does is grant him a sense of superiority over Clare Quilty. Pedophiles both, but Hum truly loved Lolita, unlike Quilty. So he is not as bad as that. Or so he says.
Remember the talk show host Morton Downey, Jr? The chain-smoking “loudmouth” who'd sometimes blow smoke in his guest's faces? Once a member of the National Smokers Alliance, he waited until he himself was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996 (when he was 64) before speaking out against smoking. And while this is a nice gesture, it came a little late in the game to be taken very seriously.
This is exactly how I feel about Humbert Humbert. His reunion with Lolita is such a poignant scene it should have led him to change himself or make an effort to right his wrongs orâ€¦something. Something other than a few chapters of elegant remorse followed by a murder and more elegant remorse.
Of course, elegant remorse couldn't save the life he ruined. The poor girl he began to love when it mattered least. More importantly, however, it couldn't save a novel burdened by its own brilliance, desperately searching for its soul.
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