Monday, February 8, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 9: Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

This is me officially starting to get lazy.  I've found in CBR that it usually isn't the reading that holds me up so much as the sweating over how I'm going to approach my review.  Add to that me being burnt out from work and a slew of unfortunate luck, plus needing to memorize 14 lines of iambic pentameter for this weekend, plus having a headache the size of Cleveland from yesterday's Super Bowl related festivities.  And I really, really, want to start on my new book, but don't feel comfortable doing that until the review for the previous book is done and over with.

I also gave up sweating over this one because it is notoriously challenging and often misinterpreted.  In fact, my copy includes an essay by Nabakov pretty much slamming everyone who's ever offered an opinion or interpretation of this book.  Which made me think, "Hell.  No matter what I write about this book, I'm bound to piss someone off."  At which point I promptly stopped worrying.

The first time I heard about this book, a schoolmate in a local coffee house (ain't that always the way?) raved about it as her favorite book of all time.  Her interpretation was, "This man falls in love with a little girl, but he's not the bad guy!  The little girl totally manipulates him, and society punishes him wrongly!  It's like, all about how unfair society is!!!"

Now that I've read the book myself, I'm pretty certain she was dead wrong.  Of course when we read this, we get the sense that he's the victim, that he's treated unfairly, etc.  But that's because the book is told solely from his point of view.  Throughout the book, he wrestles with feelings of guilt, but he almost always manages to assuage them by rationalization or laying the blame elsewhere or playing the victim.  In that sense, Nabakov pulls off an effective satire or parody (head hurts too much to decide which) of your prototypical despicable human being.  Or, putting it this way, throughout the book a thought kept popping into my head: Whether he likes it or not, we have Nabakov to thank for the Colbert Report.

There are of course loads and loads of literary devices he employs throughout the book to fill out the character.  Repeated refrains, running gags, invented words, personality ticks (Turns out Palahniuk owes Nabakov a debt of gratitude as well) so meticulously used that they come to communicate volumes with each turn of phrase.  In many ways, it was as if e.e. cummings had written narrative prose.

There are two passages near the end I found particularly moving.  Where the satiric veneer was rubbed away to reveal a raw, sensitive, tender matter beneath, and they broke my heart.   But since this is also a Pajiba book club selection, I don't want to go spoiling the ending.  Sure, its a classic, and its been around for decades, but I was still pretty peeved when the introduction in my copy gave away pretty much every major plotpoint.  I don't want to be responsible for that happening to anyone else. 

With all of it's richness, and all the possibilities for interpretation, I do think this makes an excellent choice for a book club read.  I was dreading writing a review for it, but I'm actually really looking forward to discussing it with several other people and comparing notes, ideas, favorite passages, etc.  All in all, I'll admit the read was a challenge, but a highly enjoyable one that surprised me in many ways.


  1. I've read it before, and I'm currently a little over halfway through my second time reading it for the book club. I think I'm enjoying it more this time around, if enjoy is that right word for this novel but I think I'm going to get fed up with the road trip here rather soon.

    One thing that irritates me about my copy is that the back has a quote from Vanity Fair calling it "the only convincing love story of our century." Seriously? She's 12, he's almost 40. She may have had a crush on him at one point (I thought Mel Gibson was attractive when I was that age - what the hell happened there?) but that doesn't justify his actions. Okay, I should probably save the rage for my review.

  2. Gah! Really??? What the crappity fuck is wrong with Vanity Fair staffers? Wow, way to miss the point (the only really obvious one, too), Mr./Ms. Book Critic.

    And I'm with you, Jen. It's intriguing and has its share of black, subtle humor, but I wouldn't call it something I enjoyed. Respect and appreciate? Sure! Enjoyed on an emotional level? Notsomuch. I had very little fun living in Humbert's head. But maybe that's just me not leaving enough of my own horrible-people-related baggage at the door.