"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Middle-Aged Lolita

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, published in America 50 years ago, has engendered the most embarrassed, looking-sideways-for-the-exit, highfalutin, and obscurantist talk of any book ever written — any. Only a handful of critics have been forthright, most famously, Lionel Trilling: "Lolita is about love. Perhaps I shall be better understood if I put the statement in this form: Lolita is not about sex, but about love."
Somehow, not all commentators and readers have lined up behind Trilling on this point, many finding themselves agreeing ...that the novel is clearly about pedophilia, rape, and the destruction of innocence by a vile, if fancy-talking, Humbert of a monster. The most prominent recent example is Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: "Ironically, [Humbert's] ability as a poet, his own fancy prose style, exposes him for what he is." And what he is is not a device or a literary character but a real and true criminal: "What bothers us most, of course, ... is not just the utter helplessness of Lolita but the fact that Humbert robs her of her childhood."
Even Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem for his trial, returned Lolita to a guard who had presented it to him, denouncing it as "very unwholesome."

Lolita, at The Chronicle.

Love or sex? I always thought Lolita was about obsession, which is not properly either. I can't see making the argument that Humbert loves her, after the way he treats her -- it would be a narcissistic approximation at best. Yet all desire doesn't lead to obsession (does it?), so it's not just sex.

Anyway, Happy Birthday.


Sister Wolf said...

I love 'Lolita.' I see it as a Tragedy.

Zen of Writing said...

Thanks for visiting, sister wolf. It certainly is a tragic story.

Linera Lucas said...

I think Lolita is about the art of Nabokov, who seduces the reader into reading the story. It is not about innocence defiled, or true love. If it is a tragedy, it is surely the funniest one, outside of those by Flannery O'Connor, and Kafka, both of whom considered their works to be comic.

I enjoy reading Lolita, but not in the same way that I enjoy, say, Shirley Hazzard, or Proust, or Alice Munro. I'm never quite sure that Nabokov is interested in actual human beings, but he is certainly concerned with characters in action.

Zen of Writing said...

I agree Nabokov doesn't seem to care about actual human beings, except in some of his stories. He seems to delight in dryly showing them at their worst the rest of the time. Lolita *is* kind of funny or comical, but like the Bush administration, also a tragedy.