NaNoReMo 2008: Lolita Part I, Chapters 1-13

Page reached: 62 of 298 (21.81%).

Status Report: I knew very little about Lolita before reading it, aside from the general subject matter. These first 13 chapters quick disabused me of two huge misconceptions I somehow come to harbor about the novel.

Misconception #1: Humbert Humbert is a stereotypical perv Man, I had such a clear idea how H. H. would look. Old. Obese. Balding. Perhaps clad in sweatpants and a too-small t-shirt bearing ketchup stains. The knowledge that Jeremy Irons played the lead in a recent film adaptation of the novel should have told me otherwise, but still the mental image persisted. I mean, just look at his name: Humbert Humbert. Surely my description more aptly fits that moniker. Or maybe I am thinking of Herbert Hoover.

Furthermore, I expected The Hum to have no real background (perhaps a few hints of past perversity, nothing more), and would be engage in no introspection whatsoever. He would be a big, odious ball of id, unabashedly leering at every girl that walks by and feeling not a whit of remorse.

Instead, we are told that H. H. has movie star caliber looks. The novel is written in first-person, giving us ample insight into the his profound self-loathing. And we are told of his upbringing, his first marriage, his struggle with his “degrading and dangerous desires”. We even learn of relationship with Annabel, a detail that puts his lifelong attraction toward “nymphets” into some sort of context.

Which is all a long way of say: I was expecting a stock character, and was surprised to discover an fully fleshed-out protagonist.

Herbert Hoover,
The 31st Pedophile President of the United States

Misconception #2: Lolita is really not all that lurid I assumed Lolita was one of those books that people routinely condemn without based on its reputation alone, and were they to actually read the novel they’d realize that, despite the controversial subject matter, it’s so literary and farcical that no one could truly be offended by the prose within.

Ha! Yeah, no. Chapter 13 pretty much put that myth to the lie.

Honestly, I was nothing short of astonished that Lolita is 12. Twelve! I assumed she would be 15, which is the standard age most artists use when they want to discuss pedophilia without, you know, actually discussing pedophilia. But, no, apparently Nabokov is actually going to discuss pedophilia, which means prepubescence, which means 12.

And while I have no doubt that the vast majority of people who routinely condemn Lolita have not, in fact, read it, I don’t think this is a case where I would urge them to give it a whirl and see if their opinion doesn’t change. Chapter 13 ain’t gonna make a whole lot of friends.

Favorite Passage:

I have no illusions, however. My judges will regard all this as a piece of mummery on the part of a madman with a gross liking for the fruit vert. Au fond, ça m'est bien égal. All I now is that while the Haze woman and I went down the steps into the breathless garden, my knees were like reflections of knees in rippling water, and my lips were like sand, and --

"That was my Lo," she said, "and these are my lilies."

"Yes," I said, "yes. They are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful."

Words Looked Up:

  • Dirndled: A Nabokovian neologian (I suspect we are going to see a lot of these). A “dirndl” is a full-skirted dress with a tight bodice and low neck, that is either sleeveless or has short full sleeves; here Nabakov uses “dirndled” as a verb, meaning “wore a dirndl”.
  • Corscating: Giving forth flashes of light; sparkling and glittering (e.g., “diamonds coruscating in the candlelight”).
  • Palatial: Of or suitable for a palace.
  • Crenulated: Having an irregularly wavy or serrate outline.
  • Meretricious: 1. Attracting attention in a vulgar manner. 2. Plausible but false or insincere; specious. 3. Of or relating to prostitutes or prostitution.
  • Bellelettrist: One who authors light, stylish writings, usually on literary or intellectual subjects.
  • Equipoise: 1. A state of equilibrium 2. A counterbalance.
* * *

21 comments.

  1. First person narrators are often unreliable–keep this in mind as you analyze Humbert Humbert. Part of the genius of this novel is in Humbert’s duplicitous nature, to the other characters in the novel, but more importantly to the readers as well. The intricacies of the novel are more fully understood on second reading. Glad you are enjoying it!

  2. As a long-time lurker (and big fan), I finally have something to add! You might be interested to learn that what you’re finding lurid in Chapter 13 is nothing compared to Lolita’s precursor, The Enchanter, where Nabokov was exploring the ideas and plot he later developed into Lolita.

    For example, here’s something from PAGE FOUR of The Enchanter (dude didn’t waste any time):

    “What if the way to true bliss is indeed through a still delicate membrane, before it has had time to harden, become overgrown, lose the fragrance and the shimmer through which one penetrates to the throbbing star of that bliss?”

    I have a couple more excerpts and thoughts from that novel here (sorry about the self-link), but be aware that because the two novels have similar plots, the link contains a mild spoiler.

  3. Oddly enough, right now I’m reading a book about Lolita, or at least, the history of it, its effect on pop culture, etc. It’s a pretty good read as a companion piece.

  4. Hm. I’ve never actually read the novel, or seen the whole film (or, films, more correctly), but I am still a bit shocked to find that you’ve had these misconceptions. Perhaps I’m weird?

    First of all – why would H.H. be a revolting person, of looks and demeanor? I can not grasp that notion at all, even before Jeremy Irons cast the character in the latter movie.

    And the fact that Lolita is 12 – I thought that was a given, a well known fact – therefore also the name “Lolita”, which has become the household name on prepubescent girls coming of age, but not quite there yet.

    I like what you have written, it’s just that I don’t really see how such important parts of the books meta-world could be lost, even though one hasn’t read the book before.

  5. corscating or coruscating?

  6. LOLITA is not a book about pedophilia – it’s a book about *obsession*.

    and it is brilliant. You know, of course, that Annabel in the beginning is a reference to Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” The *Annotated Lolita* is a really wonderful edition. Nabokov was kind of a genius, especially when you consider that English was not his first language.

    Keep a weather eye out for advertising/consumer-culture references. It’s an important aspect of the book, I think (wish I had time and world enough to read along with you….)

  7. I’ve made my first commentary on it a few days ago. I only went as far as chapter 8 even though i’m almost finished with the book. In general, i like the book much more than i thought I would, considering the topic.

  8. I want to mention a similarity between Lolita and the only other Nabokov book I’ve read, Pale Fire. In both cases, Nabakov calls the book a novel, yet in both cases it is presented as something else entirely. They both involve an “editor” and an “author” of a manuscript. In Lolita they are a psychologist and a confessing criminal. Pale Fire is a bit stranger than that. The “novel” consists of an introduction by the editor, Charles Kinbote, a 999 line poem by John Shade, and several hundred pages of line by line prose “commentary” on the poem that overall has as little to do with the poem as Tristram Shandy has to do with Tristram himself.

    In Pale Fire, it’s obvious that the editor is not very truthful. I’m not sure whether to question the reliability of the editor in Lolita or not. For instance, Humbert Humbert seems to be obsessed with double names (Vanessa Van Ness e.g.), but couldn’t that also be an obsession of John Ray Jr. (J.R. Jr.), meaning he’s the author of everything?

  9. I think you mean ‘neologism’, not ‘neologian’. But I can see how you might not want to add any more ‘-gism’ to discussions of Lolita.

    (I wasn’t going to be pedantic, but I couldn’t resist the pun! Dammit!)

  10. I had the same preconceptions as you. When I hear pedophile, I think of a gross old guy. When I hear Lolita, I think of a 15 or 16 year old girl (possibly influenced by movies like The Crush), and I never expected the book to be this lurid. I now totally understand how this book could be banned. (Of course, I’d theoretically oppose this theoretical ban.) But if I found my kids reading this book, I’d be really uncomfortable.

  11. The original “Lolita” starred James Mason as HH
    and Sue Lyon as Lolita, and 14 years old in that
    movie– Stanley Kubrick director.
    I think I’ve seen the movie, and I thought I’ve
    read the book, I haven’t. Enjoying it thoroughly.

  12. right: no one is reported by HH as saying he’s attractive. methinks he exaggerates (though Irons is fine)

  13. Just decided to join the readalong. I actually picked up Lolita about a year or 2 ago, but stopped after a few 100 pages or so, feeling that the language was too difficult and I couldn’t get a lot of the jokes (never thought that Lolita would contain so much humor). But I’m trying again this time. I’ve watched the movie with Jeremy Irons, so I know the basic plot.

  14. The book is as controversial as it is because after living inside Humbert’s head for a while, you begin to sympathize with him. It’s what makes the novel almost unbearable: the sympathy. That’s what its censors are reacting to, not the lust.

    The Kubrick movie version sort of undoes the book, because when you see Lolita through your own eyes rather than Humbert’s, you can see how very childish her behavior is and that nothing she does is intentionally seductive. Because Humbert believes Lolita is seducing him, he writes about her behavior in seductive terms. Sue Lyon plays the title character with total naivete, though, as Nabakov intended her.

    At the same time, though, Lyon was too old for the role. Frankly, I don’t think you could make a faithful adaptation with a 12-year-old actress without it opening an unacceptable can of worms for the child. If she were as beautiful as Lolita is depicted in the novel, grown men would openly lust after her anyway. Lest you think I lie, a surprising number of men in my acquaintance saw nothing wrong with saying how much they wanted to nail Natalie Portman after seeing “The Professional,” or Emma Watson after seeing the first Harry Potter movie. It was like they had no idea what a repugnant thing that was for a grown man to express.

    In other shocking news, Juliet (of “Romeo &”) is 13. No, seriously.

  15. What’s a few child rapes and cover-ups between friends? It’s not like it’s something awful and hideous like gay marriage or something.

    Go Fightin’ Popes!

  16. You should hear that Lo/lilies line read by Jeremy Irons. Chilling. Just chilling.

  17. I was under the same impressions as you were! Well, I knew that Lolita meant someone under 14, but I didn’t realize it meant all the way to 9 (as Humbert describes the nymphet). I also thought that it wouldn’t be too bad, since I just read Lady Chatterly’s Lover this summer and found it to be sooo duuulll. Lolita definately has a creepy factor in the way he describes his fascination with these little girls.

  18. Just started reading (hey. I am the queen of procrastination.) I read it before in Russian, and the English version is so much better written. The language is fascinating.
    I got a minor shock when I realized I am now several years older than HH is in the book. After years of picturing him as an older, salt-n-pepper-haired kind of guy, this requires some adjustment. I’m pretty sure HH did say he was wildly popular with women. I google imaged Jeremy Irons and he seems right for the part.

  19. Dirndl is also the name of a town near Arlen, TX, on “King of the Hill”. Except maybe it’s spelled differently.

  20. Probably not. Texas is full of Germans.

  21. Herbert Hoover? Are you sure you didn’t mean Hubert Humphrey?