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A Brilliant "Sinister Memoir"!
on September 29, 2003
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." With those famous opening lines, Nabokov begins a sordid tale told by Humbert Humbert, one of the most fascinating characters in all of American literature. Even many people who have never read this novel know the basic story here since the word "Lolita" has become a part of American culture in that that someone with a "Lolita complex" is attracted to very young girls.
Published in 1955, this novel caused a storm of controversy; it is still provocative today even though there is not a four letter word in it. That is not to say that the book is not extremely erotic in many places. What Nabokov does with words is brilliant. As always he plays constant word games with the reader. Someone goes on a "honeymonsoon" to India. In seaching for Dolores aka Lolita and her run-away suitor, Humbert finds the name "Will Brown, Dolores, Colo." in a hotel register. Humbert and Dolores have breakfast in the "township of Soda, pop. 1001." There are allusions to Poe ("in a kingdom by the sea") and other writers throughout the book. You skim paragraphs at your peril.
The book is wondrously satiric. Nabokov captures the vapidness of the motels in small and middle America in the 40's and 50's with great brilliance. Humbert, with all his perversions, is often a terribly funny character as well. The scene where he wrestles with Quilty comes to mind. "We rolled all over the floor, in each other's arms, like two huge helpless children. He was naked and goatish under his robe, and I felt suffocated as he rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us."
We cannot forget, however, that Humbert is ultimately guilty of an ugly sin. In his own words he has deprived a "girl-child" of her childhood. In their cross-country journey, she cries every night. The picture is not pretty.
In an essay written in 1956 Nabokov writes about writing LOLITA. HE says that he is "neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and. . .. LOLITA has no moral in tow." He further denies the charge made by some readers that the novel is anti-American. Finally he says there are three subjects "utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned." Obviously the theme of this novel is one. The other two, in Nabokov's words, are: "a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106." A most interesting observation. I wonder just how much has changed in 47 years.