Nabokov’s Dark Masterpiece

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In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov explores dark and forbidden aspects of human behavior.

Nabokov’s main character, Humbert falls cataclysmically in love with Dolores Haze, a twelve-year-old girl. His infatuation is perverse, (which he knows) but he simply cannot help himself. It becomes so overwhelming he constantly looks for ways to justify his emotions and goes as far as citing historical and literary examples of adults who have relationships with children. He knows it’s wrong, but instead of blaming himself he blames the taboos set forth by modern society and nymphets (little girls who purposely tempt him).

When Humbert acts on his obsessions and begins a sordid affair with Dolores, his guilt and subsequent justifications fly wildly out of control. His mind begins to ramble and he can barely string together a coherent train of thought. At one point, the narrative becomes so jumbled and erratic its almost unreadable.

The insane tone of the last quarter of the book casts suspicion on whether Humbert is telling any sort of truth. He even admits to spending time in a mental ward, where he enjoyed duping the psychiatrists. Furthermore, his view of reality is so skewed, there’s no way to confirm his relationship with Dolores really happened.  This is a man that often confuses the fantasies in his mind with the real world. And I wouldn’t put it past him to lie to readers.

Ultimately, Nabokov’s narrative posits the idea that perversity is omnipresent — no matter how much it is cloaked. It’s forbidden by morality, hidden under the trappings of modern culture and society, caused and perpetuated by lunacy, and punished by the law. Yet, perversity is and always will be part of humanity (hence Nabokov’s historical references). The question of what truly defines perversity becomes blurred when put under scrutiny as the definition changes over time and cultures, even though the core concept remains the same. In essence, Nabokov is pointing out a paradox that plagues civilization.

c.b. 2011

35 thoughts on “Nabokov’s Dark Masterpiece

    • It took a lot of pondering for me to love it, but now I consider it to be one of the best books I’ve ever read. Its very rare to come across a book that yanks at your moral fiber and pulls on emotions in such a dark way.

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  1. There comes a point in Humbert’s narrative when (as far as I recall) Lolita, though acquiescing, begs to be left alone, and we readers cry, “Yes, for God’s sake, leave us alone!” That is a triumphant point in the book because it is there that Nabokov most vividly conveys obsession. It is a brilliant book.

    What regularly makes me grind my teeth is the way that some critics react to it the way one would pick up a pair of soiled underpants, whilst cooing over Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’.

    Just saying! 🙂

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    • That part of the book really stood out for me as well. What gets me is how I stayed with Humbert until the end, despite his despicable acts. Any writer who can craft a character and story with that much finesse is worthy of the title “genius.”

      I was actually a little worried about posting something about this book as people very often have adverse reactions to the book. In the end, I decided to be an advocate for a piece of literature that tells the truth in a remarkable way. How many writers can strike a nerve with so much force? Not many. 🙂

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  2. T.F.Walsh

    I’ve heard many good things about this book – haven’t read it yet… but made the mistake of watching it before I got a hold of the book…

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    • I hesitated for a long time because it’s had its fair share of backlash. Then I read something else by Nabokov – An Invitation to a Beheading – and was totally hooked on his writing style. Lolita is a difficult read in terms of subject matter, but it is brutally honest and stylistically a masterpiece of fiction.

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  3. I’ve read the book, and listened to it as an audio book, narrated by Jeremy Irons. Though it is a book that touches on what is currently a forbidden subject, it was not always so. Nabokov adeptly shows the twisted mind, that longs for forbidden fruit, and the paths that Humbert took to realize his fascinations. Whether in his mind or truly in his deeds, he was a troubled soul, that failed to see the morals of that era, and the youthful dreams of his unprepared paramour. She was truly a nymphet, as he apprised, but his obsession sowed the seeds of his mental destruction. It was a fascinating book, and a window into the world of an obsessed mind. Nabokov wove a beautiful web of deceit, lust, and the obsession of the illicit. A brilliant write, and a great review.

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    • You have done the book justice as well with a beautifully crafted review! I’m always amazed by Nabokov’s ability to touch upon often gritty subjects with such an eloquent hand . . . its amazing that he wrote in both Russian and English. He understood humanity (both the good and the bad) and wasn’t afraid to tell the truth. That bravery is definitely something to admire.

      Oooo, I’ll bet the voice of Jeremy Irons really added a “chill” factor to Humbert’s story.

      Thanks for your thought provoking comment. 🙂

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  4. I now have to go out and get this book, having read what is being said about it. I’ve just got back from holiday where I read the Smiley books by John LeCarre, I found his depictions of spies both chilling and sad, the life that is constantly a contradiction. I will read Lolita as I find writers that get into the life of their characters the best read.

    Thanks to all who commented above.

    Jim

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    • The writing is phenomenal and I hope you enjoy it for that reason alone. Nabokov really gets inside the head of Humbert (which is probably why I found it so fascinating and chilling at the same time).

      I’ll be checking out John LeCarre as you’ve intrigued me with your description of his books.

      🙂

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  5. I just started listening to Lolita again on audiobook, This is all your fault you know. 🙂 Once I got past the slightly tedious introduction I remembered, oh what a wonderful book and Jeremy Irons is such an amazing narrator. Thanks for the reminder!

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  6. The movie, American Beauty, explores the same subject, with added twists of disfunction. Definitely, the darker side of human nature. I have Lolita on my shelf, but have chosen not to read it yet.

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    • Its one of those books you have to be ready to read, (I’ve got a few of those sitting on my shelf at the moment). I put it off for a long time for that very reason. You’ll know when the time is right. 🙂

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    • The writing is what made me keep reading. Even though I was stuck in the head of a despicable character, Nabokov’s prose was so elegant I was absolutely mesmerized.

      Thanks so much for reading! 🙂

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  7. I’ve wanted to read this and the reading in Tehran. The human brain is such an amazing contraption and a writer who can master the insides of it sounds intriguing. Look at all of the cultures that this is still the norm and it makes you wonder what is the age of an adult, for some it never happens. Fascinating review.

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    • That is a really good question. On the flip side, there are those who mature much faster. Historically, children were once viewed as “miniature adults” and never experienced the idea childhood as it exists in a modern sense. Like you point out, some cultures still have a variation of that viewpoint.

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