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Monday, November 9, 2009

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European man who comes to America and harbors a strange desire for young women. He calls them "nymphets", and particularly desires girls between the ages of about 11 and 13. He marries while still living in Europe, in the hope that the normalcy of marriage will quell his urges for younger women. This attempt is mostly unsuccessful, and his wife leaves him for a taxi driver. He moves to the States and moves to New England, where he becomes a boarder at the Haze home. Charlotte Haze, a middle-aged woman, and her daughter, Dolores Haze (aka Lolita) find Humbert Humbert to be endearing, and Lolita is exactly what Humbert desires. He marries Charlotte (after she confesses her love for him and says he can't stay because she's too much in love with him) and hopes that he will be able to secretly seduce Lolita by drugging her and her mother in their sleep. Charlotte discovers Humbert's secret, however, and asks him to immediately depart. He tries to persuade her his diary (where she discovered his secret) is simply the beginning of a novel he's working on, but she's unconvinced. As she crosses the street to mail letters revealing Humbert's true nature, she is struck by a car and killed. Lolita is away at camp, and Humbert hatches an elaborate plan to claim her as his own daughter and seduce her. He travels up to the camp, lies to Lolita (saying her mother is sick) and takes her to a hotel in the woods. He tries to give her sleeping pills and seduce her, but the pills don't work, and to his surprise (and assuming we're taking him at his word) she seduces him. He tells her that her mother is really dead, and they go on a long road trip moving from hotel to hotel and continue their affair. They move to another New England town after a while, and Lolita attends a girls' school, but they both get bored, and Lolita asks to go on a road trip again. While on the second road trip, a man starts following them, and eventually absconds with Lolita. Humbert goes on a mad quest to find Lolita, and when he finally finds her, she is pregnant and married to a random, rather simple man. It turns out that the man she ran off with was her drama teacher at the girls' school, and he was even more of a sexual deviant than Humbert, and she ran away. Humbert is crestfallen that Lolita is pregnant, but still asks her to run away with him again. She doesn't, and she decides to move to Alaska with her husband with the money that Humbert gives her. Humbert kills the man who absconded with Lolita, and goes to prison. Humbert gets the death sentence, and the book is supposedly not published until both characters are dead.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

The title of this post is from Humbert's description of his family history. I love the turn of phrase, but I admit I chose it because it's also the first line of a Billy Collins poem, and inspired the title of his poem collection, "Picnic, Lightning".

- First, I would like to mention that though it isn't clear from the summary, Humbert really is a rather lovable character in some ways, and I'm sure that a great deal of the success of this book is derived from the strangeness of this affection. I love the name "Humbert Humbert", and the way Nabokov plays with the name, talking about fondling Lolita in Humbertish, and whether she'd prefer a Hamburger or a Humburger.

- Humbert does make the rather valid point that Dante, Petrarch, and Poe all fell in love with "nymphets". Whether it's more "acceptable" because they were famous, or because it was a different time period, who knows. But what is important is that these men were satisfied with these women after they settled with them. They didn't tire of them after they hit puberty and move on.

- When Humbert's wife tells him she's leaving him for another man, they're in a taxi, and Humbert says, "What man?" And she points to the taxi driver and says, "That man." Hilarious. Delightful.

- Humbert travels to the arctic when he's on a "rehabilitation" journey (he's frequently in and out of treatment for mental illness in the beginning of the book) but he says that the Eskimo girls didn't tempt him. He says that "nymphets do not occur in polar regions." This was quite funny, I thought.

- When Humbert plans to fetch Lolita from her camp, he wonders at one point if he shall have to disguise himself as a "gawky female", Mlle Humbert, and set up camp near the outside of the establishment. The image of a gawky Mlle Humbert is incredibly amusing to me.

- Humbert references a "Dostoevskian grin" - never more will I be confused by these allusions!

- Humbert talks about blackmailing someone at one point, but says it seems too strong, and thinks perhaps he should mauvemail her instead. What a perfect color to use for this joke! Nabokov has such an incredible grasp of the language, despite having grown up in Russia and Paris before moving to the States.

- A mattress is supposed to arrive at the Hazes from Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia. Ha! I didn't know it was around that long! I drive on it every day to and from work!

- Humbert makes a lovely point about how when we've lost touch with people, we treat them like characters in an already read novel. We think, oh, well Romeo will always die, Harry Potter will always defeat evil, and my friend so-and-so will always live in such-and-such a state and think such-and-such a way and it doesn't matter how much time passes, I'll just happily wait for her to live out the life I've already ascribed to her. I like this point, especially because I just met up with several of my very close college friends, and I think each one of them surprised me in a very major way, and I was so pleased to hear about all of their new endeavors and life changes.

- Though I liked Humbert, I must say that the drugging and the occasional violence against Lolita was entirely unacceptable. Since we're not condoning, but perhaps temporarily overlooking the pedophilia as Lolita is consensual, though clearly not old enough to consent, I must say that the removal of consent (drugging) and the abuse (grabbing Lolita's arm, twisting her wrist, physically forcing her in several situations) is simply something I cannot in any way overlook. And it made me dislike Humbert.

All in all, though, I think compelling is the best word to describe this novel. I'm glad I finished it, and I'm glad to be moving on.

I'll end with this quote from one of the women at the school for girls Lolita attends:

"With due respect to Shakespeare and others, we want our girls to communicate freely with the live world around them rather than plunge into musty old books. We are still groping perhaps, but we grope intelligently, like a gynecologist feeling a tumor."

Back to my musty old books!

Brothers Karamazov, here I come...


  1. wow, that cap is an intense quote. kind of disgusting, really. to bring the words "gynecologist" and "musty" within two adjacent sentence.

    B. "never more will i be confused by these allusions!" hahah! you go girl!

    good post :)

  2. Diana would like it to be known that there should be an "s" at the end of the word sentence in the above comment. I don't know how to change this comment, so I'm adding a revision instead.