Go Find Your Lolita

Logan Rutherford

This semester I took “The Art of Vladimir Nabokov’ with Professor Sergei Davydov. First of all, Dr. Davydov is not only an inspired teacher, but he’s also one of the funniest professors on campus; if you get the chance, take a course with him. Of course, we read Nabokov’s most infamous novel, Lolita, during the course of our studies. So, I thought that seeing as it is the 50th anniversary of the novel being published in the United States, it might be appropriate to exhort people to (re) read Nabokov’s great work.

It seems that most literate people in the English-speaking world are familiar with the “story” of Lolita. My dictionary yields the following definition of a “Lolita:” ‘noun; a sexually precocious young girl.’ The notion of Lolita being nothing more than highbrow pornography is thus reinforced by the definition. However, any reader of the novel owes it to Nabokov to be more honest than that, and to give Lolita its due.

The frame for the story, which any review will more than likely present, is that Humbert Humbert, a European genius with a sexual penchant for “nymphets,” has come to America and houses with Charlotte Haze because, ostensibly, the rent is cheap and the neighborhood quiet. But the truth is that Humbert is primarily concerned with rakish ruminations involving Charlotte’s daughter, Lolita. Humbert marries Charlotte so as to be closer to Lolita. When Charlotte meets an unfortunate death, Humbert becomes Lolita’s sole guardian, or rather, she becomes his captive.

The book’s title is in a sense ironic because we never really get to know Lolita herself. Lolita the novel is really the story of Humbert Humbert, told through the prism of the character Lolita. There are only flashes of the real Lolita, as opposed to Humbert’s solipsized version. The real Lolita is discernible in her graceful tennis matches; one catches a glimpse in her joyful bicycle rides; her sorrow is painfully palpable when she reflectively discusses her battered childhood with Humbert. But this is one of the reasons why people continue to come back to the novel: we search for Lolita, but somehow she’s always out of reach. Lolita is in no way definitively delineated.

Another reason the novel has such staying power is because of the way Nabokov manipulates the reader. Comfort with the novel is never achieved because Humbert’s love is inextricably linked to the ghastly things he resorts to in order to consummate that love. Humbert is such a cunning narrator that it is easy to forget Lolita’s age. At times, particularly for the first time reader, Humbert is practically absolved of guilt because of his self-deprecation and hysterical use of language. A perfect example of Humbert’s humor dissolving his guilt is found when he describes how he had begun to pay Lolita for sex: “O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches.” Of course, there is nothing funny about this situation, but Humbert makes it seem that way with his style as he is a master puppeteer.

The prose throughout Lolita is not only funny, at times it is wonderfully poetic: “Through the darkness and the tender trees we could see the arabesques of lighted windows which, touched up by the colored inks of sensitive memory, appear to me now like playing cards…” The image of a brush touching things up in mutable memory is both aesthetically inspired and philosophically suggestive: perhaps the most powerful artist of all is Mnemosyne herself. Poetical pearls abound in the novel. The prose poem that is the last paragraph of the novel is wonderful. It is humbling to think that English was not even Nabokov’s mother tongue.

I have now read Lolita six times, and it is always a pleasure. As I continue to evolve as a person, the novel subjectively evolves with me, and there is always something new to be discovered— some unexplored alcove where I find more laughter and even at times, alas, more confusion. Go read this one. Or if not Nabokov, give some other writer unfamiliar to you a fresh chance. In a college environment that leaves us with such little time for free reading, it’s a treat to take a break with an engaging novel. So go ahead and find one.

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2 Responses to “Go Find Your Lolita”


  1. 1 rj shay June 30, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Hello, could you please tell me what college you attended with Mr. Davydov as teacher? I knew a Sergei Davydov many years ago in St. Louis and was wondering if he is the same gentleman. thanks1

    RJ

  2. 2 DBR October 6, 2009 at 2:14 am

    RJ–

    He’s teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont.


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