Friday, November 04, 2005

Lolita (read aloud)

I tried the print version and it didn't stick. I had borrowed it from the Yale library, which lends books for 6 months at a time, thinking that would be long enough. But after I'd had it for a month, and read sixteen pages, somebody requested it and I had to give it back. I heard a piece on NPR about the audio version, read by Jeremy Irons, who plays H.H. in the movie, and whom I saw play King Arthur in a recent one-night Hollywood Bowl performance of Camelot, and mentioned it to my roommate L, who picked up the CDs for me while at the library. There's so much that could be said about this story, but I don't feel equipped or qualified to delve into the issues. So I'll mention a few things for Meera's pleasure. Or dismay. We'll see.

First, on the audio version: I wouldn't have survived it in print. So much of this book's appeal is in the texture of the words, and Jeremy Irons reads it so that I can experience the sound, whereas were I reading it myself, I would be completely lost. The audio version also forced progression; even if I became distracted by a dog-walker or telling the bus driver my stop, Humbert Humbert was still there, describing his love's prefect collarbone. Listening to the book only made me want to watch the movie again. I'll probably do that tonight or tomorrow.

I have to admit, I only half-listened to most of the book. It's not that it was boring, though I don't think I missed too much in the way of plot. Let me try to explain. In movies, when there is a fight scene, I perceive that as filler, rather than meaningful content. For instance, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was about 20 minutes long for me. Kill Bill was 5 minutes. It's as if the fighting just didn't exist. In Lolita, the same thing happened with the French. As I don't speak French, it meant nothing to me, and my brain omitted it. But more importantly, my brain also skips over English words I don't know. For someone who reads as much as I do, I have a pretty small vocabulary, so there were quite a few words my brain skipped.

The novel created in me the same feelings as the movie did: a strange mix of disgust and compassion for Humbert Humbert. Through the story, I kept alternating from thinking, "Oh my god, he should be locked up, I can't believe there are people like this," and, "but he loves her...." While Lolita was consistently a little snot, a complete brat, it was only through his description of her that her appeal was apparent.

These feelings were so complete throughout the novel that I didn't think the end was even necessary. I didn't need H.H. to be rejected by Lolita, to learn that she was only humoring him, and to see him act on his resulting rage. I understand that it provides closure and explains the premise (that he's incarcerated), but it didn't supply much more emotionally. The one thing it does is make me wonder about Lolita's character. How would she have written the story? Does she realize how screwed-up she is?

It seemed like throughout their romance, H.H. was trying to keep Lolita innocent, even though she never was innocent to begin with. He thought she was a normal little girl, with comic books and bubble gum. We gradually learn that there's a lot more going on with her, but we don't really find out the whole story.

One more thing: I think it's interesting how H.H. calls her all sorts of different names: Lolita, Dolores, Lo, Dolly, etc. I wonder if there's some significance to their usage.


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as you did, E., and I think your emotional response is exactly what Nabokov wants you to feel. The French is troublesome for me, too, but I accept it as part of Humbert Humbert's flamboyance and it works for me because it helps me see a little more about him, even if I don't understand the individual words. In terms of Lolita herself, I think she deserves a little less censure, given her tender age and H.H.'s unreliability as a narrator -- I don't know that her snottiness/brattiness isn't at least partly a reflection of his frustration with her, not her essential character. And I don't think she's a little temptress at all, although she definitely becomes at least a skilful manipulator in order to survive. I think H.H.'s desire to keep her "innocent" is coupled with an equally strong desire to paint her as a seductress, because then it's not so much his fault for succumbing to her charms.

    Re: names -- the whole book is a maze of puzzles and ciphers, and I'm sure every nickname is deliberate -- someone's probably written a paper about them. :-)

    P.S. I'm with you on Kill Bill.

  2. P.S. In case you haven't had the pleasure, here's the Poe(m) that H.H. references in his description of his childhood love affair. I adore it, and I hope you will give it a chance. ;-)

    by Edgar Allan Poe

    It was many and many a year ago,
    In a kingdom by the sea,
    That a maiden there lived whom you may know
    By the name of ANNABEL LEE;--
    And this maiden she lived with no other thought
    Than to love and be loved by me.

    She was a child and I was a child,
    In this kingdom by the sea,
    But we loved with a love that was more than love--
    I and my Annabel Lee--
    With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
    Coveted her and me.

    And this was the reason that, long ago,
    In this kingdom by the sea,
    A wind blew out of a cloud by night
    Chilling my Annabel Lee;
    So that her high-born kinsman came
    And bore her away from me,
    To shut her up in a sepulchre
    In this kingdom by the sea.

    The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
    Went envying her and me:--
    Yes! that was the reason (as all men know,
    In this kingdom by the sea)
    That the wind came out of a cloud, chilling
    And killing my Annabel Lee.

    But our love it was stronger by far than the love
    Of those who were older than we--
    Of many far wiser than we-
    And neither the angels in Heaven above,
    Nor the demons down under the sea,
    Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:--

    For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
    Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,
    In her sepulchre there by the sea--
    In her tomb by the side of the sea.