This summer, I am living off of Humboldt street, which sounds like Humbert street, so it has been a good time to read Lolita.
Having grown up in late twentieth century America, I knew the plot. A guy named Humbert Humbert gets hot over an underaged girl, and goes after her. ("...he starts to shake and cough/ Just like the / old man in / that book by Nabokov" -Sting, in one of his more contrived rhymes) I thought I knew what I was in for. I had no idea.
Nabokov is a master storyteller, mostly due to his skill at pacing. I don't mean in terms of the plot, I mean in terms of manipulating your focus. For example, he can spin a paragraph with little details that make you have to slow down without realizing that is what you are doing: "I now refused to be diverted by the feeling of well-being that walk had engendered - by the young summer breeze that enveloped the nape of my neck, the giving crunch of the damp gravel, the juicy tidbit I had sucked out at last from a hollow tooth, and even the comfortable weight of my provisions which the general condition of my heart should not have allowed me to carry; but even that miserable pump of mine seemed to be working sweetly, and I felt adolori d'amoureuse langueur, to quote dear old Ronsard, as I reached the cottage where I had left my Dolores." The detail of the "juicy tidbit" kills me - yeah, it is a good feeling, isn't it?
His knack for tempo allows him to tell two stories at once - the narrative from Humbolt's perspective, and the "objective" narrative which sneaks between the beats. There will be a sentence like the one above, followed by another, with a clause like this snuck in: "...dog eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night- every night, every night- the moment I feigned sleep." Details like Lolita's misery are just glossed over by Humbert, because they aren't really important to him. Nabokov crafts his novel so a casual reader could miss that aspect entirely and get genuinely caught off-guard as Humbert is during the second half of the book. But anyone paying attention (I am not being pretentious or sarcastic here, I literally mean "anyone paying attention") will see what Humbert is missing.
Nobody talks about the final third of the book, which is a pity, because I think it is one of the strongest parts. I am fascinated by Humbert; in one paragraph he seems to repent, regret, and understand. Lolita was not an object for him to possess. And in the next paragraph, he is talking about revenge on the person who took away what was rightfully his. Humbert wants revenge on someone who hurt Lolita, acknowleges that Humbert hurt her more than the object of his ire, and never notices any contradiction. And because Nabokov is a good writer, I almost missed it, too.
I can't resist two more quotations. From the penultimate chapter: "In its published form, this book is being read, I assume, in the first years of 2000 A.D." Nabokov assumed right! How did he know? And from the cover: "The only convincing love story of our century" Vanity Fair. I would not want any of my children to be left alone with that reviewer!
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