Monday, August 24, 2015

Re-reading "Lolita" in Middle Age

I was half the age of Nabokov’s protagonist when I first read “Lolita” – and it enthralled me. As of my last reading, just a few weeks ago, I’m about the age of Nabokov himself when he wrote his love letter to the English language. And it repelled me. (You can always count on a Goodreads review for a fancy prose style.)

I guess I’m a grownup now. I’ve helped raise two daughters in the meantime. And, over time, I’ve come to understand that people aren't as smart as they think they are. Even the genius Vladimir.

“Genius” is a word that appears many times in this book, by the way – the author seems quite enamored with it. Odd that there are very few words relating to the impact of the nearly world-immolating warfare that had ended just a few years prior. Or, say, any description of how Humbert and Lolita might have managed to spend Christmas Eve together.

That would be too prosaic. And this, this book, is a work of Art. The real-life horror in “Lolita” is masked by language -- the demeaning and beating of women, deaths by childbirth and cancer, Humbert’s monumental callousness and narcissism, poor Charlotte… As for the great poetic love, it’s really nothing more than pedophilia played out in prostitution, threats and manipulation, as Lolita cried herself to sleep every night.

There’s nothing wrong with artifice and pretty words. Every Memorial Day weekend, I find myself re-reading “The Great Gatsby,” and it never ceases to enchant me. It’s become a favorite of one of my daughters too.

I actually enjoy life as a sentimental wretch. It’s just that I now realize that Humbert Humbert isn’t a kindred spirit. Instead, Humbert is really just Vladimir’s comical Gaston Godin character with a better haircut.

And, about that haircut, Vladimir... I mean, about that parenthetical scene in “Lolita” where a barber in Kasbeam cuts Humbert’s hair while telling stories of his long-dead son as if he were still alive…

I wonder if perhaps his story would have been the more poetic one to tell.

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