I was thinking of reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Has anyone read it? If so, did you enjoy it? It lookedvery interesting!
I was thinking of reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Has anyone read it? If so, did you enjoy it? It lookedvery interesting!
"Lolita" is one of my very favorite books and is considered Nabokov's masterpiece. Though published in 1955, to this day it remains one of the most controversial great works of literature ever written. It was banned in many countries when first published and for many years only an edited version was allowed to be sold in the US. There is little if any off-color language, no vivid descriptions of sex--it's all innuendo. I'm assuming you know the story. Yet "Lolita" was voted #4 on the list of 100 greatest novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library Association, behind only "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" James Joyce at #3; "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald at #2; and "Ulysses" by James Joyce at #1. For the complete list go to
Even though I love "Lolita" and am deeply moved every time I read it, which has been every few years for over 30 years, IMO, "Lolita" is not a book for someone who enjoys books for their plot and depending on how much they like the main character or characters. Example, I led a reading group once on Shakespeare. The people in the group were all educated, professional women--a nurse, an attorney, a middle school teacher, a woman in advertising, a financial adviser. After about two months of Shakespeare, the group expressed an interest in reading something more modern just as a break. I suggested "Lolita" for several reasons: The Modern Library Association's list had recently come out; "Lolita," at about 350 pages, was readable within a week; director Adrian Lyne had just done a new film version of "Lolita" starring Jeremy Irons (more about that later); and the anniversary of Nabokov's 100th birthday was being celebrated so there were various Nabokov exhibits and readings around New York at the time. All the women said, "Great! Yeah! Perfect!"
At the discussion of "Lolita" the next week, only about half the group showed up. I was informed that one woman had refused to even read the book once she saw what the subject matter was and the others had not shown up because they were so disgusted by the book that they wanted nothing more to do with it. One of the women who did show up for the discussion started out by saying, "I think it is impossible for anyone to like this book." I said that not only did I like the book, I loved it. The woman just repeated, "I think it is impossible for anyone to like this book."
The discussion, in a nutshell, consisted of the few women who had showed up saying how disgusting everything about the book was, how they hated all the characters, etc. At one point, I asked what they thought were the underlying themes of the book? The consensus was that the book was so immoral and sickening that they didn't think there were any underlying themes. It was just smut for smut's sake.
I could give you my review, but you'll probably get a much better written and more complete idea of responses "Lolita" if you go to
I don't like to read reviews before I read a book, but not knowing your reasons for wanting to read the book, how old you are, what other books you've read, or anything about you, I don't know if reading some reviews before you read "Lolita" before you read it would be helpful or lessen your experience.
Just out of curiosity, what got you interested in reading "Lolita" and why would you be reading it, that is, for yourself or for a class? What books do you usually read and what are some of your favorites?
I would also suggest looking at the questions Random House devised for a reading group discussion of "Lolita." If you're not reading it for a class, sometimes such questions can help you see more deeply into the book. The link is:
Finally, if you find you like "Lolita" and Nabokov's writing--truly one of the great writers of the 20th century whether or not you like "Lolita"--I would suggest reading "The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction" by Michael Wood. There are many books about Nabokov's writing, but I find Wood's book a great starting place. For great writing about literature in general, Nabokov wrote one of the best books himself (he taught literature at Syracuse for many years), e.g., "Lectures on Literature." Then there are the highly respected two volume set on Nabokov by Brian Boyd, "Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years" and "Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years."
I hope this was helpful. I'd be interested in hearing if you decide to read the book and if so, what you think of it. BTW, good used copies of "Lolita" are available from half.com, amazon.com, and bn.com.
I am a big Nabokov fan, but Lolita is one of my least favorite books of his. I have no problem with the subject matter. However, I believe that the characters in Lolita are less complex than in some of his other books, such as Luzhin's Defense or Invitation to the Beheading. I believe a lot about the main character is a little a bit fake; just as Lolita herself is too inconsistent as a character. In general, I tend to enjoy more Nabokov's earlier works which were written in Russian; just as for another one of my favorite writers, Milan Kundera, I enjoy more the works that he originally wrote in his native Czech rather than in French.
Having said all that, I think Lolita is a good book. It is interesing to read (and it's not that long, so even if you don't like it, you haven't wasted too much time). Also, I think it is important to read such controversial and culturally important works as Lolita, since otherwise you have to rely on other people's opinions.
Rgirl -- if you have a chance, get a copy of "How I Got To Be Perfect" by Jean Kerr. She has something in there where Lolita and Humbert consult a marriage counseler. (The setup is "I knew I shouldn't have read 'Lolita' and the 'Can This Marriage Be Saved' column from Ladies Home Journal on the same evening. The overall effect was a little confusing.")
The particular piece is called "Can This Romance Be Saved?" and it has Lolita and Humbert telling their sides of the story to the counseler, if you're a fan of the book you might find it highly amusing.
I think this might also appear in one of Ms. Kerr's other books, "The Snake Has All The Lines", as well.
Thanks for the tip JC, not only did I enjoy reading Lolita (a great book) but "Can this Marriage be Saved" is one of my guilty pleasures, I just love it!
Rgirl, what did your students think of the morality of the Shakespere plays you read? IIRC most are full of killings, incest, trickery, etc... Did anyone refuse to discuss MacBeth or Hamlet? I somehow doubt it.
Wow! Thanks for all your help everybody! Rgirl, to answer your questions, I have known about the book for quite a long time and have just lately gotten really free, so I thought it would be a great read, not for school or anything, just for fun. I haven't really read much by Nabokov except for a short story called "Signs and Symbols" and text on his life. Also recently I have been reading a lot of non-fiction, for example, I just finished "Who's Looking Out For You" by Bill O'Reilly and I also just read "A Cook's Tour" by Tony Bourdain, one of my favorite authors. The last fiction book I finished was "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton, which I enjoyed but found somewhat repetitive. I have to say my favorite fiction book is "A Tale of Two Cities" by Dickens...what a fantastic novel...the worst fiction I've read in the last few months was "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Dumas, which I didn't care for at ALL. I think I got an awful translation though. That's awful about the women in your discussion group; I'm a very open person and I'm sure that nothing in Lolita will shock me. I think I'll grab a copy tonight at the library.
Tony B. sure does have a sense of humor. Have you read his fiction? His characters are outrageous and their situations are wild. Plenty of mobsters who end up going to Floraida. Can't remember the titles, but they are best read in the order they were published as the plots are related.
As for Lolita -- I too consider it a great novel. I truly hate Humbert. He is as slimy as characters get. But he is very true to life, as people can come up with all sorts of reasons to explain and forgive themselves for being immoral. Maybe he is not as developed as well as Nabokov's other protagonists and the other characters, especially Lolita, are rather shallow. It would have been interesting for Lolita to narrate and share her side of that sick relationship.
I thing Count of Monte Cristo has to be read between the ages of 10 and 14. Then it's one of the best book ever!the worst fiction I've read in the last few months was "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Dumas, which I didn't care for at ALL. I
You know, opinions on that vary greatly. I know several older gentlemen who place most of the blame on Lolita! Now, those are very honorable men, who would never think of doing anything like that themselves, but they do come from a different generation. In fact, I find that most people who are closer to Nabokov's generation than to mine (either gender) see Lolita as at least in part the "guilty party"! Which brings up an interesting question of what did Nabokov himself put into this. IMO, he basically had no moral judgement of his own on the relationship itself, and put in the whole Hubert/Lolita's mom thing to make Humbert more of a villain.novel. I truly hate Humbert. He is as slimy as characters get.
Hey, what about the Holy Bible! Killing: Cain & Able. Incest: Lot & his daughters. Trickery: Jacob & Esau. Then again, people do often refuse to discuss those...Rgirl, what did your students think of the morality of the Shakespere plays you read? IIRC most are full of killings, incest, trickery, etc...
Well, "Count" was a nice fat book, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie versions, so I thought it would be worth a read, and it was really below my reading level. Not to mention all the useless sub-plots and nasty plotholes. I expected a lot more from it.
JOHIO2, Yes! "Gone Bamboo" and "Bone in the Thoat" are great. I love blunt, humorous authors. A lot of the stuff he has written is supposedly based off his own life, which is a crazy ride too. I really liked "Kitchen Confidential", because, well, I like food. It would be so neat to visit his restaurant in New York, the next time I go...
Ptichka, do you read Russian and Czeck and French and English?
My opinion on Lolita-
The author is very skilled and tells the story with good flow. The reader doesn't have to struggle through inane subplots or overlong descriptions to follow the story.
The story is told through Humbert's point of view. This gives the reader a skewed and unique view and can be very thought provoking. The subject matter can easily be considered repellent. Seeing this through Humbert's pov means that Lolita's story is treated and told without understanding or compassion. So, while it made me think, I found it cold.
No, unfortunately not. I read Russian and English. Used to be able to read French, but have let it slide in the past few years. I think that both Nabokov writing in English and Kundera writing in French turn out fiction that is less than what they do in their native language.Originally posted by Mathman
Ptichka, do you read Russian and Czeck and French and English?
I have several possible explanations for this. The most simple one would be that it's not their native language, but then again Nabokov spoke English from early childhood, so it must be something else. From personal experience I know that my personality when I speak Russian is different from my personality when I speak English. It's very deep and phychological; for example, I sometimes stutter in Russian, but NEVER in English. My fiance is always shocked by this, as he is usually only treated to the Russia-language me.
So, I think that those writers, when writing in other languages, sort of write in a "different personality"; therefore, they cannot help but produce different fiction. I know that my writing is very different in my two languages. My vocabulary is actually better in English (I went to school here, I read more in English than I do in Russian, with the exception of poetry which I rarely really get in English). Yet my writing in English tends to be drier, and overall reflects "who I am" less than my Russian writing does.
By contrast, we can look at the Russian classical writers who often wrote in French, and for whom such dicotomy did not exist. I believe it was because they spoke both languages in the same circumstances, and therefore did not have those "different personalities".
Yes, I read the book and liked it very well. It is beautifully written with good flow; some parts even made me almost weep, recalling how he hears the voices of the children on the playground below and knows Lolita's voice isn't amongst them.
The movie with Dominique Swain and Jeremy Irons was very good, too.
Knowing little about you except your age (I looked at your profile), I wasn't sure if "Lolita" would be right for you. But I too first read "Lolita" at 15 and I would say I turned out fine, but I guess it depends on who you talk to, lol. But seriously, my parents never restricted what I read--although my mother did take "Kitten With a Whip" away from me when I was 8--and my fifth grade teacher in school encouraged me to read "books beyond my years" so to speak, for which I've always been grateful. Before I had the experience with that reading group, I might not have been so skittish. But seeing well educated, professional women in their mid-30s to mid-50s be so utterly shocked and disgusted made me be a lot more careful with the books I recommend to people I don't know. Knowing a little more about you, I would again recommend the link to the group discussion questions after you read it to get into some of the themes of the book.
While like Pitchka I also love some of Nabokov's books ("Pale Fire" is one of my favorites) and I agree that the characters in some of his other books are more complex, I think the characters in "Lolita" are purposefully more superficial. The reason, IMO, is that the most important "character" in the book is America in the late '40s and early '50s. To me, Humbert, Lolita, Charlotte Haze (Lolita's mother), and Clare Quilty serve more as icons==and almost caricaturish ones at that--in order to move the story along through the landscape of American puritanism, kitsch, and hypocrisy, especially about sex. By no means do I think "Lolita" is polemic nor using the characters as cardboard cut-outs to make some kind of predertermined point, but neither do I think it's meant to be a novel where complex character developement is the means by which tropes and themes are revealed and deepened as they are in books such as "The Great Gatsby" or "The Good Soldier," for example.
But I would agree with Pitchka 100% that I think especially certain ones of Nabokov's other novels are well worth reading. Pitchka mentioned "Luzhin's Defense" and "Invitation to the Beheading," which I too think are wonderful, and I would also recommend "Pale Fire." You've read his short story "Signs and Symbols," which is considered one of the great modern short stories.
If you do read "Lolita" and want an interesting look at what a great writer like Nabokov sometimes throws away in order to get to his "best" work, the prototypical rejected version of "Lolita," a novella entitled "The Enchanter" was finally published a few years ago. "The Enchanter" has what will become the eventual Humbert character as an absolute, black-and-white, full-of-fatal-remorse bad guy--and he never does anything more than think about what he wants to do with the character of the girl, who is the model for Lolita. Nabokov wrote "The Enchanter," read it to some friends, and rejected it (it is pretty bad, even with VN's gorgeous prose). Fortunately VN's son kept the manuscript. About ten years later, AFTER Nabokov had lived in the US for several years, he returned to the subject that had inspired him to write "The Enchanter," but this time he produced "Lolita." Especially considering Pitchka's comments about how she writes "as a different person" in her non-native language as well as all the things Pitchka said about how writing and thinking in a different language affected her, I think reading "The Enchanter" after you've read "Lolita" is an especially interesting experience. As I sad, it's not good and you can see why Nabokov chucked it. But as insight into VN's writing process; as work that illuminates, at least in a limited way, the effect American life had on Nabokov; and just as a basis for comparison, I think reading "The Enchanter" is worthwhile for anyone who has read "Lolita." It's very short; more of a long short story than a novella.
Also, in addition to the 1997 Adrian Lyne film version of "Lolita" that Johar mentioned, which is very true to the book--and BTW never got picked up for distribution so was never shown in theaters, only on Showtime--there is also the 1962 film version by Stanley Kubrick, starring James Mason as Humbert, Sue Lyon as Lolita, Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze, and Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty. Although Nabokov wrote the script, Kubrick strayed far and wide from iit, building up Sellers role as Quilty (who hardly appears in the book) in part to keep the focus off what Humbert and Lolita were doing and in part, says Nabokov's son Dmitri, because Kubrick was so taken with Sellers improvisational comedic skills that Dmitri Nabokov says Kubrick made the film to showcase Sellers' abilities more than he did to tell the story his father wrote. Film critic Richard Corliss agrees, saying that "Lolita" seems more like a preparation for Sellers' multi-character role in "Dr. Strangelove" than anything having to do with "Lolita."
As for my feelings about "Lolita," although I think it's best to discover a book for yourself, I do want to say that through at least a dozen readings, I've never found Humbert to be disgusting nor have I found Lolita to be wholly a victim--mostly a victim of Humbert, yes, but not entirely. I don't want to give anything away, but let's just say Humbert has good reason to see Lolita as what he calls a nymphette. I felt both were behaving in accordance with their true natures and that through fate, manipulation, and necessity, found a way to continue their taboo relationship at a time when American behavior was strictly limited and any deviation from the status quo condemned. Don't get me wrong, I don't support such behavior in any way and feel it is rightly illegal under any circumstance. But in the context of the world of literature, I've never felt that as a reader it is my place to judge the characters as people. For me the interest lies in what even the most depraved character can tell us, through metaphor, about the human condition. IMO, we all have a little Humbert in us, that is, something in our nature we know is wrong, even if it's something as petty as being petty. The same goes for all the characters in the book. I also find the characters both hilarious and very moving. Nabokov is taking a taboo subject and using it for satire. It's supposed to make you uncomfortable. But the discomfort comes from facing a truth about ourselves, not just about other people. But as I said, I also find it very moving. The very line Johar mentioned, in fact that whole paragraph, which are the thoughts of Humbert on what he has taken from Lolita, is IMO the most beautiful and heartbreaking piece on what should be the sacred nature of childhood innocence ever written. The irony of having these thoughts coming from the vile Humbert Humbert is what many literary critics believe to be essential to great writing: The revelation of truth through contradiction and conundrum. However, I feel the characters are in a way the least important and least interesting aspect of "Lolita." For me, what Nabokov reveals about American culture, which I don't think is essentially any different now from what it was in the 1950s, is what fascinates me the most.
I SO envy you for being able to read authors such as Nabokov and Kundera and so many others in their native language. Aargh! The US public school system is SO isolationist in not teaching other languages to children at an age when the language parts of their brains are still like sponges, ready to soak it all up. The US system waits until high school to give you the option of taking French, Spanish, or German, but by 14 or 15, you just can't learn a language the way you can when you're eight years old or younger. My younger sister went to a private preschool and at age 4 had learned numbers up to 10, the major colors, and a number of basic nouns such as "cat," "dog," etc. in French, Spanish, German, and Russian. I used to bring my friends home and have me sister "perform" all her language skills, which immensely impressed my friends. That's how big a deal it was.
I love your comments about language and personality. From my very limited experience with Spanish, I have a bit of an idea of what you're talking about, especially during a time when I had to speak only Spanish for about a month and got to the point where I was thinking in Spanish. Anyway, I'll have to reread some of Nabokov's early work from his Russian years and compare it to his work from his American years. I'd always looked at them primarily from the point of view of the progression of his work as an artist, plus, of course, moving from Russia to the US. I'd never thought of it striclty from a language perspective before. But your ideas make complete sense. After all, so much of our thought processes are language based and so much of who we are is expressed through language. You are so very fortunate to be fluent in more than one language.
The reading group. Not my favorite experience with such reading or writing groups. Ironically, they came to me because of my background to lead the discussions because they had already decided they wanted to read and discuss only Shakespeare. So, to answer your question, we started with "Hamlet" and when I brought up the incestual themes the response was, "What incest?" With "MacBeth," yes, several women complained that while they understood Shakespeare was a great writer, they didn't understand why he insisted on using so much violence. Uh, because that's life? So I tried something light, i.e., "Much Ado About Nothing." Although they found it hard to understand, they liked it--sort of. That's when they wanted a break to read something more contemporary, which resulted in the "Lolita" debacle. In retrospect, I should have smacked them with "Richard III" but I thought "The Merchant of Venice" would at least have contemporary themes to discuss. But once again, one women refused to even read the play because she was certain it was anti-semitic (different woman from the one who refused to read "Lolita"), and two other women read the play but refused to come to the discussion because they had decided it was anti-semitic. Out of the group of nine women, only one besides me showed up to discuss "The Merchant of Venice."
To make a long story short, after that I told the group that I didn't think I was the right person to lead the discussions. The group decided on a revolving leader format and to read books that were from Oprah's Book Club. Nothing against Oprah or her book club, but let's just say their selections weren't my cup of tea. So I phased myself out.
Re your comment "It would have been interesting for Lolita to narrate and share her side of that sick relationship": In 1995 "Lo's Diary," a first novel by Pia Pera was published. I thought it was awful, as did most reviewers. However, complete-review.com gave it a "B-" (most reviewers gave it an F), all of which you can read about at
ITA. I saw Jeremy Irons on "Inside the Actors Studio" and in talking about doing "Lolita" he said that while he was thrilled to have the opportunity to play HH, he had to tell his agent, "Look, you've got to get me a lot of money for this because nobody will hire me for at least three years after it comes out." James Lipton then asked him what happened and Irons said, "I got the money and it's a good thing because in fact I couldn't get hired for about three years after 'Lolita' came out." I mean, Jeremy Irons! How messed up is that? I also though Dominique Swain was great and a very interesting contrast to Sue Lyons, who I also thought was great. You probably know the story about Nabokov and his hesitancy on making "Lolita" into a film. Nabokov actually wanted to use a dwarf rather than a 14 or 15-year-old girl. Nabokov thought that (a) they couldn't find a young actress who could play Lolita and (b) even if they could, it was one thing to write about a nymphette but quite another to have a young girl play the part. When Kubrick found Sue Lyon and had her do a scene for Nabokov, legend has it that he said something like, "I guess you found a real one." The last line is probably more Hollywood fiction than fact, but it is verified by VN's son that his father thought a dwarf should play Lolita. Ye gods. Peter Sellers and Frank Langella as Clare Quilty I can't really compare because their roles were written so differently in each film. I thought Jeremy Irons was an interesting contrast to James Mason, though I thought both were equally good in the role, just very different. But I have to give the quintessential Charlotte Haze Humbert award to Shelley Winters. Winters was Big Haze. Even though I though Melanie Griffith did some of her best work ever as Charlotte, Winters had that combination of the pathos of a certain kind of American middle class widow and the vulgarity of a certain kind of American middle class wife. She was just the bow's wow in that movie.
Did you ever see that scene where The Soporanos go to Meadow's house for dinner and Carmella gets all in a tizzy because the kids talk about homosexual subtext in Herman Mellville? It's hysterical, but also sad because it's so true.So, to answer your question, we started with "Hamlet" and when I brought up the incestual themes the response was, "What incest?"
Oh please! He must have told his agent this after every role! A bi-sexual worshiper of aristocricy and thier houses, a prig who most probably tried to bump-off his wife, a middle aged man having wild sex with his son's fiancee, etc... Has he ever played anyone nice?"Look, you've got to get me a lot of money for this because nobody will hire me for at least three years after it comes out."
I met him once when we designed something for him and he came off as kinda creepy. Then again, I thought that all of our clients (David Coperfield, Disney, etc..) were kinda creepy.