Monday, 20 January 2014

So... I gave up on Lolita

I usually wade in strongly on the 'literary quality is the most important thing' side of debates.  I think of myself as putting the writer's ability first, and that age-old argument of not liking books if they have dislikeable characters has never made any sense to me.  "I'm above such things," thought I, smugly, dusting my doctorate and twirling my imaginary moustache.

But, dear reader, it turns out I'm nothing like as objective and scholarly as I liked to believe.  Because I gave up on p.16 of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov because it was - and stop me if I'm blinding you with my critical vocabulary - too icky.

Apparently I just can't stomach a man fantasising about nine year old girls.  I know that Nabokov isn't advocating paedophilia (well, I assume he wasn't), and I know that Lolita is well-recognised as a classic.  The writing was good (although I have to say I wasn't quite as bowled over by it as some people said I'd be) but I couldn't get past that.

I don't know why I'm feeling quite so conflicted about my stumbling block. The argument I've put to myself is that I'm fine with reading murder mysteries, so why can't I read Lolita - but then I remembered that I'm incapable of reading anything gory or violent, so... statutory rape and a character fantasising about it is also in that category, it seems.

This is not a 'burn the books' situation - I don't think Lolita should be banned, or anything like that.  I actually think it probably makes me less of a reader to have this inability.  But I would be intrigued to know your opinions on the matter... and, more than that, if there are other Nabokov novels I should read instead!  I've only read Mary so far, so plenty to try....

33 comments:

  1. I would probably never have read Nabokov if my husband hadn't been such an admirer (and had the books). I agree with him that Lolita is a book about America, rather than about paedophilia.
    You might like Nabokov's autobiographical book, Speak, Memory.
    Have you seen the original Lolita film. with James Mason?

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    1. I haven't seen the film... and don't think I'm going to, to be honest! I like what you say about the book being about America, but sadly that doesn't make me any better able to stomach the more obvious subject matter...

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  2. I was supposed to read Lolita for my book group a year ago or so. I bought the book and dutifully started it and got a bit farther than you did but not by much. At the time all the news in media was the abuse by priests and Australia was full of it. So many awful priests and brotherhood men here. It was all the news then we get this book. I was sick of the topic and of all the books in the world to read. I didn't care it was good quality writing. You have to wonder what makes a man write a book about this topic if he isn't interested in it. Really. I gave it up. Everybody else read it. I felt okay about that though. I have my own line in the sand.

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    1. I am intrigued as to why Nabokov wrote it, as he must have realised what would happen... but perhaps that was why; to be daring and bold. Which, in and of itself, doesn't seem to me a very good reason for doing anything...

      Line in the sand is a great way to think about it.

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  3. Pnin is interesting and has nothing to do with adolescents, instead satirising a range of things including the pointlessness of some academic research. It has this bizarre aspect of the narrator clearly disliking the man he describes (Timofey Pnin), so that you can never be sure that the description he provides is fair. You begin doubting his portrayal, and questioning his motives, which makes the book interesting on several levels.

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    1. Thanks Karen! A few people have mentioned Pnin now, and it is the one that intrigues me. And now that I've finished my DPhil, I am willing to read about academics, which was a definite no-go for a while!

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  4. Definitely "Pnin" - it's quite wonderful....

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    1. Next time I spot it in a secondhand shop, it's mine!

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  5. I finally plucked up the courage to read Lolita last year and I do think it was worth pushing through - for me it was the language, which I found absolutely seductive (hmmm: that sounds all sorts of wrong in this context). Such a creative and difficult book. However, I also found it an uncomfortable, confronting and, in more than one place, horrific book, and I totally agree with Pam, above, about one's line in the sand. I though for a very long time about not reading it, but I'm pleased as a lover of writing that I did. But, subjectively, the pre-Lolita experience can't be recovered. :-(

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  6. I'm encouraged that you gave up on a book - I just did too, on The Goldfinch. I hate not finishing books but this one really made me feel that life is too short, and there are so many good books. I haven't read Lolita and now it's even less likely ever to get into my TBR pile!

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  7. You're certainly not the only one! I think I read the first few pages once, many years ago. I also think many of us have the "lines in the sand" Vicki mentions- mine include detailed descriptions of violence against children and animals ("torture porn").

    On a totally different subject, I've noticed that the verifications on a lot of blogs now are numbers, which are so much easier to see than the letters!

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  8. I understand the 'ick'-factor. I persevered with 'Lolita' for the sake of the writing, though I ultimately found it underwhelming. However, 'Speak, Memory' is beautifully written and so interesting. Perhaps give that one a go - ? N.

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  9. I agree with the reviewers that Pnin is a good entry point, and has some great humor. I like The Real Life of Sebastian Knight as well. I have been told that Ada is his masterpiece, but I confess I've never even begun it.

    It's interesting about Lolita. Has it been so successful that it has rendered itself a baffling anachronism? In 2014, we can't possibly read it from the perspective of its target, a mid-20th-century American male (thank God). That breed is almost extinct, and Lolita helped drive it that way.

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  10. I've never read it, but I don't think you should ever have to apologize for not liking or not finishing a book. Nor should anyone criticize or stand in judgment of anyone else for the same. Life is too short, and there are too many other books out there waiting to be read. If we all liked the same books, our discussions would get awfully boring in a hurry.

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  11. Have you ever read Reading Lolita in Tehran?

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  12. I agree with Susan -- if you don't want to read it, that is certainly your right. There are certain movies and TV shows I won't watch either (I have no desire to see The Wolf of Wall Street, ever). However, I have heard other good things about Nabokov's books. Invitation to a Beheading was highly recommended, but that title makes me skeptical.

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  13. I found I had to push myself to keep going in the first 50 pages or so. But by the end I was glad I'd read it, and did see what all the fuss was about. That being said, I've never got past the first couple of pages of The Master and Margarita, which to me is too cartoonish and unreal. Everyone has books that just don't sit well with their tastes, and that's perfectly fine. Many many congratulations on your doctorate, too! I keep meaning to write and say so, and then life gets in the way. But it's a wonderful achievement, and you'll get used to Dr Thomas very fast!

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  14. Page 16 sounds about right. That's how far I got, and I tried twice. I did, however, enjoy Pnim and Speak Memory very much.

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  15. Susan is right, in my view, when she says: "I don't think you should ever have to apologize for not liking or not finishing a book."

    Like you I do not think this book should be banned, but I do have doubts about whether, given its subject matter, it should be celebrated - however good the writing. That said, I would have to read it to be justified in making a judgement about that, and I am not inclined to read it at all. Indeed, its reputation is such that it puts me off reading anything that has emerged from the same creative mind. So I am fairly open-minded about what is published but less open about what I wish to read myself. Do I feel guilty about that? Not at all.

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  16. I've never read Lolita but it's on my list. I'd recommend Pnin - wonderful writing and observation, and humour too.

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  17. I think there's a difference between reading books for work/study and for fun and I see no reason to read something you don't find suits you when it's not specifically for work even if it's one of those books we're all meant to have read. It's time better spent reading something that doesn't make you feel icky!

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  18. I half-read Reading Lolita in Tehran a few months ago (didn't really care for it) and Nafisi's descriptions of Lolita made me quite skeptical that I would ever want to read the novel. And yet, she praises Nabokov and writes quite passionately about what a great writer he is and how wonderful Lolita is, so...I might give it a go someday.
    But I agree that if something makes you uncomfortable it's okay to walk away. I personally dislike drug use or the glorification of drug use in novels.

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  19. I discovered years ago (rather like Lisa above) that my "deal breakers" were descriptions of cruelty to defenseless children and animals. Considering the limits of time and the seemingly unlimited number of good books to be read, there's no reason to feel bad about walking away from a book if the subject matter is unappealing to you.

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  20. Ha! This is interesting. Let me tell you that I read Lolita over and over again when I was TWELVE YEARS OLD, which was circa late 1950s. The abuse did not disturb me at all, and though I was a waifish orphan child myself I did not identify with Lolita. She simply did not strike me as a successful or believable portrayal of a real girl (like myself) at all, and I thought then, and still think now, that even some of the finest male novelists cannot successfully portray a young girl. I was interested in Humbert's obsession for the mechanics of obsession and rationalization, but if I thought about what I'd do in Lolita's circumstances, it was simply to call the cops and get help, pronto: it made no sense to me that she didn't, and that she got involved in sex at that age. Why I kept re-reading it was because I was fascinated by its curious power as a novel, the amazing use of language together with its portrait of a meticulously ghastly America I'd never thought about before, and I examined that world carefully (rather as I did the world of Mary McCarthy's The Group at about the same time). Now I have not read it in forty years, and my thinking has changed as well as society's. I wouldn't read it again. I'm sure the ick factor would now predominate, and I don't need to read about ghastly America anymore. I did read some strange books in my formative years...

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  21. I find that as I grow older my stomach for the violent or generally depressive gets more sensible. I wasn't expecting to like the book as much as I did, and I suspect that it had something to do with listening to it read by Jeremy Irons.

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  22. If it's not for you, then it's not for you, and if you gave up on page 16 then please rest assured that it gets much worse before it gets better. But it does turn into a supreme and complex masterpiece, and one of the impressive things is that one can feel some sympathy for Humbert, that most monstrous of literary creations. Unforgivable though his actions are, there are pangs of humanity there, and I can't read it without being moved, as well as appalled. It's also wickedly funny, but perhaps you need to have a dark sense of humour.

    But whatever you do, don't give up on Nabokov. Its title hasn't been mentioned yet in the comments, but his novel Pale Fire is as great an achievement as Lolita. Its structure is tricksy, but if you get through the poem at the start you can probably make it to the end. It makes my mind whirl just to think of the audacity, the excitingness of his writing in that book. If I had to name three favourite novels it would be up there with Bleak House and Middlemarch. If you need a gentler way in, try Pnin, but Pale Fire's where it's at. Also, crucially, no ick factor.

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  23. I can't even get pass the storyline so I don't think I'll ever read this book. some people, like me, can't stomach such topics. I think it's okay to not read it. but I think it's also a matter of opinion and personal taste and there's shame in not wanting to read it.

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  24. I totally agree with you. If the characters are not sympathetic, at least the main character, and the plot or subject is icky, I'll not continue. No "good" writing is worth it.

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  25. Pnin is my favorite with Speak, Memory a close second.

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  26. I was fifteen the first time I read Lolita and was also very disturbed by the subject. Back then I didn't really care for the language. I read it again some years later for schoolwork, this time aware of it's status as a great work of literature. But I still couldn't get over the subject. Everything's written from Humbert's perspective, but I kept thinking of what Lolita's perspective must be. This time I recognized his skill when it comes to writing, but I wasn't that impressed, and thought that the language probably doesn't matter for me if the subject is revolting (now I'm rambling a bit, but this changed when I read The Necrophile by Gabrielle Wittkop, Charlotte Roche's Wetlands and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, none of them have very appealing subjects or characters, but they still managed to be great reading experiences). I was also thinking maybe I was too young to enjoy Nabokov when I first read him, so I decided to read his Invitation to a Beheading to see if I would appreciate any of his other books, and this one I can actually recommend! Another book that seems interesting by him is 'Ada or Ardour' that I've seen described as a 'science-fiction family chronicle' and with plenty of references to Russian classics and history.

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  27. Just stumbled upon this post and...yes! Thanks for voicing this because I, too, gave up on Lolita not far from the beginning. And you echoed my exact thought: too icky.

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