Book Review: Lolita

Title: Lolita

Author: Vladimir Nabokov

Rating: 4/5

Publisher: Penguin, Penguin Classics

Synopsis

Lolita, is a first person narrative novel, told through the eyes of a middle aged professor, Humbert Humbert. Humbert develops an obsession with a twelve year old girl, Dolores Haze, who he pursues for the rest of his days. Humbert nicknames his prey, Lolita, and attempts to gain greater access to her, in becoming a lodger at her Mother’s house in Ramsdale, New England.

It is here, where Humbert builds upon his disguse of being the studious professor, working on writing his book. However, this is when the access, and consequently, obsession, with Lolita begins. Soon, he will have unrivaled access, as he marries Charlotte, Lolita’s mother.

After a tragic set of events working in his favour, Lolita and Humbert embark on a road trip across America, staying in various motels along the way. Throughout this, Humbert engages in sexual activity with Lolita and constantly rewards her with the ‘things’ she desires – the mundane clothes, candy and magazines that young girls crave.

Eventually, of course, Humbert gets caught and his pursuit of Lolita suddenly comes to an end. The novel ends with Humbert imprisoned but still professing his love for Lolita,

“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Review

Image: Amazon

This novel made me experience a whirlwind of different emotions. Simultaneously, I was in awe of the construction of the novel and the sheer complexity of some of the images and prose Nabokov has created, but at the same time, was reeling in disgust due to the difficulties of the content. Scenes that detailed Humbert’s sexual encounters with Lolita, and his portrayal of lingering desire for young girls in general, left me with a sense of rage and disgust.

Nabokov, in the use of this first person narrative, creates an unrivaled account of a middle aged man’s erotic obsession with a twelve year old girl. This unrivaled account which has been deemed as “unreliable” by critics, means that Lolita’s point of view is swept away under the carpet. As readers, we are never enlightened into her perspective. Thus, there are many unanswered questions. Effectively, she is silenced, which I suspect is the very point. Additionally, the relationship is almost normalised, especially by the use of ‘relationship’ type prose throughout,

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Moreover, the silencing of the victim is achieved in the crafting of this first person narrative. Many (i.e, Stephen Metcalf), have pointed to this as being Nabokov’s critique of totalitarianism under the Soviet regime. Nabokov was a known opponent of the Soviet government and opposed Tsarists autocracy, communism and fascism that he lived through. It is possible, that this silencing of Lolita, the stripping of her identity and childhood, conveys a sense of control not too dissimilar to that used by the Soviet regime.

Lolita immediately gained a ‘classic’ status despite its controversial topic, it was even banned from entering the United Kingdom in 1955. However, its classic status is arguably not due to the story or unconventional theme; but its literary construction. The reader is constantly exposed to a series of complex metaphors and lyric poetic passages that make it easy to forget the shocking undertones of the novel. It can be easy to get swept away by the beauty of the language and forget that something very sinister is taking place on the pages before you. However, as someone that is a sucker for beautiful prose, I appreciated this element.

What struck me as particularly strange and almost sinister, was Humbert’s own self awareness of the horror of his actions and desires. He constantly addresses the reader as “the jury” – putting himself deliberately on trial. But the novel is a monologue of his own account and he always refers to the brutality of his crimes,

“One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimisitc. Taboos strangulated me.”

Vladimir Nabokov

However, regardless of the morality Humbert places on his actions, there is a certain directness in his address to the reader and the narration almost feels like a sit down conversation between him and the reader. There is a sense of intimacy which is enlightening and highly disturbing. Behind everything, and perhaps most of his motivations, appears to be Humbert’s absolute frustration with the restraints of American society,

“….civilisation which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve…”

“We are not surrounded in our enlighttened era by the little slave flowers that can be casually plucked…”

Vladimir Nabokov

I sensed a definitive obsession with what he perceived as the faults within society – for, the one he lived in permitted his relationship with a twelve year old girl. He believes these rules are in place due to the creation division between childhood and adulthood (page 124.)

Humbert as a narrator is truly, and honestly, self reflective which felt like an attempt to appear more human. However, despite this level of self reflection and awareness, he still maintained at the end of the novel that despite his obsession with Lolita being over, he would always crave the same thing,

“I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of my pederoins.”

Vladimir Nabokov

In a way, being able to acknowledge himself as a, “pentapod monster” who did wrong, but still wanting to pursue this, is the mark of a truly disturbed, and possibly incurable individual.

In sum, I found the book incredibly well written and thought provoking. I enjoyed the kind of lyricism Nabokov used and was drawn into the first person narration despite its flaws. There were no barriers or restraint, which made it an interesting psychological insight, as well as a literary joy to read.

This complex first person narration gives the reader nowhere to hide. It is compelling, disturbing and unforgiving. But its craft is a work of art just in itself. This paradox between the beauty of the prose, and the harrowing, disturbing nature of the subject fills the novel with complexity. I can see why this is a a classic; Lolita will linger with me for a long time to come.

Going back to Orwell: 70 years on

The Essays of Orwell: Books Vs Cigarettes 1946

Before thinking about writing this post, it hadn’t occurred to me that today is the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death, until reading something published by the BBC. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about his life, his writing and political outlook.

Who was George Orwell?

Known most for Animal Farm and 1984, Eric Blair, writing under the pen name, George Orwell, has come to be one of the most famous author’s of the twentieth century. Born in Bengal, Orwell would go on to win two scholarships at two prestigious English schools, Wellington and Eton.

After completing his education, Orwell became an Imperial Servant. This was the beginning of the period in which Orwell was manifesting his political outlook, in 1928, he resigned from the post, as influenced by rising anti-imperialist sentiment.

After this experience; Orwell tried to immerse himself in the realities of deprivation; he donned rags as he went to London’s East End and the poorest areas of Paris. Which later, formed the book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). This is often cited as Orwell’s first socialist memoir and insight into poverty. Later publishing, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) which is an even greater exploration of these themes. Wigan Pier deals with the conditions that working-class individuals were experiencing in Lancashire and Yorkshire, before the outbreak of World War Two.

Orwell is remembered primarily because of 1984, but during his time, he was a prolific figure in the more radical politics of the day. He was first of all, a self confessed anarchist, then came out as a socialist in the 1930s, against the rising tide of fascism. After being rejected for military service during the Second World War, he began working for the left-wing magazine, Tribune in 1943.

In this post however, it is not his novels I want to talk about, but rather, his essays. Having read 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London, Animal Farm and The Clergyman’s Daughter, I thought I knew Orwell quite well, until I started to discover his essays. This post in particular, will be discussing one essay, titled, “Books Vs Cigarettes” which Orwell published in 1946 in the Tribune.

Books Vs Cigarettes (1946)

Writing in 1946, after the end of World War Two, this essay is in response to the idea that reading is an expensive and inaccessible past time. This idea is often thwarted about in our own society, with the assumption it is a privilege that people in 9-5’s cannot afford. Orwell is therefore, critiquing the assumption that reading is a luxury activity.

Orwell in a convincing argument, states that mundane habits such as smoking and drinking, will cost the average person (per year) more than it would to sustain a reading habit. He details his own spending, Orwell was a heavy smoker himself, which cost him more than he spent on books per year.

Take this framework into today. The average Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify subscription probably amounts to being able to buy 1-2 new paperbacks per month. Or even better, when buying secondhand, probably 3-5, or even more, depending on the price. Orwell makes the point that there are far more expensive habits which are permitted among the populous, but reading is discounted as being a costly luxury.

Orwell also emphasizes the importance of buying second-hand books and borrowing from local libraries, friends or family which I think is important to point out. Reading doesn’t have to be an expensive habit, nor does it have to revolve around you owning the material you are consuming.

Additionally – Orwell goes on to highlight that the value of reading should not be purely in monetary terms, as one book can have a lifelong impact. (Indeed, 1984 itself is often sighted as a book which has changed the outlook of many readers, myself included.)

The impact of reading one book is worth more than its monetary cost, due to the longevity of the ideas it can plant,

“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s attitude to life…”

George Orwell, “Books Vs Cigarettes,” 1946.

Final thoughts

Thus, in sum, Orwell argues that in fact, reading is one of the cheapest forms of, “recreations” and it is wrong to assume books are “less exciting” or not so worthy of spending time on. I feel this point is significantly applicable to now – with evenings easily absorbed by Instagram or watching YouTube on the loop. Reading is in fact, one of the most worthwhile past times, which does not have to cost you an arm and a leg.

On the anniversary of Orwell’s death; perhaps this should serve as a reminder that books are powerful and some books certainly leave their marks; on the way we think, view the world, and form opinions; in the most permanent of ways.

Furthermore, reading is not a luxury but a form of “recreation,” which is often brushed under the carpet in an age of so many other forms of entertainment. What would Orwell think? We can only guess.

I will be attempting to read as many of Orwell’s essays this year as I can, to try and understand the way he thought, and how this influenced his writing. I will keep you updated!

References

https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell/Animal-Farm-and-Nineteen-Eighty-four

Link to the article: https://orwell.ru/library/articles/cigar/english/e_cigar

This is interesting too, was published by the BBC today: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/would-george-orwell-have-had-a-smartphone/p080x74t

November in Books

Image: The Guardian

A short but sweet one from me this month. I have spent more time selling books than reading them, but nonetheless I still managed to make my way through two.

Broken Harbor, Tana French (2013) Crime Fiction

Set in a coastal Irish town, Broken Harbor follows the unraveling of an attempted triple murder that occurred in a seemingly perfect family home. French frames the murder through the eyes of one prominent suspect, however, it all becomes far more complex as the novel progresses.

Not only is the crime not what is seems, the area itself and all the promised dreams of suburbia it was meant to fulfill to middle-class newly-wed couples, is far from the lived reality. On the surface, the lives of Patrick and Jenny Spain always appeared to be happy, thriving and successful. But behind closed doors there appeared to be something far more sinister lurking.

A group of lifelong friends encompass the parameters of the novel as memories from the past begin to haunt the present. Not all that glitters is gold for the lives of Patrick and Jenny Spain.

I very much enjoyed this novel and was genuinely surprised at the twist. I found myself invested in the lives of the Spain’s and the type of life they appeared to suggest to their friends and family. I will definitely be reading more of French.

4/5

Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murkami (2019) Fiction

Murakami’s latest novel follows the life of a Japanese, recently divorced painter who abandons his life in Tokyo, for a secluded house in the mountains of former famous painter, Tomohiko Amada.

In this move, the painter hopes his immersion in rural life and the home of such a former successful painter, will transform his own work to have more meaning. Tired of painting the same souless commissioned portraits, he hopes to create works of art with far more depth and understanding.

He soon makes friends with his neighbor across the hills who lives in a glaringly big mansion – which has parallels to Gatsby’s manor across from Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby. Murakami has regularly stated that he draws influence from F Scott Fitzgerald; and in many ways this novel does in the discussion of wealth and beauty which is contrasted with moderate simplicity.

A strange series of events involving the discovery of an ancient well, a hidden historical painting in Amanda’s attic and the disappearance of a young girl change the unassuming painter’s life forever.

This new novel from Murakami is arguably one of his best, where he appears to return to his earlier style featuring a single protagonist and an acute eye for detail and synchronous beauty. I loved this book but I am biased towards Murakami as always.

5/5

August and September in Books

Caught between packing up my life in York and finishing my degree, it has taken me a while to sit down and write this – but I haven’t stopped reading (quite the opposite!) This is what I read between August and September.

Featuring: The Help, Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Normal People, Dance, Dance Dance and The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect.

Image: The Telegraph. The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius (1654)

The Help, Kathryn Stockett (2009)

I spent my first, initial bout of freedom with The Help, a book I had been meaning to read for years. Having only read about its reception after finishing the book, I was shocked to discover the critical reviews and accusations of ‘white washing’ surrounding Stockett’s depiction of the black maids. Upon reading it, I found quite the opposite. It was so refreshing to read a book set during the Civil Rights movement which was centered on depicting the struggle through the eyes and experience of the marginalized.

The novel is told through the experience of black, female maids working in Mississippi whilst the Civil Rights movement begins. Another perspective offered is through Eugenia Skeeter, an aspiring, young white journalist. Through her attachment to her own previous maid, Constantine, it becomes her ambition to write a book portraying the experiences of black maids in Mississippi. Through her lens, we get an insight into the difficulties of writing about a ‘taboo’ subject in an era still favoring the use of black maids in white households, the segregation and pull of white supremacy.

Stockett herself, makes no claim to be documenting the entirety of black maid experience. However, she draws upon her own experience having grown up in Mississippi during the 1960s – she was also close to an African American domestic worker – which formed the inspiration for this novel.

I loved this novel and thought it was incredibly eye opening and cleverly written. (5/5)

Gone Girl, Gillian Flyn (2014)

I found myself fully immersed in this novel as soon as I started reading it. I was gripped towards the two leading characters, Amy and Nick Dunne. Their relationship and lives are told through alternating chapters, featuring their perspectives of each other. The reader is left not knowing who is the ‘mad’ one in the relationship and who is responsible for the series of events which escalate.

The beginning of the book outlines their rather chaotic and different lives and questions how they have ended up together in the first place. It is interesting how Flyn has paralleled the two alternative perspectives of the same relationship to the point where the reader cannot side with either perpetrator.

Up until the point where Amy Dunne goes missing, I was hooked. But when the novel begins to shift towards its ending, I lost interest. I felt the initial complexity of it was lost and the ending was rather dull. I was left with the impression that the author had gotten bored with it and wanted to quickly wrap it up.

Still worth a read though, 3/5.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013)

These few words I’m about to write about The Goldfinch, will never pay homage to its genius (I am thinking about writing a separate post on it altogether), but I would just like to say I think it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it written beautifully, but it draws on all the essential assets of being human in the modern age.

It plays on what is is to be human and how we are all, in some way, suspect to being driven by the fallibility of beauty, art and illusion. Featuring the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which is stolen by the protagonist, Theodore Decker, during an explosion in an art gallery, each aspect of the story comes back to the painting and its central, symbolic message. There is beauty in everything but is is all essentially an illusion, and not necessarily worth saving.

It is also deals with the imperfection and fallibility of human experience, against the backdrop of urban America. Theodore experiences the trials and tribulations of an adolescent growing up in modern America. It touches on the sensitive, human issues of our times in the most beautiful way.

The extent of character development Tartt is able to create in this book blew me away. Although Theo was flawed, often wrong and subject to countless stupidity, I was always drawn to him and I felt bound to him in a way I never have to any other fictional character.

A must read for anyone, 5/5.

Normal People, Sally Rooney (2019)

For all the hype surrounding this book, and the claims it is the next D.H Lawrence or J.D Salinger, I failed to see how it could be comparable. I found it to be a good book, but I am unsure whether it is one of the best of our times.

It explores the lives of two main characters growing up in Dublin, Ireland. The two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, find themselves always drawn back to each other, whether by a platonic or sexual relationship, which appears to constantly alternate. It draws upon wider issues of class in the contexts of ‘modern’ relationships and the barriers that can remain between them.

Their lives are complicated, as all young adults’ are. I did I feel connected to them and the novel in general, but it hasn’t really resonated with me in the same way as it has with other people.

The relationship between the two protagonists is explored against a backdrop of the class inequalities in modern Ireland. However much I appreciate the sentiment and the characterization of the protagonist, I cannot quite fathom why it has had such a great reception. 3/5

Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami (2011)

I go through periods where I absolutely devour Murakami and others where I don’t touch his books. These few months were the former.

I will be biased as Murakami is by far one of my favourite authors but I really did love this book. The novel is told through the protagonist whom is struggling to acquire work as a commercial writer. A sense of restlessness seems to follow him around, so much so that he always ends up at the same strange, Dolphin Hotel; the place where two worlds meet. Strangely enough though, the protagonist is never named. Perhaps, like the premise of the book, he is not known in the present world? Who knows.

Like most Murakami novels, there is not just the present world, but an abundance of worlds where characters lose and find themselves. Although technically a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, I think this novel still works as a stand-alone if you are familiar with Murakami’s writing.

The novel deals with sexuality, friendship, love and loss through the typical sense of strangeness and restlessness which appears in most of Murakami’s novels. It also contains a subtle critique of some elements of modernity, including the wrath of capitalism and how it can be a force for destruction. 4/5

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect, Sarah Armstrong (2019)

I found this book whilst browsing through the proof copy bookshelf in the shop where I work. I was drawn to it as it was written by an author I had never heard of. Sarah Armstrong actually lives in the same town as I do, so I naturally wanted to become more familiar with her work.

I instantly fell in love with the feel and intrigue of this book and learnt a lot about life in Soviet Moscow in the 1970s. The book follows the main protagonist, Martha as she moves to Moscow with her new husband Kit, who is effectively, her gay best friend. Martha moves to Moscow in the hope to start a better life, having been sent away from Cambridge University for distributing left-wing leaflets.

Martha attempts to fully immerse herself into the Moscow life in her attempt to learn the language and make friends. But she is unaware of the dangers of her actions and the spy-like consequences of her actions. Life in Moscow is never quite what she imagined.

Armstrong depicts the Soviet state in the 1970s with startling realism. Like Martha, I too was lured in by the beauty, fascination and sense of the unknown that Moscow seemed to portray. The novel always feels slightly uncomfortable, but all the while, utterly fascinating and alluring.

I was very pleased to find out there is a sequel is in the works! 4/5

July in books

Image: On Chesil Beach (film adaptation, 2017)

Although two and a half books in one month is not a lot too most people – it is more than I have read for a while! Earlier on in the month I told myself I wanted to read more for pleasure – and I guess I have succeeded. Next month’s target will be three books – which should be more achievable as I will have finished my exams!

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)

The first book I chose to read this month was one of the most harrowing books I have read for a while. I feel in love with Atonement when I was studying A-Level literature and have always wanted to read more McEwan and this didn’t disappoint. I read the short novel in about two days and was at once taken back to the writing style which made me fall in love with literature. McEwan has such a rich palette for detail and makes every scene come alive. On Chesil Beach follows the account of a newly wed couple on their honeymoon evening. Flipping from their student days until the present, McEwan tells the story of their upsetting struggle. Subtle but innovative, the story is compelling but nonetheless devastating. A perspective not often covered in literature, but tackled with beauty and elegance, the reader can almost feel the tension prickling through the pages. 4/5

Autumn by Ali Smith (2016),

Considered to be the first fiction book written in response to Brexit, this book (and following series) follows a contemporary criticism of Britain in the aftermath of the 2016 vote. Written in the third person, in prose somewhat resembling poetic voice, it offers a stark criticism of the feeling of Britain in a post-Brexit world. Although being fiction, one cannot help but interpret Autumn as symbolic of Britain’s Brexit sentiment as a historic moment. Leaver or remainer, upon reading Autumn, readers should agree that it is a remarkable work of fiction based on a current, real life political event that everyone should read regardless of political persuasion. Autumn is a set of four books which include Spring, Summer and Winter. Each is a reflection of the moments following the Brexit vote. Stark, yet wonderfully written and reflective. (5/5)

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I cannot really write a review of this as I am only half way through, but I thought I would include a some thoughts anyway. As I was impressed by Chesil Beach, I thought I would continue the McEwan theme. Saturday is set in the post 9/11 age and offers a subtle reflection on British politics in the 2000s; the threat of nuclear war with Iran and urban life in modern London. As expected, McEwan intricately describes every nook and cranny of the life of the protagonist, the neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne and his family. It is a novel set in one single Saturday, but the intricacy makes it feel like a lifetime. I am very much looking forward to reading more of it!