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The Filthy Lucre Tour
Reading Lolita
11th Jun 2006
Book Review: Lolita (Vladimiar Nabokov)

This is a funny old book. I assumed it was going to be either a prurient romp or a wildly over-hyped lighthearted romance, but it turned out to be neither. It's a flabberghastingly open first-person tale of a love affair that's just not really going to work out right. I expected the main character to be unaware of the social stigma attached to jumping twelve-year-olds, but that wasn't the case either. He's clearly well-read on historical child-bride precedents, and quite aware of the legal and social ramifications.

I didn't actually buy this book (honest) - I found it one morning on the end of my desk at UBS, and I noticed that on the bottom of the back cover it says "The Independent - Promotional Copy, not for resale", so I didn't feel too bad about not trying to find its original owner. It was one of the choices that I'm surprised never featured in the Book Club I was a part of in London, so I eagerly popped it in my bag. Now here I am sitting by the beach in Croatia, and I can't work out whether I enjoyed it or not. I found reading it really rather uncomfortable - it is a splendidly sexy book, but unfortunately about a topic that's morally difficult for all of us. Why should you have to know someone's age before you can glance a double-take of admiration as they pass you in the street? A couple of hundred years of culture and law is a fairly short length of time in the overall scheme of things, yet this grey area is so unspeakably awful we can't even talk about it, and the fierce penalty of statuatory rape hangs over the head of anyone who dares suggest that the state don't know best when they themselves are ready for the most human of instincts. Humbert Humbert, Nabokov's narrator, takes what's probably the most sensible of courses and announces that pretty much everything in the book is going to be morally repulsive, and then gaily continues onwards in syrupy, indulgent and embarassingly effectual prose to go on about how sexy twelve year olds heading out of the school gates are.

The language is a little tricky at times - Nabokov originally wrote in Russian but is clearly a linguistic enthusiast and is perhaps a little bit over-keen to demonstrate just how many English words he knows, and just what splendid wordplay he can use to make an otherwise pleasant sentence less readable. It's a pity, as the characterisation is superb, particularly that of Lolita's one-dimensionally awful mother.

In an oddly similar way to Uncle Fester's superb Home Workshop Explosives, I can't entirely work out whether I enjoyed this book. Nabokov very successfully creates a narrator whom you're desperate to pigeonhole throughout the book, in order to simplify the whole business. He's not stupid, he's not old, he's not lonely by necessity and, perhaps most off-puttingly, he's not in the least part unattractive to women. He has a curious drive which is both shocking and illegal, but he writes about it with flourish and fervour that you can't hate him simply for that. I'm afraid I must hand over to Martin Amis, who writes on the back cover:
"Lolita is comedy, subversive yet divine... You read Lolita sprawling limply in your chair, ravished, overcome, nodding scandalized assent".

Next: Budapest; Croatia
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Diary Photos
11th Jun 2006
Reading Lolita
Under Schloss Neuschwanstein

Reading Lolita

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