The August book club meeting was a standout for a number of reasons: 1) book club Summer slumber party chez Julia; 2) book club photo-shoot grace à Laura Kelly, the talented photographer we’re lucky to count among us; and 3) book club revisits the classics and reads Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous Lolita.
The novel compelled one of the most rousing intellectual discussions we’ve had in quite some time. In essence, Lolita is the story of an affair between a middle-aged man and a twelve-year old girl. While the subject matter is certainly eyebrow-raising, the novel is far less pornographic (and much better written) than one of last summer’s Unputdownable picks, Fifty Shades of Grey.
The story is narrated by the middle-aged Humbert Humbert who has no qualms about admitting to the perversity of his sexual appetites. Humbert describes himself as a European of mixed stock who had the luxury of spending the summers of his childhood “in a princedom by the sea.” At the age of twelve he had his first brush with love and loss with the angelic little girl Annabel Leigh and is thereafter enslaved by the “perilous magic” of pretty preteens – who he calls “nymphets.”
After casting about for a number of years, being institutionalized and working in a series of odd jobs, he eventually makes port in a quiet New England town, boarding in the home of Mrs. Charlotte Haze. He shares a roof with his landlady and her twelve-year old daughter Dolores, a fatally seductive nymphet. The oblivious Charlotte Haze moons over Humbert endlessly whilst the object of her desire becomes further enraptured by the “tender dreamy childishness” of her own daughter. In an attempt to sooner sate his needs for young Dolores, Humbert marries Charlotte with murderous intent. But an accident dispatches the newlywed Mrs. Haze and Humbert finds himself the sole guardian of his precious “Lolita.”
On their first night together, Dolores proves to be “experienced” beyond her years and plays the role of the seducer with convincing aplomb – or at least that’s what our narrator would have us believe. Their far-from-fairytale romance sees them crisscross the American continent hopping from motel to motel until the pair eventually settle in a sleepy New England town where Humbert assumes a teaching position at Beardsley College. Their weird affair comes to a screeching halt when Dolores makes her escape with a middle-aged playwright from whom Humbert eventually takes his revenge.
Some of us were spellbound by Nabokov’s masterful use of the English language (his second tongue) while some were repelled by the challenging subject matter, and others vacillated wildly between enchantment and disgust. Our mixed feelings on the book elicited some of the most thought-provoking repartee we’ve had in awhile.
Much of our discussion centered on Dolores and her agency within her relationship with Humbert. Can we trust Humbert’s attribution of her as sexually aware? Humbert is in a privileged position to frame our perspective as his is the only testimony available to us.
We also debated the merits of describing Dolores as a “victim.” She seems to enter into the relationship willingly but is her consent nullified by virtue of her age?
Personally, I’m most compelled by the way Nabokov’s character, Lolita, challenges us to reconsider the boundaries of the “child.” Other than age, innocence is one of the few immovable markers of the child. Dolores’s awareness of sex and sexuality constitutes a definitive loss of innocence thus shifting her out of the category of the child. But after shamelessly seducing Humbert she’s begging for bonbons and baubles – clinging to bastions of childhood. I would argue that Dolores disrupts the clearly defined categories of “child” and “adult” as she moves seamlessly between the two.
After our engaged discussion we all rated the book out of 5. Ratings ranged from 3 to 5. On the whole, everyone was impressed and at times challenged by the writing, some members reported wanting to read aloud to better appreciate the beauty of Nabokov’s prose. Some of those who awarded lower ratings felt the content and style of the book were hard to get through. Personally, I count it among my favourite books, I’ve read it 3 times and gave it a resounding 5/5.