1. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Book of the Month: August - Lolita, Vladmir Nabokov

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by arron89, Jul 30, 2009.

    Thus begins round two!
    The book for this month is Lolita, among the most popular and highly regarded works of literary fiction of the 20th century. Given the length of the book and the nature of the narrative, I think some reading guidelines might be a good idea, so:

    August 1-7: Foreword, Chapters 1-18
    August 8-14: Chapters 19 - End of Part 1
    August 15-21: Chapters 1 - 20
    August 22- : Chapters 21 - End of Part 2

    Given that this is a work of great depth and filled with little games and patterns, I thought it might help to begin with a few questions for people to think about and come to answer as they read (and please do try to answer them, or at least think about them, so we can discuss the different ways this book can be read).

    1) What does the information revealed in the foreword add to the way we read the manuscript itself?
    2) What does the use of the name Humbert Humbert indicate?
    3) What difficulties are there in acting as both sympathetic reader and impartial jury member, as Humbert asks us to be?
    4) What patterns and linguistic games can you see developing?

    Feel free to pose your own questions to fellow readers, though try to keep from revealing information not covered in the allocated chapters so that the story is not spoilt for others.

    Most importantly, enjoy this amazing novel, and enjoy the discussion here!
    Happy Reading!
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Is anyone actually reading it? :D
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    This book is actually very fresh in my mind since I read it only a few months ago. I guess it wouldn't hurt to get a copy from the library and look some things over. But I'm ready to start talking about it if anyone else has started reading it.

    I don't think anyone is this far yet, but I'll go ahead and ask. What would the novel be like without the second part? Would it be better or worse? I've actually heard opinions defended both sides.
     
  4. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    That's an interesting idea, and I definitely have some responses to it, but I think its best to leave it until later in the month to discuss them.

    How about: what would the novel be like without the prologue?
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I think the foreword is there to perhaps allude to the subject matter of the story. If the novel was written today, perhaps he would not have included the prologue. After all, the narrator of the prologue does say that the subject matter in the rest of the pages is objectionable. Given the time period in which this was written, I'd say it's a fair warning to give to readers.

    I also find it interesting that the narrator holds a PhD, as if that makes his narration more credible. J.R.'s narration in the prologue is, for the most part, facts. This and this person dies, etc. So what is the purpose of making the narrator have a PhD.

    And one more thing I just noticed is that the narrator's initials are JR, jr. which are very similar to Humbert's name's structure (i.e. repetition). What does that say about the narrator? After this observation, I'm not really sure what to think about the narrator's credibility. I'll have to go a close reread of the foreword to determine my views on that. I'll rewrite my thoughts on this one soon.
     
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  6. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    The similar name structure is very deliberately a mirror of Humbert Humbert. There's also Clarence Choate Clark from Columbia.
    In the foreword and the early part of the novel, there is an on-going interest in names and labels, and the effects they have. Humbert Humbert's almost comedic pseudonym contrasts starkly with his monstrous criminal life, even when this is all we know about him. Throughout his manuscript, he is often charming, erudite, sensitive, humourous, and constantly under this is the kind of double-persona presented in the foreword - the duality of charming, comic Humbert Humbert, and the already-executed paedophile "Humbert Humbert". Lolita, or Dolores Haze, (or Dolly, or Lola, or Lo) is this mess of contradictory names and personalities that seem to prevent her from being one constant character, dehumanising her in the eyes of Humbert. Indeed, it seems that he is able to minimise his crime by breaking the girl into these seperate parts; it is only Lolita he is violating, while the others are untouched.
    Names are also of great significance in later parts of the book, but I'll save those ideas for later too.
     
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  7. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Firstly, thank you arron for establishing these discussions and to thirdwind for your interesting responses. Secondly, thanks to those that voted for Nabokov, allowing our community to set aside some time to offer this remarkable book a little study.

    Before I start, I would like to say that if anyone has any trouble with the French language items used in these opening chapters, please do let me know. Whilst I am not bilingual, I do possess a credible level of French-language skills, and feel that whilst the comprehension of these items is not going to make or break the reading of Lolita, it can help, as I hope, not too pompously, I can too.

    My initial remarks on Lolita focus on the level of language on offer, which is here a little fusty, symptomatic I feel of Victorian literature's early 20th century legacy, and there extremely well pitched. More importantly, it is rarely purple to the cost of incomprehensibility. Thus, to call the writing impenetrable would be wrong I feel on two counts as the further one delves into Lolita (the book), the less this legacy is felt and Nabokov's infectious tale of all-consuming lust and love envelops the narrative and the reader. The second reason would be the unfortunate and darkly punning allusion it would make. Nabakov clearly tried not to make Lolita (the book) overtly scandalous. There are no crass descriptions or reliance on pejoratives here. As Humbert slowly reveals, so does Lolita (the girl) figuratively. This gently sinister infatuation plays out in these opening chapters, an infatuation that we learnt is tellingly localised, "Nymphets do not occur in polar regions". This is an argument that surely sinks any idea that Humbert's first romance is not inextricably linked to his last.

    Concerning the foreword that the fictional JR Jnr (PhD) provides, it raises more questions than it does answers, more so in fact with a retrospective read. This is an effective narrative device to compel the reader forward. With the nature of the scandal laid bare, would we be so scandalised if the object of Humbert's affections were a woman of 18, 25 even? Probably not. What if Lolita were younger still? How would the audience react then - that scenario could be included in any look at whether the audience can be as 'sympathetic' as Humbert requests. And what if Lolita had been a young boy? Not a debate for now I'm sure, but one that I think would have to be defined by society's approach to sexuality. Written in 1955, the Victorian era has past in name, but its puritan legacy lived on in literature, as I have mentioned, and more importantly in the morals and sensibilities of the general people. If Lolita had been a young boy and the book written by Homer or Ovid, despite inevitable, subsequent censureship, it would probably have been less inflammatory to an audience from that same period than its release into a post-Victorian, sexually repressed society. That said, the subject matter is nevertheless disturbing. From a psychological perspective, or even an artistic one, Lolita (the book) is thoroughly engaging. From a social perspective it is, in places, shocking. An important distinction should be raised at this point. Just because a subject matter is shocking, or abhorrent, depending on your view, it is not natural to assume that a sensitive study presented in fictional form is equally abhorrent.

    This leads nicely into some thoughts on Nabokov's character names. Humbert Humbert offers us the key to looking into names closely. The duplicity on offer hints at allegory that, amongst other items, I would like to read as Nabokov's stressing of the importance between a distinction between author and character. I don't believe on any level that Nabakov is condoning Humbert's compulsions, nor expecting the casual reader to understand them, but would nevertheless like for the distinction between himself and his characters to exist. It is therefore difficult to entirely relate to Humbert, let alone feel sympathy for him. Humbert himself calls himself equally a poet and a pervert at which point a series of dichotomies becomes clear: author and character, poet and pervert, Humbert and Humbert. Perhaps this is a call from Nabakov to the effect that we (the reader) are all deceiving ourselves, living lives of duplicity. Whilst we may not be perverted in the sense that Humbert is, perhaps we are hiding a perversion of our own. I think those kind of thoughts would have been prevalent in a repressed society such at the 1950s, a society that would later revolt into the free-loving 60s. It would perhaps be easier to side with just one of the Humberts, the one arron describes as erudite, though it may prove a tricky task separating the two.

    A careful read allows these games to develop, but Humbert himself, at the climax of chapter 8, compounds them. Then incarcerated, he reveals that he now "only (has) words to play with".

    I look forward to tackling the next chapters and joining you for some further lively debate.
     
  8. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Is anyone else joining us? I do hope so. I'm at the end of chapter 18 now, What is most striking for me, other than Nabokov's clear love of language, and his toying with the audience, is the sheer intimacy of Humbert's confession. It is so real, without being overly graphic, and that is what is shocking. Rarely, outside of Martin Amis, have I found an author (or character in this case) that is so honest. This is refreshing, but as with Amis, equally likely to cause a double-take. Surely he didn't just do / say that, and surely he didn't then think to include it as a scandalising stain on these otherwise white pages!
     
  9. hiddennovelist
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    hiddennovelist Contributing Member Contributor

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    I just finished chapter 18, and something that I found interesting was several chapters earlier, when he explains that he has found a way to satisfy himself with Lolita without taking away her innocence (I tried to find an exact quote, but I couldn't remember which chapter it was in). This insight into his mind helped me understand how, in his eyes, his obsession with Lolita was ok, which was something that I had been trying to understand since I started the book.
     
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  10. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Since I'm not sure how far people are in the book, I'll stick to what the schedule says and try to refer to things in the first 18 or so chapters.

    We were talking about perspective and if the narrator from the foreword could be trusted (i.e. does he have some soft of bias?). This can be extended to the narrator of the novel as well. Since it is written in first person, we can be sure that there is some bias when Humbert describes other people or events that take place (especially when it comes to love and murder). It then follows that Humbert initially sees Lolita as an incarnation of his previous lover. So, for that reason, I'm not sure he loves Lolita for what she really is. In other words, he has an ideal version of what a nymph should be, and his love for his previous lover is superimposed on Lolita so that it's not very clear at first if he loves Lolita or if he still loves his previous lover. Like I said, his bias does distort some important things.

    I also really like the names Nabokov uses throughout the novel. Each of them has its own unique pun or something witty associated with it.
     
  11. Agreen
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    Agreen Faceless Man Contributor

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    I'm way behind with my reading, just finished chapter four. From what I've read so far, I'm quite enjoying it. I guess it's to be expected, but what's stood out to be so far has been the prose, although it's not entirely what I'd expected. I don't find that the writing is obtrusive- in the sense that it draws attention to itself for its own sake, from what I'd heard I had expected the writing to be much flashier and less accessible. The way Nabokov manipulates sound- especially through the use of devices like alliteration and consonance I think does well in amplifying what the text is saying, and how it seems H.H. is thinking- one line that stands out clearest for what I mean by this is "She trembled and twitched as I kissed the corner of her parted lips and the hot lobe of her ear," from chapter 4, pg. 15 of my edition.

    I think it's much too early for me to speculate on the characters and the games being played by the narrator, but I found it interesting how he uses his account of Annabel as a precedent- like the grounding in which his love for Lolita is based and on which it can understood and justified.
     
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  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Ah, yes! Annabel. That is who I was referring to in my previous post when I said "previous lover."

    I also like Nabokov's prose. It's very elegant. I must admit, however, that I had to consult a dictionary every now and then.
     
  13. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    For the purposes of this discussion, it might be more fruitful to think of the prose as belonging to Humbert - it is, after all, his manuscript. Which then leads to the question: if this is simply a confession, why the games? Why the showmanship? Why the literary focus, the allusions, the devices, the poetry?
    Is the book written this way for our benefit, or for Humbert's? Who is he trying to convince, and what is he trying to convince them of?
     
  14. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    It seems to me as if Humbert is trying to draw attention away from his confession. First, he chooses a repetitive name like H.H. which is not his real name. He uses that, as well as some other things, for humor. He is confessing because he has to, not because he wants to. So, in some cases his account is untruthful and insincere. The same can be said about the puns and allusions. He is basically trying to lessen the intensity of his crime and drawing attention away from what is really important.

    On a larger scale, we can imagine Lolita as representing American culture and Humbert representing European culture. In the novel, it is not very clear which one is doing the corrupting and who is being corrupted. This might stem from the fact that the account is bias, but we have to work with what we are given. So, we can ask the following: is American culture corrupting European culture or vice versa? I think the question is fairly difficult to answer.
     
  15. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Humbert is very particularly depicts himself as the cultured, experienced, idealised emigre (curse this non-french keyboard!) and I think for the most part this is how other people see him - he easily charms his way into people's lives, and wearing this mask allows him to evade suspicion.
    I think Humbert's contempt for American culture is quite clear (not yet, later in the novel) but Lolita's longing for the relative normality of this culture seems to be deepened as Humbert becomes more and more installed in her life. Humbert clearly expresses a distaste for it, but is uncorrupted by it, and on the other hand, Lolita's American-ness seems more or less intact by the end of the novel too.
    (I don't really wanna go into specifics cuz that part is still quite a while away, according to the schedule...)
     
  16. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I would say that Humbert is definitely corrupted by Lolita. If we take most of what he says at face value, then we know that Lolita acts promiscuous at times. This is the same way he describes some of his past relationships. And if Lolita retains her American-ness by the end of the novel, then doesn't that mean Humbert loses? The loss of Humbert means the loss of European culture, so he is the one who is finally corrupted and not the other way around. A case can be made for both positions, IMO.
     
  17. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Now, this line of discussion has piqued my interest tremendously. I hadn't quite thought of the narrative in this fashion. Granted, this is Humbert's confession, written from his POV. Nabokov is really but the conduit in this tale, though ultimately it is Nabokov toying with the reader through Humbert.

    As for showmanship, I think Humbert wishes to set himself apart, he is more learned than most, more alien than most in the setting, and of course, more perverted from social norms than most. In setting out his stall as the eloquent academic, I feel he is creating a distance between himself and the norm - trying to persuade the reader than he is an exception, to lessen the severity of his actions, to try to invoke the sympathy we discussed earlier. The games are linked to this point I feel. The confession is written in retrospect rather than real time. We learn during these first 18 chapters that Humbert is later imprisoned, and at this point, can assume perhaps he writes his confesssion then. As I noted earlier, while imprisoned he has "only ... words to play with", and this is where his energies are spent. Like many of Humbert's actions during these 18 chapters, perhaps his games are but a distraction to keep his mind away from more scandalous topics. Or perhaps they are more sinister, a combining of the Humberts. Perhaps the poet and the pervert are becoming one. Perhaps he is losing the ability to differentiate.
     
  18. hiddennovelist
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    I completely agree. It seems like he'll start talking about something, explaining what he was thinking or planning on doing, and then just as he gets to the point where it would actually be relevant to his confession, he starts talking about something else. It's almost like he's teasing you, coming *this* close to a confession and then distracting you with something else.

    Also, it seems like as he tells his story, not only is he trying to convince his audience that his intentions were pure and he did nothing wrong, he's also trying to convince himself. Maybe it's just me, but the way he writes about his feelings for Lolita makes me feel like he's trying to pretend that he thinks it was innocent and harmless, when really deep down inside he feels the same horror that everyone else does.
     
  19. ktm-december
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    I just picked it up the other day and am currently reading it. I look forward to discussing it after I finish!
     
  20. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Actually, I don't know if I believe this now. I read some of Nabokov's other writing, and he mentioned that he hates symbolism and allegory. So, that actually brings out another interesting question that pertains not only to this book but to all of literature. Should we look for symbolism, allegories, etc. when the author clearly states that such literary devices were not employed?

    For example, Nabokov says he hates symbolism. Suppose that I am firmly rooted in the belief that his characters actually do represent America and Europe. Am I somehow missing out on something? Is it important to know what the writer is thinking in order to get the most of his or her work(s)? This is actually an important thing to discuss because of the differing viewpoints of so many critics and professors (a quick search on "Lolita criticism" can reveal the varying viewpoints). I'm just curious to know what the rest of you think and if any of you believe that Lolita and Humbert actually do represent America and Europe.
     
  21. hiddennovelist
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    hiddennovelist Contributing Member Contributor

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    I once had a professor tell me that a writer's intention doesn't matter once they get the words out on paper. After that, the piece sort of takes on a life of its own, fueled by reader interpretation. Maybe Nabokov didn't intend at all for Lolita and Humbert to represent America and Europe, but if his readers interpret it that way, then Lolita and Humbert do represent those countries, regardless of Nabokov's original intent.
     
  22. arron89
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    Modern critical thinking places less importance on the author's intentions and more on reader interpretation. The question of where authority over a text lies is an interesting one though. Certainly we should listen to what the author says he is trying to achieve (or trying not to achieve), but not to the extent that this limits our understanding of the text. Once it enters into the general population, people will read it and bring to it their own literary histories, and this will create juxtapositions and links that the author could not have intended but are certainly valid.

    I'm not entirely convinced that the relationship stands as a metaphor for relations between America and Europe, but I certainly concede that on their own they represent various stereotypes of their respective homelands.
     
  23. thirdwind
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    But shouldn't we at least try to know what the author's intentions were? Otherwise, we could be critically misreading a piece. Perhaps it's just me, but I like to know what the author's intentions were when writing the book. That's why when I read a book I tend to read the author's bio (a short version, at the least) and any other relevant information so that I know I'm not missing anything important. If I were to think of Lolita as just another romance novel without any purpose other than to entertain, then that would relegate it to the ranks of any other romance novel. I guess I just have mixed feelings about this, but now that I know other people's view on this, we can get back to talking about the actual novel.
     
  24. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Be free to join in discussion before finishing it. We are going quarter by quarter, discussing along the way.

    Interesting Humbert's discussions on Fate in these early 20s chapters. More games, perhaps, using Fate as justification for actions when, of course, these things are coincidence. His arrival in the Haze household, chance, Mrs Haze's demise, bad luck.
     
  25. hiddennovelist
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    I just started reading this part last night, and I agree. He keeps spinning things to help justify what he's doing. In an attempt to convince the jury/his readers? Or to convince himself?
     

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