annotation by Tina Rubin
Nabokov became a favorite of mine after I read The Real Life of Sebastian Knight in graduate school. I then devoured his masterpiece, Lolita, which cemented that conviction. His writing is such a joy to read that as soon as I finished the book I started it over again, hungry for more of Humbert Humbert’s (HH’s) world. Through gorgeous and clever use of language(s), remarkable pacing, fabulous detail, and astute character development, Nabokov pulled me into this fictional memoir as if I were entering a prism. I was never quite certain what was “real” and what was reflection as the scenes swirled around me.
Nabokov playfully engages us by giving us precedents and clues for every event in the book, ranging from his childhood love for twelve-year-old Annabel to his ex-wife Valeria’s death during childbirth. Even a random story HH recalls is a careful judgment on Nabokov’s part: the story, which occurred in Arles, is about the role that chance played when a jealous lover stabbed a woman to death while her new husband tried to stop him; the killer escaped when, “by a miraculous and beautiful coincidence,” an explosion occurred. These events of course foreshadow Humbert’s love of the nymphet Lolita, her later death in childbirth, and HH’s toying with the idea of drowning Lolita’s mother (but he didn’t have to, because she was hit by a car). Even Clare Quilty, who follows Humbert and Lolita across the country in an Aztec red convertible (as if they wouldn’t notice?), is Nabokov being playful, drawing us in to unravel the clues. Who knows, perhaps the entire Lolita portion of the “memoir” was meant to be a figment of a madman’s (HH’s) imagination. What I took from all this—I think—is the magnificent possibilities of the novel, the moods and layers of consciousness that can be created on the page through masterful story-telling. I want to write like that. (Who wouldn’t?)
Nabokov’s use of pacing was instructive too. As Humbert’s insanity grows, his sentences become shorter, his imagery more concrete. From the last part of the story, when HH is determined to murder the man who took Dolly away from him, to the part where he has done the deed and decides to drive on the wrong side of the road (love that symbolism), the action is slowed way down. Every detail, from the ditch and the mud to the bullets and blood, is heightened.
In terms of character development, HH is absolutely convincing and, at the end of the story when he finds Lolita again, even empathetic. In his realization that he loves her completely—despite the fact that she is no longer a nymphet—and his awakening to the degree to which he has ruined her childhood, his pain is palpable. This part in particular moved me because of my interest in empathetic villains (I did a critical paper on their development in works by Capote, Stahl, and Highsmith). Humbert’s actions were despicable, but in his suffering, he became human and vulnerable. Someone like us.
Nabokov said in his note at the end of the book that he intended no message with this story, and I can buy that—I think it was a vehicle that enabled him to attain a level he could not have achieved with a tamer subject. He had to dig deep for this one. I’m aiming for something along those lines with my murderous main character. Years from now, I hope I can say my work was influenced by Vladimir Nabokov.