Lo, Lola, Lolita

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Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Ah, Lolita. One of the most controversial books of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. It’s a novel which approaches the incredibly taboo subject of paedophilia from a very unusual angle- a romantic one. We are drawn into the twisted mind of Humbert Humbert, an attractive European academic, who develops an infatuation with his landlady’s daughter, who reminds him of a lost childhood love. Nabokov does not portray Humbert as a hero, but does allow him the odd moment of sympathy throughout, and he boldly resists characterising Lolita as an angelic, innocent child.

This novel is, in short, mind-blowing. From Nabokov’s lyrical writing style- which often makes the novel seem more like poetry than prose- to his wonderfully complex portrayal of the disturbing relationship between Humbert and Lolita, he takes your expectations of a novel about paedophilia and turns them on their head. At times, novel is erotic- romantic, even- and forces you to empathise with Humbert’s desire for Lolita through wonderful descriptions of her tanned, bony feet and glossy hair. Even though Lolita is Humbert’s victim and her life is effectively ruined by him, she is often portrayed as cruel and manipulative. Meanwhile Humbert, the predator, who does despicable things such as have Lolita perform sexual acts upon him in the car whilst he watches children walk out of school, often seems weak and pathetic- in making Lolita the object of his affections, he gives her the upper hand. In the end, it is Lolita who breaks Humbert’s heart, not the other way around. Lolita is undoubtedly a victim and suffers some terrible things, but she is strong whilst Humbert is weak, and Nabokov challenges convention- and flirts outrageously with controversy- in playing with this unusual balance.

However, I disagree with those who call the novel ‘immoral’, or even ‘amoral’. Although he is a desperate, pitiful man at times, we are never permitted to forget that he is a lecherous paedophile and any brief flashes of sympathy are soon replaced by enduring disgust. Humbert wishes to view himself as a lover, and in a sense, he is- the problem is, his ardent passion is directed towards a child. He tries to delude himself, and the reader, that his relationship with Lolita is a great love affair, but he has moments of clarity when he is overcome with self-loathing and begs her forgiveness- much to her disgust. Nabokov delights in playing with conventions of romance and his style is poetic, but at the centre of Humbert’s magniloquent narrative lies a rotting core of disturbing obsession; Nabokov leaves no doubt as to who the villain of the piece truly is. However, Lolita is not a morality tale, and nor should it try to be; do we really need a work of fiction to tell us that rape, exploitation and murder are wrong?

Have YOU read Lolita? What did you think? I’d love to know your thoughts, so please leave a comment!

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

This book may not be your standard holiday read, but I’m a lover of 19th century fiction, in particular the Gothic. Although Oscar Wilde’s only novel needs no introduction, for those of you who don’t know it, it’s the tale of a young man who wishes that his portrait will age instead of himself. The portrait bears the signs of Gray’s sins as he becomes increasingly corrupted- visiting opium dens, deflowering young women and eventually committing a murder- whilst Gray himself does not age.

This novel is beautifully written, in a highly descriptive and sophisticated style that plunges you into the opulent world of upper class Victorian life. Wilde’s rich descriptions had me hooked from the very first page and caused me to fall in love almost immediately with this book. What I dislike, however, is some of Lord Henry’s babbling. I appreciate his hedonistic character and find him charming, but I eventually grew sick of his constant epigrams- even Dorian himself notes “you would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram”.

The plot is also wonderful; although today we are accustomed to this idea of a young man trading places with his portrait, this was a new idea at the time of the novel’s writing. I loved the idea that all of Gray’s corruptions were displayed on a canvas but what I found even more brilliant was Wilde’s acknowledgement that Gray’s attempts at redemption were really just acts of vanity, because he could no longer bear his hideous portrait. I feel that this is present in all of us in some form; when we do a good deed, how often are we thinking of the good we are bringing to another person and how often are we seeking to confirm ourselves as “good”? Back in the 19th century people often tried to lead a pure life to avoid going to hell, rather than for the sake of morality and I think Wilde picks up on this as his protagonist makes petty attempts at atonement. I say “petty”, however, because Gray still refuses to own up for his crime. He does not even feel a great deal of remorse for murdering his friend, later dismissing it as “small”. His sympathies lie with himself and he becomes a twisted version of the great Romantic hero; like Victor Frankenstein, he has boundless sorrow for himself but thinks little of the hurt he has caused others.

I rejoiced in the sheer darkness of this novel; I liked how that rather than striving to be virtuous, the character of Gray did exactly the opposite and corrupted himself. I also enjoyed reading about the hedonistic, reckless lives of the upper classes; it was almost like a 19th century escapist novel! However, there is one point at which the plot hits a snag. The chapter in which Wilde describes Gray’s pursuits over nine years, whilst beautifully written, as always, took me longer to read than the rest of the book put together! It picked right up again straight after but for some reason, perhaps the sheer lack of action and volume of description, I found this chapter was a real struggle.

To conclude, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a perfect read for anyone who loves 19th century fiction! If ‘chick lit’ is more your thing then I wouldn’t recommend this novel, but I enjoyed it hugely- in fact, I’d say it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Wilde is a genius and a natural born writer if ever I stumbled across one.

Have YOU read The Picture of Dorian Gray? What did you think? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment!

“Ah! this morning! You have lived since then.” – Lord Henry