Being a fan of 18th and 19th century fiction, developing my “Modern Masterpieces” feature for this blog posed a challenge. I could think of plenty of good books I’d enjoyed over the years, but Good is not the same as GREAT, and I wanted to spotlight those novels with the best chance of becoming “classics”. You know, the ones destined to be foisted on the high school and college students of two centuries from now, who will probably be more interested in tooling around on their flying scooters than reading dusty narratives from long-dead authors like Charles Dickens and Toni Morrison. Luckily, I have Facebook friends with a much better grasp on modern and contemporary fiction than I do. They provided me with enough ideas to carry this monthly feature through 2025 at least.
But there was one book, I knew I’d discuss–Vladimir Nabokov’s delightful, delicious, disturbing Lolita. To explain the importance of this novel to me, I need to go back two decades to early 1993, when I realized how little reading I’d done in the seven years I’d spent earning my B.A. and M.A. degrees. Granted, I’d majored in Anthropology and not in English Literature. But, still…there I was, a highly educated person, a book lover, and I’d never read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, Henry James or Willa Cather. Add this to the wonderful poetry and fiction being published year after year after year…How could I catch up, much less keep up?
So I set a cut off for myself. 1950. It seemed reasonable enough at the time. I could start with Beowulf and The Iliad and work my way forward. This way I’d cover all the important stuff, right? It was a fabulous plan. Until Lolita. I’d heard of the book. Of course. My century’s Madame Bovary. The book which dared speak the unspeakable–a debauched Old World serpent slithering through the cool green lawns of all-American suburbia. Published in 1955, it was out of bounds for me.
Thank goodness for tax season and rude library patrons. I went into the photocopy room to xerox my freshly prepared 1040A and there she was abandoned next to a pile of home and garden magazines. The cover: a pair of bare, knock-kneed legs in bobby socks and black-and-white Oxfords. The person using the copy machine warned me she’d be a while and suggested I come back later.
I picked up the book.
A brief forward by a fictional editor describes what follows as the memoir of one “Humbert Humbert,” who died in prison a few days before the start of his trial. The nature of his crime is withheld until the end of the book. And it’s not what the reader assumes. Then, chapter one:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Friends, he had me.
I still find it hard to believe that English was Nobokov’s third language, and he (as he states in his short essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita“) didn’t feel he wrote his best work in it:
“My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”
Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years
I don’t know about you, but I’d take his brand of English, second-rate or even third!
And yet it isn’t just Nabokov’s style that elevates his novel from good to Great. The settings–from young Delores Haze’s cluttered, mock-genteel New England living room to the unending series of roadside hotels and motor inns Humbert and his young hostage inhabit during their time on the run–are beautifully realized accretions of detail. The latter were based on the author’s travels across the United States on annual butterfly-hunting trips with his wife.
For me, though, character is where Nabokov shines brightest. In Humbert Humbert, he presents us with a monster and proceeds to reveal its human heart. Don’t misunderstand me, the pathology depicted here is real and incurable. Humbert is a pedophile. He recognizes his perversion and is powerless to control it, though near the end of the book, during his years-long search to recover his lost Lolita, he manages to sublimate his behavior (if not his urges) through a semi-permanent relationship with an adult woman. It isn’t a perfect solution, and one wonders if, had his mental and physical health not been so broken down, it would have worked as well as it did. Yet in spite of his terminal, tragic flaw, Humbert changes over the course of the novel. Somehow, Nabokov redeems him to a degree that would seem impossible except that, by the end, we thoroughly believe in that redemption, that by some twist of fate and the human psyche, the predator’s lust turned to love and, more than that, to empathy for his prey. Ultimately, Lolita’s life (as a grown woman in a normal relationship with an ordinary man) is more important to Humbert than his mania, and certainly more important than his own life.
Language, style, setting, character, humanity, chutzpah–there are so many reasons to call Lolita a Modern Masterpiece. Most important to me is that it was my first. Afterward, there was no going back to that neat, efficient, rational course of study I’d created for myself. My reading life since has been chaotic and messy and infinitely satisfying.