Several correspondents responded to my comments on Nabokov’s Pale Fire by suggesting that I read his most famous novel, Lolita. I am somewhat wary of classics, having the same poor introduction to them as the majority of American public school students, and Lolita has an additional stigma of being a controversial book (some of which, like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, are better forgotten than revered on banned books shelves). The recommendations came from reputable sources, however, and I had determined from Pale Fire that Nabokov was to my liking, so I purchased a copy.
It sat on my shelf for a few weeks, then I ran across this version of the novel, containing notes by Nabokov scholar, Alfred Appel, Jr. For those just tuning in toFirst Impressions, I am a sucker for annotations. (A quick aside: I like the trend that Dorling Kindersley started with regard to mixing text, notes, and graphics, but I was alarmed to see their initial entry into children’s literature was annotating abridged novels. As much as I love annotations, I hate abridgements.) I knew that I was missing a lot of the allusions in Pale Fire, and the opportunity to read Lolita and not be quite as clueless was too good to pass up.
There are three basic types of annotations: 1) explanations of uncommon terms and phrases, 2) information about the referenced person or thing, and 3) notes on the story itself. The first two I like as footnotes, the last as endnotes. Unfortunately, Appel has all the types mixed together in the back which makes it very difficult for a first time reader to enjoy the allusionary explanations yet skip the references to what occurs later in the book. It would have been better to have split the annotations into footnotes to be read with the text and endnotes for scholarly study.
Even though I was often clued in to later events in the book, I thoroughly enjoyed Lolita. The first half of the book, where Humbert Humbert falls into the seductive trap that he built himself is undeniably erotic, but not pornographic. However, because the erotic object is a 12-year-old, the book does tread fine ground. If Lolita had ended at the Enchanted Hunters Motel, it would not be worth mention here. But it continues for another 200 pages, and the repercussions of both Humbert’s and Lo’s actions are visited upon them.
Having exposed myself to several anonymous novels in my sordid past, I was able to compare Nabokov’s work to those lesser authors. Although everyone’s definition of pornography differs, there does seem to me an obvious difference that goes beyond the question of style or intent. A sex novel relies on a building of intensity, leading the reader from tame necking to pneumatic exercises over the course of a few pages, then rebuilding and doing it again, and again. Nabokov starts intensely and keeps the pressure high until the actual culmination over nearly 200 pages. It takes a strong libido to maintain an interest that long, even for a fast reader like myself.
I’m glad I finally read Lolita, and I expect that you will see more comments on Nabokov in this space.
[Finished 21 December 1997]