Friday, 21 September 2007

"Lolita" Book Club Debate Review

The second Library of Secrets Book Club debate set the stakes high as we sat down to grapple with this provocative and disturbing text. I entered the debate feeling the gravity of the book especially considering the current climate of fear surrounding peadophilia. I had many thoughts whilst reading the book about society’s attitudes towards child sexuality and our complete inability to discuss the issue due to the fear surrounding it. Ironic, in a media age that objectifies and over sexualises children, placing prepubescent beauty at the forefront of fashion and advertising whilst pressurising children to emulate adulthood too early.

Only today I was confronted by it at the swimming pool when a large group of schoolgirls came in to the changing room. They were chattering and shrieking. As they unpeeled layers of their clothing, revealing parts of their bodies to one another, a tall thin black girl turned to her friend and said “your soooo skinny, oh my god you must be a size zero.’’ Another girl interjected, ’Where’s the meat on ya bones” giggling and looking slightly embarrassed. This generated a wave of inspection between members of the group leading to a string of paranoid statements; “I thought I was skinny but your even skinnier”, “I’ve got a big bum.” “I hate my thighs.”
These were girls of maybe 9 or 10 years old, adopting the body fascist language of trashy magazines and tabloid press to talk about their bodies!

Murrough O’Brien opened the debate by considering Lolita as a love story, to be precise a story of unrequited love. Humbert Humbert however perverse is in love with Lolita and the story is his story, told solely from his perspective. He mythologizes Dolores Haze, turning a ‘normal’ teenager in to the ultimate nymphet:
‘the little deadly demon among the wholesome children: she stands unrecognised by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.” Pg 17
He uses a fairytale language to create a monster, a deviant child who is “asking for it”. Throughout the text Humbert detaches Lolita from normality imposing a temptress, femme fatal quality to her character that he uses to justify his actions. Nabakov published Lolita in 1955 only a couple of years after Alfred Kinsey had published his groundbreaking report on Male and Female sexuality. Nabakov uses Kinsey’s new ideas of “normalcy’ in early sexual development, to highlight Humberts abusiveness. Lolita after all, in the wake of the Kinsey report is just a “normal’ teenager beginning to experiment with her sexuality. At the rather appropriately named Camp Climax she experiments with girls and a boy, and this according to the new sexology of the era is perfectly normal adolescent behaviour. However it gives Humbert another false justification for his actions.

Humbert introduces Lolita’s exploits at Camp Climax after having raped her the previous night in the first of many motel rooms.
“ She told me the way she had been debauched”pg135,
Nabakov uses these moments to highlight Humbert’s madness, his twistedness and powers of self-delusion. As the book develops, so Humbert’s nymphet fixations alter into an obsession with Lolita herself, this is compounded in the final scenes where she is pregnant and has lost all her nymphet attributes undeterred Humbert demonstrates his love for Lo by asking her to go away with him.

As much as ‘Lolita’ is a love story it is also a story of abuse, rape, exploitation and death, as Martin Amis establishes in his seminal essay “ Martin Amis on Lolita “ everyone Humbert comes in to contact with dies. “Humbert’s childhood love Annabel dies at thirteen (typhus), and his first wife Valeria dies (also in childbirth), and his second wife Charlotte dies (“a bad accident”) though of course this death is structural, and Charlottes friend Jean Farlow dies at thirty-three (cancer), and Lolita’s young seducer Charlie Holmes dies (Korea) and her old seducer Quilty dies (murder another structural exit) and then Humbert dies and then Lolita.”
The tragedy is that we will never know Lolita, we will never see her side, we only have Humberts sordid tale to reap judgement over which disturbed many people in the group.

There was mixed reaction from the group as to whether they liked the book; everyone seemed to agree that the first two thirds were engaging where as in contrast the road movie section seemed mundane and monotonous. Murrough wondered why Nabakov had decided to make Humbert Humbert and Lolita such nomads, why not stay in Ramsdale? Peggy suggested that it was Nabokov highlighting the European in Humbert, the romance of the journey and a desire to discover and explore. Others thought that it was to keep Lolita interested in him. If he could endlessly show her new sites and wonders she would surely never tire of this lecherous old man. However the overall consensus was that the decision was tactical on Humbert’s part. Initially he didn’t want to get caught, or be pried upon by suspicious neighbours. The Kubrick film (that Nabakov wrote the screenplay for) demonstrated this most clearly, when they settled in Beardsley and an overbearing neighbour warns Humbert that people are talking about him and his young daughter.

This was also the first book Nabakov wrote in English, having recently immigrated to the States suggesting that perhaps Humberts restlessness could reflect Nabakovs desire to explore and discover America. But as Murrough pointed out there are no mistakes in Nabakov this is prose at its tightest, from Humberts use of language to the literary references that crop up throughout. For instance Humberts first love is called Annabel Leigh, this was Nabokov tipping his hat to Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘Annabel Lee’. (See below). However lyrical and prosaic, Lianne noted that Nabakov was constantly dotting the text with clues about what was happening, she highlighted a pivotal moment in the text when Humbert admits to feigning sleep whilst hearing Lolita sobbing at his side every night.

Humbert is constantly justifying his unwholesome and debauched actions, using statistics, mythology, and sociology:
“The stipulation of the Roman law, according to which a girl may marry at twelve, was adopted by the Church, and is still preserved, rather tacitly, in some of the United States. And fifteen is lawful everywhere.” Pg 135
These are moments of desperation in a book whose dominant theme is conscience. Guilt, paranoia and madness insue in Humbert Humbert as his veracious appetite for Lolita and the open road send him round the bend. He is defendant, prosecution, judge and jury, a sudden death conveniently allowing him to escape the fate that he has cast upon himself.

Kubrick’s film is a triumph and in some ways almost better than the book. As the trailer protests “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”
Kubrick and Nabokov came up against many difficulties, the first being that the original screenplay would have produced a feature 5 hours in length. Continual negotiation between writer and director resulted in a film that plays for a modest 2 and a half hours! The cast is astonishing and Peter Sellers depiction of Quilty is humorous and chilling. But for me Shelly Winters takes the Oscar, her depiction of Charlotte Haze is terrifyingly brutal. As she saunters through the house showing Humbert around for the first time, with that outrageously tight fitting yet frumpy dress and a smouldering cigarette holder. She boasts of how she has just hosted the book club association meeting with Clare Quilty as guest speaker. I giggle to myself, does she seem familiar to you!?

Many thanks to Murrough O’Brien and all the book club members for making it such a great evening.

Book club member Emily Turner has writtern another fantastic review of the Lolita debate, please check out

Annabel Lee
By Edgar Allen Poe

It was many and many a year ago.
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee:
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee:
So that her highborn kineman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in Heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the side of the sea.