The trials of a book-blogger…

…or How Not to Write a Review of Lolita


lolita 3She sits at the screen, fingers drumming lightly on the keyboard.

“Lo-li-ta,” she murmurs, checking if the tip of her tongue takes a trip of three steps down her palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. No – her tongue remains firmly behind her teeth at every step. Having mastered counting to ten in Russian at school, she tries it in a Russian accent. “Lo-LI-ta!” Hmm…better, but still not quite there. In the background, the News Channel is discussing whether the UK has managed to blow up anything useful in Syria. “Lo-li-ta!” She becomes aware of the ticking of the clock – a surprise, since all the various clocks in the room are digital. And each tells her that 30 minutes have passed since she opened the document that stares blankly and somewhat accusingly from the screen. Quickly she types:

Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.

Hmm… accurate, but perhaps a bit harsh? She shudders as she is assaulted by a sudden vision of hordes of angry Lolita fans waving placards. Reaching for a piece of chocolate, she mumbles “Lo-li-ta”, then presses delete. The News Channel reports that it’s raining today, will be raining tomorrow and that the medium term forecast is for rain. The damp cat drying its paws on her sweater confirms the report’s accuracy. She makes coffee.

Humbert Humbert falls in love with the twelve-year-old golden-tanned, lentigo-bespeckled daughter of his landlady – little Lo-li-ta…

She ponders, then deletes the hyphens. Then deletes the sentence.

This beautifully written – no, scratch that – This pretentious – no, no, definitely scratch that!

James Mason as Humbert with 18-year-old Sue Lyon as Lolita
James Mason as Humbert with 18-year-old Sue Lyon as Lolita

The News Channel is now discussing the ethics of gene-editing. She finds herself wondering if they could edit her genes to turn her into a natural red-head. Or perhaps they could give her a golden tan and lentigo.

Humbert Humbert is genetically programmed to be obsessed by nymphets, and little Lolita is genetically designed to be one…

She sighs, deletes and switches off the TV. The ticking of the clock sounds louder now. She reads a few blog posts, all of which depress her with the conviction that everyone else can always find plenty to say even about books that are basically pulp. Lolita is an acknowledged classic so she should be able to write something deeply insightful and possibly poetic about it, shouldn’t she? A small part of her brain knows exactly what the problem is – that what she wants to write is…

* * * * * * *

Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.

Despite the fact that I knew going in that this was what the book was fundamentally about, I had hoped that it might have some merits that would outweigh the unpleasantness of the subject matter. For example, I’ve read a million reviews saying how wonderfully written it is. At the point where I was dying of tedium around the 40% mark, praying that he would stop repeating himself and just for once say ‘freckles’ rather than consulting his thesaurus and coming up with ‘lentigo’ instead, I rechecked some of the reviews and noted the little rider that 90% of them add – I paraphrase: “the prose is wonderful, considering he wasn’t writing in his first language”. Aha! If only I’d paid more attention – ‘cos, in general, anytime anyone follows the word “wonderful” with the word “considering” that usually equates to “not really wonderful at all”. Certainly his love of words shines through, and I grant his mastery of English is considerably greater than many native speakers’. But the purpose of a wide vocabulary is surely to enable one to communicate more effectively – not to spend one’s time replacing perfectly functional commonplace words with others that are never used. Unless one is compiling a cryptic crossword…


Of course, had I been swept up in the masterful story-telling, I wouldn’t have had time to get picky about the pretentiousness of the language. But I fear I didn’t find the storytelling masterful at all. Surprising, since Nabokov tells us in his foreword (written tongue-in-cheek as if by a fictional character but still managing to sound rather nauseatingly self-complimentary) that Humbert has written a great work of art, and goes on to say…

“…how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author.”

Hmm! Well… anyway…

Perhaps at the time of writing the whole concept of grooming a child would have been shocking, but frankly it’s a story we hear time and again now, both in reality and in fiction, so its shock value is considerably lessened. Its unpleasantness, however, remains. I think the thing I liked least about it was the attempt to make the story humorous. While Nabokov does often remind us of the real cruelty at the heart of the story – for instance, when he mentions Lolita crying herself to sleep each night – I felt that he was painting Humbert in too sympathetic a light, though I wasn’t sure that this was his intention. And conversely, showing Lolita as too well able to cope with the abuse both as it happened and afterwards. In fact, Lolita’s strength is in a sense a get out of jail free card for Humbert (or Nabokov), because Nabokov would have found it much more difficult to put in his little “jokes”, surely, had Lolita been portrayed more truthfully. I spent much of my time debating whether the falseness of Lolita’s character was a deliberate effect of Humbert’s unreliability as a narrator, but actually I couldn’t convince myself that he is unreliable. I think we are supposed to accept that events happened as he describes them, which left me with real credibility problems.

Jeremy Irons as Humbert with 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita. One understands why they don't use a child but these fully grown women make the thing seem more like a love affair than child abuse... a bit like the book tries to do... but fails.
Jeremy Irons as Humbert with 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita. One understands why they don’t use a child but these fully grown women make the thing seem more like a love affair than child abuse… a bit like the book tries to do… but fails.

Certainly we are not supposed to assume that the book has any meaning deeper than the story it tells – Nabokov himself makes this clear, in his afterword…

“There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

Vladimir Nabokov Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Vladimir Nabokov
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

I agree – it is meaningless and it has no moral in tow. Sadly it did not provoke in me any feelings of bliss, aesthetic or otherwise – though it does have the distinction of being the only book I remember reading that both bored me and made me want to vomit simultaneously. Screeds of it are tediously repetitive – the pages and pages where he describes all the different kinds of hotels they stay in read like some kind of holiday brochure written by an aspiring poet doing a summer job, or perhaps more like the reviews on TripAdvisor, only with better spelling. I would have skipped through to the good bits only I couldn’t find out where they were. One more lingering description of Lolita’s golden tan would have provoked me to start campaigning for compulsory sunscreen. And just when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I was forced to live through the most ridiculous climax (an unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, in the circumstances) with some of the least convincing dialogue I have ever read.

“Ah, that hurts, sir, enough! Ah, that hurts atrociously, my dear fellow. I pray you, desist.”

My feelings exactly. So, it’s very well written, considering English isn’t his first language. And that’s pretty much the best I can find to say about it.

* * * * * * *

…but she knows that would be an ill-tempered rant rather than a review. Exasperated, she presses delete and switches off the laptop. Maybe tomorrow…

Have a great Friday! 😉

79 thoughts on “The trials of a book-blogger…

  1. You’ve done such a wonderful job here, FictionFan, of adding in just the right amount of wit to make your point beautifully. You also hit on something important. No matter what the writing style may be like, the underlying story is still of child abuse of think about it. This is just brilliant!

    • Haha! Thank you! Yes, I’m afraid when I don’t enjoy a book I find it very hard to be balanced about it… though some people might say I’m always a bit unbalanced… 😉

  2. I so-o-o-o agree with you. I did not find the book humorous or enlightening in
    ANY way. I read somewhere recently that N was fragmentally employed some
    times in his career of speaking at universities and he really did travel about in a
    manner similar to Lolita’s journeys. The only redeeming thing I could think of when I
    finished it was to check it off so many “good reading” lists!!

    • Well, thank goodness I’m not alone! Yes, I’m glad I’ve read it since it was one I’ve always felt I should have read, but it does sometimes baffle me why books get the reputation they do. It really wasn’t, I think, a reaction to the subject matter – I juts didn’t feel it said anything worth saying – like 50 Shades, only better written… 😉 Ah, his travels explain his fascination with describing hotels then!

  3. Your negative reviews are absolutely delightful, my dear, even though you try to make as many allowances as possible. I wasn’t enamoured by Lolita either – it just leaves me uncomfortable and feeling dirty and seedy, as if I need a shower after reading it…

    • Haha! Thank you! I must say I find it hard not to rant when a book annoys me – well-balanced, objective reviews seem to be beyond me! Yes, it had that effect on me too – I’m really quite baffled as to why it’s achieved ‘great book’ status…

  4. I knew you would hate this – I read it when I was 16ish and thought it was loathsome. I haven’t reread it, but unfortunately, I have never forgotten it. It is one of the few books I have read which makes me wish I could scrub my brain with green soap. So not a fan then! But your “not-a-review” was epic.

    • I knew I’d hate the subject matter, but hoped he might redeem it in the writing or great characterisation or by making some kind of point – but no! Just well-written trash – if you consider using ‘lentigo’ to be a sign of good writing, that is. I’m luckier than you in that I have a rotten memory, so I’m hoping it’ll fade quite fast…

  5. Awesome review! Enjoyed this immensely! I mean, astronomically, colossally, pharaonically… Okay, I confess — a thesaurus was abused during the writing of this comment, not to mention the usage of adverbs. I’m not proud of it. You know I never read this because of the subject matter. I have two daughters and it would send me into a murderous rage. I’m inclined to surmise only a man would dare write this and not judge his main character, reliable or otherwise.

  6. I’m with you on Lolita — in fact, I never got the whole way through it (and this was back in the day when my rule was “you started it so you finish it”). I’ve liked a couple of his other novels, though: Ada and especially Pale Fire, in which latter the pretentiousness of the language actually helps the narrative.

    • I nearly abandoned it halfway through, but stuck it out since it’s part of my Great American Novel quest. Rather wish I hadn’t though. I might try some of his other stuff, but not for a while – not till I get rid of the taste of this one. Which might take some time…

  7. Love this review! I also spent way too much time wondering if I was saying Lo-li-ta incorrectly because my tongue wasn’t tapping along the roof of my mouth the way Nabokov describes.

    I’ve never cared much for this book, but it’s such a classic that I feel I should make one last try to get all the way through it. If I do try, I’m taking the audio book route because it’s read by Jeremy Irons. And Jeremy Irons has a wonderful voice. 😀

    Sometimes hearing a book/poem aloud shifts it from something ordinary to something extraordinary. For example, there are recording of Tom Hiddleston reading W.H. Auden on YouTube and I find, suddenly, that I love poetry. He reads As I Walked Out One Evening and Funeral Blues. Pure magic.

    • Haha! Thank you! Yes, I think the fact that his lovely but wrong description of the tongue-tapping should have set off warning bells early on – though they were already ringing loudly in my ears from the – “I’ve written a brilliant work of art” comments in the intro…

      I’d love to say it gets better at the end, but actually I think the first half is better – though that might just be because I was disliking it more the longer it went on… and on… I do agree that a great narrator can make a huge difference though. And especially poetry – I had a Uni lecturer who was a wonderful reader and he really taught me how much more powerful poetry can be when read aloud. I often read aloud when reading something beautiful – much to the cats’ befuddlement! I shall toddle off and listen to the Auden – thank you!

  8. Your review was certainly much more entertaining than the book (which I didn’t finish, by the way, because it made me feel sick to my stomach and left me completely bewildered because I absolutely don’t see why this is considered a “must-read” book).

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, I must admit I’m completely bewildered as to why this one is considered great – usually even when I don’t like a classic I can see why it would appeal to other people, but not with this one. Apparently it was turned down by four publishers – I reckon they had a good point…

  9. You make such a good point about shock value vs. unpleasantness. I found Lolita fascinating in style but the plot and subject matter were so revolting that I kept questioning why I was reading the fantasies of a middle-aged pedophile. I don’t think books have to have morals but I do question the value of writing about such things. And I definitely agree that the descriptions of all the hotels was weird and boring!

    • I felt that maybe, if I’d been reading it back when it was written, I might have thought it had a purpose in revealing that these kinds of thing go on, though I’m not sure I would have. But we know that now, sadly, so it simply reads as you say like the fantasies of a paedophile, and I found it positively sick-making in places. Like you, I’m not looking for a heavy-handed moral, but this veered too far towards trying to make Humbert empathetic for my taste. Ugh! Well, at least it’s over…

  10. Brilliant piece of reviewing here, FF! I confess I’ve never read this one (and have no intention to, considering the subject matter). I don’t have a daughter, but I do have a sister and several nieces, so the thought of somebody abusing any of them this way makes me ill (and at the same time, brings out the Celtic warrior-princess in me!!). I still marvel that trash like this — and no, I don’t care how outstanding the writing is! — managed to get published. I think I’d rather read the phone book!!

    • Haha, thanks, Debbie! Sometimes a rant is required to get a book out of the system – and I’m glad to let this one go! Apparently it was turned down by four publishers and I reckon they had a point. I can read about subject matter like this but it depends how it’s handled – Nabokov tried too hard to make Humbert seem empathetic, and I’m afraid that just made me feel a little sick…

  11. Ahh, you’ve just solved a huge problem for me..this one keeps cropping up in all the serious book-lists, and I was wondering whether to steel myself and give it a go despite the I needn’t.. 😛
    I love your reviews of bad books.. 😀

    • Yeah, that’s why I read it too! No, you can safely cross this one off, I think…

      Haha! I’m beginning to feel like one of those canaries they used to send down mines to see if the air was poisoned… 😉

  12. Hahaha! And many ‘ha’s’! That was brilliant, Ms. FEF. But what a book. Imagine writing on a subject like that. How darkly dark. (You spell ‘pedophile’ wrong, too, btw. I must admit, at first, I thought you were referring to a dinosaur…)

    So what happens to Lolita at the end?

    And I must say: how you write reviews is rather awesome.

    • Haha! Thank you, kind sir! Yeah, I can’t help thinking an author who picks that subject must be an unpleasant fellow – he looks it, doesn’t he? (*laughs* See ‘pedophile’ seems to me it should mean someone who really loves feet!)

      She escapes from Humbert, becomes a feminist and spends the rest of her life torturing men… well, that’s what she should have done, anyway!

      *blushes* I hope you visualised me in my ballgown and crown…

      • Well, he definitely has a vicious streak. I mean, look, he’s obviously chewing on his glasses. Goodness. Someone should get him a punching bag. (*laughing* You do have a point there!)

        So, in other words, she’s just a woman for the rest of her life… You know, she should’ve never allowed it! I say she’s guilty.

        No, in a hoodie, I think.

        • He probably thinks that makes him look intellectual… *tries it…hmm!* Couldn’t we use him as a punching bag?

          *gasps* How dare you, sir!! Ah, that’s right – blame the woman! It’s always the way! *growls*

          *laughs* I don’t have one, I fear…

          • *laughs* Does it make you look intellectual? I’ve never tried it. I couldn’t punch him! That’d be…so mean.

            Well, it takes two to do that sort of thing, after all. I’m always blaming everyone, I fear. It’s a gift of mine, see.

            You know what, I actually knew that!

            • Not as much as sliding them down my nose and looking over the top of them… though that also makes me look like a teacher. Oh go on! For me?

              I don’t blame everyone – just you…

              *laughs lots* I might get one now just to mess with your head!

  13. I read the first line as “she shits at her computer screen…” and I settled myself in for exactly the kind of review I read. Even though I had misread the opening line. I still have mixed feelings about the book, its largely on the other end of the Pygmalion spectrum. Although I’m certain GB Shaw would have turned his nose against being compared to Nabokov.

    • Haha! Sorry to disappoint! 😉 Yeah, I see what you mean, I think, but I think I prefer the Pygmalion type of sexism to Nabokov’s – it might still annoy me, but it doesn’t actually make me want to throw up! In truth, I could see that the book had good points but I disliked it so much I couldn’t bring myself to do an objective review…

  14. Popping in for 30 seconds to say that I’ve never been able to read this one, and I don’t think I ever will. I have enjoyed Palefire and someone told me that his memoir, Speak Memory, is gorgeous. My son accidentally dumped a glass of water on my MacBook Air while eating a snack, and I won’t have a “real” computer until the middle of next week. Between that and moving our household, I’ve been very much out of the loop. Am missing everyone!! Will try to pull things together once the computer is back in action.In the meantime, I’ve decided that I want to be a monk in my next life. That way, when I move, I will only have to pack a suitcase with my belongings, not 2100 square feet (approx 10,000 cubic feet) of “stuff.” I am soooo behind on my work!! Stay tuned…..

    • Missing you too – I was just beginning to worry! Oh dear! As if you didn’t have enough on your plate without computer problems too – though maybe it removes temptation and that might be a good thing.

      Haha! Yes, the last time I moved I decided the time had come to settle down for a bit – the amount of stuff we accumulate is ridiculous really! And it’s not all books. In fact, I still have a couple of boxes I never unpacked from that move – 19 years ago. I’m guessing the stuff in those must be stuff I could live without…

      Hope it all went reasonably smoothly though, and that you enjoy your new home once it starts to feel like home!

  15. Just don’t you EVER dare tell us you aren’t creative again, FF. That was a masterpiece ( I feel I should say mistresspiece except, well) of intelligence, creativity, wit and serious literary and ethical debate. You might even have set a new benchmark for your own high standards of excellence.

    My only problem is I fear I will forever associate lentils and lentigos and feel a bit queasy about the dear little split orange legumes in future.

    • Haha! Thank you very much, m’dear! I wish it had been creative rather than just an accurate description of the difficulties I had trying and failing to write a balanced review of the book! It brought on the most severe case of reviewer’s block I’ve had since Grapes of Wrath!

      Oh, I do hope they’re not connected – I feel poor little Lolita went through enough without also being splattered with lentils…

    • Haha! Thank you – I feel it’s become my role in life to read the books everyone else hates… the odd thing is, no-one has put up a defence of the book. I wonder who all the people are who like it?

      • I sometimes wonder that same thing when I am reading classics in particular. Sometimes I can see why they are ‘good’ books, but not why anybody would like them.
        Regardless, the reviews of books you dislike are enormously entertaining, although I don’t want you to have to read horrible books too often…

        • Everyone’s taste is different, of course, but I think there can be a lot of pressure put on people to ‘like’ ‘great’ books – I know that was one of my arguments when I was at Uni, that they seemed to think that not liking a book was a sign of stupidity. Which rather made me think they were a bit stupid… 😉

          Haha! Thank you – I must admit getting it all out in a rant almost makes reading the books worthwhile…

  16. You’re not the only one! Finding the right things to say in a blog post can be time-consuming.

    I have never wanted to read Lolita and your review has made me want to read it even less. But I did enjoy your review. 🙂 I hope you have a good weekend.

    • Hurrah – good to know! Sometimes a review just flows, but other times… and it’s nearly always when I don’t like or feel critical of a book that is considered to be great. Makes me question my own judgement, I think…

      Thank you! Yes, I would definitely recommend skipping this one. You too! 🙂

  17. I’m going to be shamefaced and admit that I do like ‘Lolita’ – but this didn’t prevent me enjoying your scathing review as well! As a side point, most reviewers don’t explain that Nabokov was brought up multi-lingual. It’s not like he moved to America, learned English at night school and then wrote Lolita; he spoke Russian, French and English as a child so I’m not sure the ‘not-his-first-language’ excuse really counts…

    • Haha! I’m glad you came in – I was scared I’d frightened off all the Lolita fans – or maybe they were all meeting somewhere to plot revenge! I admit my review is too negative, but every time I tried to write a balanced one it turned into a rant halfway through, so I gave up in the end. 😉

      That’s interesting! I had assumed he’d learned it as an adult which did seem like a fairly phenomenal achievement. But it means I find it even harder to forgive him for ‘lentigo’…

  18. “She reads a few blog posts, all of which depress her with the conviction that everyone else can always find plenty to say even about books that are basically pulp.”–I must say that lately I’ve read MANY blog posts in which the blogger never once gives reasons for her/his opinions and instead says things like, “It just wasn’t for me” or “I love this book so you should read it!” It’s hard work when you have to justify what it is you believe.

    I felt like Humbert Humbert was HIGHLY unreliable, especially since in the beginning he’s providing rationale for why it’s okay that he’s into little girls, namely that there is a time/age when girls WANT to be pursued by older men. This tells me he’s off his rocker for sure. I listened to the audiobook with Jeremy Irons as the narrator. I’ve also seen the film with Irons, and the audiobook is much, much better. It’s like he’s using that powerful voice to lull you into a dangerous place where Humbert Humbert’s ideas MAKE SENSE, which is just INSANE. I couldn’t stop listening to it, yet I know that had I read the book, I would have had a massively different experience. I would have imagined a man who looked much like the author, which makes it easier to be fully repulsed by him. Irons, however, has a voice that sounds authoritative, sexy, and draws you in like a snake (or good ol’ uncle Scar from Lion King). Nice review!

    • Oh I don’t mean I think he’s reliable in his opinions, but I felt we were supposed to accept that the ‘facts’ he was relating were true, so reliable in that sense. But it’s certainly debatable. If he was to be considered unreliable, I don’t think Nabokov did a good job of indicating which parts were to be believed and which were dubious. Yes, I looked at some of the reviews and it appears the Jeremy Irons film isn’t as well thought of as the earlier James Mason one. But I can imagine Irons relating it well – a good narrator can make all the difference. I think one of the things I disliked about it was actually that Humbert, by his own account, was supposed to be attractive – as if that makes some kidn of difference when it comes to child abuse. But I do think Nabokov looks very much like my imaginary picture of HH… 😉

      • Ah! I see what you’re saying
        I agree–HH wants us to believe him. That’s how he sucks us into his icky web. Have you read Tampa by Nutting? Newer book that does same thing with female teacher and male student. Nutting looks at how make resists are bad, but society sees ten make as “scoring” with hit female teacher is cool. The book looks at the double standards of his society–weirdly–sees male vs female predators.

        • No, I haven’t come across that one – sounds interesting. Very definitely double standards! But also it’s an age thing – I can just about go with predatory 15-year-olds of either sex, though the adult should be able to resist (I remember my own mad passion for my history teacher – he seemed to resist quite easily, though 😉 ), but I find the idea of a predatory 12-year-old, or younger, takes us into fantasy land.

  19. BRILLIANT post. I read Lolita years ago and found it mucky and tedious, would never want to re-read it and was not convinced by the “oh, the beautiful language” argument!

  20. I never ever want to read it- thank you for saving me from that one:) Lately I have been finding that a great read is hard to review…I don’t know why….just seems to have happened lately and I have read some great book these past few weeks – and one is still sitting here waiting for that review to be written… I just don’t know how to start the review or do the book justice…I did love this one.

  21. Marvelous commentary. Every once in a while I feel a twinge of guilt for not finishing this one, but your post validated my decision. Cheers.

  22. It’s a beautifully written book about pedophilia. I feel even Stanley Kubrick was wrong (gasp!) in that he bought Nabokov’s packaging it as “a forbidden love story.” Like so many others, Kubrick was seduced by its prose & Nabokov’s undeniable brilliance, which makes the so-called sophisticated “smart set” forget that it’s still a beautifully written tome to…pedophilia.

    It’s sort of the same situation with the film ‘Zoo.’ It’s gloriously shot, lovely lighting, sympathetic characters, and great cinematography…but in the end it’s still a film about bestiality.

    • Yes, I think it was the suggestion that it was some kind of love story that really brought on my feelings of nausea. I was going to watch the Kubrick film and do a compare and contrast but by the time I got through the book, I just couldn’t face the film. Since the actresses who have played Lolita are naturally older than she is in the book, they look just about mature enough to have love affairs with older men – I can understand why they don’t cast a little girl in the role, but having older actresses tends to make it seem less like the abuse it actually is…

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