By Vladimir Nabokov

Original Publisher: G.P. Putnam & Sons

Current Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics

Matthew Eck writes:

Vladimir Nabokov might be one of America’s greatest acquisitions. I would rank him up there with Alaska, one of two states Humbert Humbert and Lolita don’t visit as they traverse the America of the 1940s. It is hard to believe that we didn’t have to give anything up for Nabokov and can now include him in volumes of The Library of America.

It would be hard for me to say which work I like more, Lolita or Speak, Memory. What I love of them both is a sense that memory makes ghosts of us all. What are they worth in the end, these troubled and fun-filled grails called memories? Well, they may be as fragile as butterfly wings, but they’re worth it all.

Speak, Memory is a book where Nabokov refuses to let the memories of those he loves go down to the dust. Lolita is a book where Humbert Humbert refuses to let his memories of Lolita go down to the dust.

Lolita is a novel that is fully aware of the self-conscious tradition of the novel. What makes it a work of the highest art is that while Nabokov playfully engages in his love of the English language, Humbert Humbert peers leeringly out through a taut spider web of truth and lies as he waits for the reader’s sympathetic, forgiving, and even understanding nod. Part of the book’s genius resides in the fact that Humbert Humbert is the narrator. This heightens the tension and artistry of the novel. It forces the reader to offer up a little sympathy now and then to a character we find both charming and despicable. Charm and deceit measure for a hard balance in the novel. We roll gracefully over the highways, tires humming against the pavement, past restaurants and tourist traps, as Lolita slumbers gently in the passenger seat while Humbert Humbert plans the next fancy embrace

It is one of the more lyrical novels ever penned in English. Lyrically it holds itself together as well as any novel of the last century. The sentences are as delicate and as intricate as the detailed markings on certain butterfly wings. (Oh, butterflies, those little symbols of the immortality of the soul.) Nabokov had a remarkable ear and mind for language. I love what he says in the afterword (great word, by the way) to Lolita: “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.” 

Anyone wishing to know his private tragedy should read Speak, Memory, which is one of the most intelligent and touching books I’ve ever read. 

“When you do read Lolita, please mark that it is a highly moral affair,” Nabokov wrote to Edmund White. Humbert Humbert is a pedophile and a murderer. You can’t take that away from the character. Yet he proves on almost every page that even evil has a heart. Yet that heart kills him in the end when it finally breaks. It is a metaphor that is ripe with love and tyranny.

As you read the book it is hard not to wonder how many childhoods are destroyed in a given day by sexual abuse. It’s a hard novel to read from that perspective. But it is also a book that is more remarkable for the sheer weight of the subject matter. Nabokov does the job of an artist well, refusing to turn away from a subject when others might.

The novel ends with Humbert Humbert on the side of the road listening to the world around him. “I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from the concord.”

Lolita’s voice is the one thing Humbert Humbert has tried to obliterate from the text. But while he bemoans his fate of being crowned king of his world and his empire, the good reader sees through the treachery and remembers that those salty tears rolling down Lolita’s cheeks are as real in the realm of fiction as the little butterflies on those distant flowers. 

Matthew Eck’s debut novel, The Farther Shore, was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection. Among other honors, the novel won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Society of Midland Authors Award for fiction, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Someone should make a film of that book. Eck received his MFA from the University of Montana. He currently lives in Kansas City. (Photo: Katie Cramer Eck)

Fiction Finalists That Year: 

Fiction Winner That Year: Bernard Malamud for The Magic Barrel

Fiction Judges That Year: John MacKenzie Cory, Ralph Ellison, Harry Hansen, Alfred Kazin, Alice Morris

The Year in Literature:

  • The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Salvatore Quasimodo won the Nobel Prize for literature. 

More Information: Nabokov never won the National Book Award, but he was a Fiction Finalist six other times: in 1958 for Pnin, in 1963 for Pale Fire, in 1965 for The Defense, in 1973 for Transparent Things, in 1975 for Look at the Harlequins!, and in 1976 for Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories.

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