?Does Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ have any canonical value?

May 11, 2018 Cultural

The literary canon is the group of texts considered to be of the most value. These are books which are generally taught in schools, colleges and universities. Authors that belong to the canon seem to follow certain characteristics; middle or upper class, white male authors who are dead. Writers such as Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer are synonymous with the canon and also follow these characteristics. Vladimir Nabokov follows most of these characteristics for authors within the canon, but can his novel ‘Lolita’ be considered to have any canonical value?

How can the story of paedophile, Humbert Humbert, who becomes obsessed with twelve-year old Dolores Haze, be considered part of the literary canon when it surrounds such abject subject? Language and style in valued texts is described by the critical anthology as being ‘elegant, witty, patterned, controlled’. With that description in mind, one can clearly observe the sophistication and elegant writing style that Nabokov consistently uses in his novels, especially Lolita. Nabokov’s prose is often pleasing to read aloud, for his words are carefully placed upon their audio qualities.

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For example, even in a seemingly regular phrase within Lolita, Nabokov clearly cares for how the words sound together, and possibly even which colours they produce. He writes, “I am loath to dwell so long on the poor fellow”. Except for “fellow,” every word is one-syllable, creating a quick pace to the phrase. In addition, the monosyllabic’ phrase, “so long,” is technically unnecessary, as Nabokov could have left it out and still made his point. However, adding “so long” creates an iambic rhythm when combined with “to dwell” and adds alliteration also.

Thus, even Nabokov’s smallest phrases have been constructed carefully for the sounds, colours, and shapes they may create. Nabokov’s writing style is full of poetic flair. Nabokov adds little touches of French to his writing, for two reasons; French is a highly esteemed language, often used by Russia’s intellectual elite, and the language has a distinctly soft, fluid sound, which Nabokov uses to his advantage. In Lolita, European intellectual Humbert uses phrases like “en escalier,” “Je m’imagine cela,” and “ne montrez pas vos zhambes”.

Nabokov does not always give translations either, as if he either expects his readers to be multilingual or figure out the words from context and at least appreciate how they sound, Nabokov just likes the diverse sounds and colours that adding French to his prose creates. As stated in the critical anthology, ‘the reader is encouraged to assume that writers of valued texts laboured painstakingly to choose the right word’, a statement which definitely mirrors the way Nabokov writes and constructs his texts. Therefore, canonical artistic value can be given to Lolita.

It is with Nabokov’s use of the French language and careful construction of his sentences that creates a poetic flair that surrounds the novel and charms the reader into understanding and sympathising with Humbert, rather than challenging his motives. According to the critical anthology, a piece of writing that is said to hold canonical value is ‘supposed to give the reader an insight into fundamental questions which are of universal concern’ one of which being ‘the value of love’. It can be argued that in this definition of canonical value that Lolita has very little value.

In a novel about a paedophile who becomes obsessed with a twelve-year old, love almost seems mocking and twisted. It is so twisted, in fact, that when a psychiatrist tells Humbert that the girl is sexually immature, the man can’t help but laugh, considering the relationship he has created with her. Love, to Humbert, is a “localized lust for every passing nymphet”. On the other hand, canonical value can be given to Lolita in the sense that perhaps Nabokov is trying to prove that ‘true love’ varies from person to person. Either way, the idea of love and analyzing what it truly is infiltrates his work as a major theme.

In this way Nabokov is almost defending Humbert in Lolita, and Nabokov brings the readers along with him to understand Humbert’s type of love. Readers, although initially horrified, at least in some ways warm up to Humbert, recognizing that he has a different idea of love than “sane” people do. One aspect of ‘Lolita’ that may deem it unacceptable as being part of the literary canon or having any canonical value is its subject matter; a middle-aged man’s obsession with a twelve-year old girl. On the surface, this seems disgusting and creates a feeling of repulsion within the reader.

But under the surface, there are connotations of deep, sincere love from both Humbert and Lolita. “…and I looked and looked at her and knew clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. ” Nabokov’s poetic elegance turn Humbert’s mentions of love into sweeping statements of an emotion that seems to be deeper than love. In a way, even after Lolita has left him at the end of the novel, Humbert writes his memoirs as if to ensure that he and Lolita will truly be together forever. “And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

” Despite being labelled as a paedophile, Humbert never gives into his desires or urges for “every passing nymphet”. Surely this alone separates Humbert from most paedophiles, and makes the reader reconsider whether or not Humbert can be associated with a label that is so crude and carries negative impressions? Therefore, the novel should be given the chance to be reconsidered for the canon. The critical anthology also mentions that texts from writers such as Shakespeare are deemed valuable because ‘they are believed to have significance not only for his time, but for all time’.

Unquestionably, history has been full of middle aged men taking wives decades younger than them; an act that still happens in parts of the world today. Whilst Nabokov’s novel mirrors the simple aspect of an older man and a pre-pubescent girl, ‘Lolita’ is also a tale of a couple in love out of their own free will, rather than an arranged marriage. When first published in 1955, its reception was mixed. Even though the first 5000 published copies sold out, no review was written of it until the end of 1955, when Graham Greene of the Sunday Times said that the book was “one of the best books of 1955.

” This provoked a response from the Sunday Express when the editor John Gordon described the novel as “the filthiest book I have ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography”. The novel continues to generate controversy today as modern society has become increasingly aware of the lasting damage created by child sexual abuse. For example, the recent Jimmy Savile case shook Britain and was followed by many other sexual charges against other people in the public’s eye.

Nabokov has captured a perpetuating theme in his novel Lolita, giving the novel a universal feel and canonical value. Critic Michael Foucault takes a sceptical position on attributing value to texts. Foucault questions the notion that the writer is totally in control of what is being written. He draws attention to factors that would have influenced the writing process such as the ‘common-sense knowledge of the time, literary traditions and the economic and literary pressures which led the writer to write within certain genres or styles and on certain subjects’.

The problem of linguistic and cultural perspectives that may not be present in one’s audience is something that Nabokov dealt with in his own life. In his essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” Nabokov laments the loss of Russian language and culture when adopting English as his primary language for writing and whilst writing ‘Lolita’, Nabokov complains that he was ‘faced by the task of inventing America’.


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