Lolita (Vintage International)

by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

Despite its lascivious reputation, the pleasures of Lolita are as much intellectual as erogenous. It is a love story with the power to raise both chuckles and eyebrows. Humbert Humbert is a European intellectual adrift in America, haunted by memories of a lost adolescent love. When he meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, he constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her, but first he must get rid of her mother. In spite of his diabolical wit, reality proves to be more slippery than Humbert's feverish fantasies, and Lolita refuses to conform to his image of the perfect lover.

Playfully perverse in form as well as content, riddled with puns and literary allusions, Nabokov's 1955 novel is a hymn to the Russian-born author's delight in his adopted language. Indeed, readers who want to probe all of its allusive nooks and crannies will need to consult the annotated edition. Lolita is undoubtedly, brazenly erotic, but the eroticism springs less from the "frail honey-hued shoulders ... the silky supple bare back" of little Lo than it does from the wantonly gorgeous prose that Humbert uses to recount his forbidden passion:

She was musical and apple-sweet ... Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice ... and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty--between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock. Much has been made of Lolita as metaphor, perhaps because the love affair at its heart is so troubling. Humbert represents the formal, educated Old World of Europe, while Lolita is America: ripening, beautiful, but not too bright and a little vulgar. Nabokov delights in exploring the intercourse between these cultures, and the passages where Humbert describes the suburbs and strip malls and motels of postwar America are filled with both attraction and repulsion, "those restaurants where the holy spirit of Huncan Dines had descended upon the cute paper napkins and cottage-cheese-crested salads." Yet however tempting the novel's symbolism may be, its chief delight--and power--lies in the character of Humbert Humbert. He, at least as he tells it, is no seedy skulker, no twisted destroyer of innocence. Instead, Nabokov's celebrated mouthpiece is erudite and witty, even at his most depraved. Humbert can't help it--linguistic jouissance is as important to him as the satisfaction of his arrested libido. --Simon Leake

 

Lolita [UNABRIDGED]

by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, Jeremy Irons (Reader)

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita triggers a deep conflict within the American psyche about crossing the line between love and the perverse lust for a child. In the bestselling audiobook, Jeremy Irons delivers a smooth, calculating presentation of Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged man obsessed with a 13-year-old girl named Lolita. Following a failed marriage to a "large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba," Humbert decides to move to America to work as a tutor. Much to his dismay, his plans change and he moves into a boarding house in Ramsdale, New Hampshire. But his disappointment quickly fades after he realizes he lives next door to the "light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul Lo-li-ta." The relationship blossoms between the man "with a cesspool of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile" and the sassy, vivacious young girl.

The Russian-born author has amazing control of the English language--his jaw-dropping prose comes through powerfully on this audiotape (though some scholars believe the novel symbolizes Nabokov's internal struggle with the English language). Regardless of whether you condemn or condone the classic, listening to this audio rendition is a must. --Gina Kaysen

Pale Fire

by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

Like Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is a masterpiece that imprisons us inside the mazelike head of a mad émigré. Yet Pale Fire is more outrageously hilarious, and its narrative convolutions make the earlier book seem as straightforward as a fairy tale. Here's the plot--listen carefully! John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet's crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote.

According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland--the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote's colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla's King Charles--whom he believes himself to be--and the monarch's eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus.

In the course of this dizzying narrative, shots are indeed fired. But it's Shade who takes the hit, enabling Kinbote to steal the dead poet's manuscript and set about annotating it. Is that perfectly clear? By now it should be obvious that Pale Fire is not only a whodunit but a who-wrote-it. There isn't, of course, a single solution. But Nabokov's best biographer, Brian Boyd, has come up with an ingenious suggestion: he argues that Shade is actually guiding Kinbote's mad hand from beyond the grave, nudging him into completing what he'd intended to be a 1,000-line poem. Read this magical, melancholic mystery and see if you agree. --Tim Appelo

 

The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, Dmitri Nabokov (Editor)

The New York Times

In this sumptuous volume of 65 stories...the reader is treated to a recapitulation of the sorcerer's entire career. His fascination with the illusive transactions made between life and art, his obsession with memory and the practice of nostalgia, his own experience of expatriation, and his love of games and puzzles and coincidence--all can be found in these pages.

 
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