Lolita, Madame Bovary, Roxana: Life Lessons from Beloved Books

This is mostly about Lolita, because it is my favourite novel. If you don’t want to encounter spoilers or opinionated ramblings, I’d advise clicking away. (That can apply to any post you see here.)

James Mason and Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita
James Mason and Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita

Novels are foxy and full of tricks: they wear guises, they steal tales and retell them, and they shape-shift shamelessly. You can have your narrator storytelling before he’s even been born (Tristram Shandy); or have your main character stumble upon the author, only to accuse him of being inept (Lanark). Novels are unpredictable, capricious, and exquisite. When you find a good one, it sweeps you off your feet, and returns you to earth a little earlier than you’d like. Novels are bigger than life. They open doors. They turn possibilities into vistas that can be inhabited, for a while. They warn and reproach, teach and heal, soothe and tickle saucily. It seems a miracle they originate in the paltry corners of people’s minds, but somehow they do.

Here are some of my favourite novels and the Serious and Important Things they have taught me.

Madame Bovary: stay away from credit cards and needy lovers

madame bovary filmy

Lanark: everything that is supposed to be in hell is already here on earth


Ulysses*: everything that is supposed to be in heaven is already here on earth


The Good Terrorist: nobody really has a clue what they’re doing, or why. Fuuuuuck.

the good terrorist

Roxana: (with apologies to Gloria Steinem) – macabre things will happen if widowhood is a woman’s only path to power.


Emotionally Weird – Dundee Art School in the 1970s was the epicentre of dazed, hazy cool. I want it to exist still and I want to be there always. It is my spiritual homeland.

emotionally weird

Lolita: be kind.

images (1)

This last one might not seem likely at first. Isn’t this book about lust and butterscotch sundaes, square dancing and intellectual snobbery, and a New England summer of bare tan skin and lake-swimming? When I first read it I very much thought so. I fell for the suave prose style; the sunlit tennis matches, the endless American highways.

I’ve since come to think that this novel is about kindness. Humbert the Terrible wants us to believe his story; his love for Lolita, his grand romance. He hides behind heavy-handed word puns and lustrous adjectives, but it’s possible to see through him and past him, and if you can do that (and I had to try before I could), there’s another story altogether. Humbert gives us overwrought descriptions of his nymphet; despite him, the real, confident, vulgar, monkeyish twelve-year old girl emerges now and then, dabbling in her own kind of slangy word play.

As the tale goes on, and Humbert takes almost all freedom from Dolores, we see a girl whose experience is nothing but ‘drudgery and quarantine’. Michael Wood, in his book The Magician’s Doubts, nails it pretty succinctly when he says that even the tiniest ‘perfunctory brand of tenderness is missing’ from Humbert’s relation with Lolita, ‘in spite of Humbert’s likeness for tenderness as a word; just as kindness is often missing from romantic love’.

By the end of his tale, Humbert (leaving bloody murder in his wake) finds the seventeen year old Lolita long after she has escaped him. He tracks her down to Grey Star, where she lives in a dusty outpost with her young husband, smoking, wearing spectacles and smelling faintly of fried food. She is hugely pregnant, and with her ‘ruined looks’ and ‘rope-veined hands’, she makes a tragic spectacle, worn out and flattened by all that has happened to her. This wry, tired teenager, already at the end of her life and hopelessly grown up before her time, is the saddest apparition in any of Nabokov’s novels. Humbert reports the encounter with pure, vivid pain. He begs her to run away with him. She brushes him off, gently, casually – ‘no, honey, no’.

Humbert now insists that he loves her; that he has moved past infatuation. Even if she were grown old, tainted and torn, ‘even then’, he insists, ‘I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita’.

It is the most beautiful declaration; but then again… why the precious style? He is vying for our forgiveness, but despite his pain and his regret, a cherished nostalgia is getting in the way. It is up to the reader, to choose whether to be seduced by this eloquent, belated repentance. I don’t believe that he is suddenly able to see Dolores, as she is, and as she was, because Humbert is still only telling us about his misery. He’s all wrapped up in his own remorse.

I first loved this book for the gorgeous use of language. Then I loved it because it kept revealing new things. This isn’t a novel that glorifies abuse; it’s a novel that gracefully, with sleight of hand, returns morality to the reader.  Whose story are we reading, and who do we wonder about? The dashing, handsome adult with a way with words? Or the girl on the periphery who is shown no tenderness? The author (well hidden behind his monstrous narrator) tells us all about tenderness, and kindness, and empathy, and how very much they matter; that these things matter above all else, really.

In the afterward to Lolita, Nabokov said that he intended, in writing this book, to access that sense of a place in which ‘kindness, curiosity, tenderness, ecstacy’, is the norm. Unlike Humbert, he rightly elevates these most dear, rare aspects of life. Even the very sound of the words is pleasing, exact, full of care.

I learnt from Lolita to read carefully, and read again; and I learnt that you should never trust a person with a fancy prose style.

lolita cover

* So, Ulysses. I’ve only read about 10% of this novel but I’ve been pretending for years that I know all about it. Anyway, it’s great. You should read it. And then summarize it for me?


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