Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Yeah, this review is gonna be slightly tricky due to how controversial this classic is in terms of content. Please note that in no way do I condone the character of Humbert Humbert nor do I feel Nabokov was trying to glorify pedophilia. Humbert Humbert is a monster, a ruthlessly misogynistic bastard and anybody who finds the character genuinely sympathetic has completely missed the point of the story and quite possibly mentally troubled. I reiterate- my appreciation for this book does not span from some twisted, sexual perversity of mine, but the clever and subversive message Nabokov had imprinted underneath.
In a nutshell, “Lolita” is a narrative told in first person by Humbert Humbert, a so-called genteel Austro-French academic who has an obscene desire for young girls aged from 9 to 14 that he affectionately calls ‘nymphets’. Although he knows what he does is unsavoury, he reveals in his testimony that he is irreparably incapable of stopping himself and thus says that he accepts the creature he is.
Early in the book, Humbert suggests that this affliction was caused by the premature death of a childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh with whom he had embarked on a short-lived yet passionate affair. After an unsuccessful marriage and a brief period in a mental hospital after a breakdown, Humbert moves to the small New England town to write. He boards a room in the house of Charlotte Haze, a widow. Humbert also meets her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores, with whom Humbert fosters a frightening obsession with and labels her “Lolita”. While Dolores is away at summer camp, Charlotte, who has fallen in love with Humbert, tells him that he must either marry her or move out. Humbert is coerced into wedding Charlotte in order to continue living near Lolita. Charlotte is oblivious to Humbert’s distaste for her, as well as his lust for Lolita, until she reads his diary. Learning of Humbert’s true feelings and intentions, Charlotte plans to flee and send Lolita to a reform school, threatening to expose Humbert as a “detestable, abominable, criminal fraud.” However, fate intervenes on Humbert’s behalf: as she runs across the street in a state of shock, Charlotte is struck and killed by a passing car. Humbert picks Lolita up from camp, pretending that Charlotte has been hospitalized. Later, Humbert reveals to Lolita that Charlotte is dead, giving her no option but to accept her stepfather into her life on his terms or face foster care. The novel then follows the two as they travel across America and try to set down roots without attracting unwanted attention… far easy said than done when Humbert is not the only predator with eyes for his young ward.
Nabokov was an astute writer when it came to playing with his readers- child sexual abuse is an unspeakable crime and this fact is emphasized with the character of Humbert trying to rationalise his deviant tastes. The character, given his self-proclaimed flair for writing attempts to spell-bind the reader by using humorous anecdotes (this book is actually very hilariously written that it’s almost slapstick), wild, colourful prose and a taste for the dramatic. Automatically, Humbert emerges as a serially unreliable narrator which perfectly fits in to the over-arching notion that Humbert is a criminal. With this monster disclosing to the reader one of his many outlandish versions of his life story, “Lolita” was never meant to be an erotic novel- it’s very nature is built on irony and heavy sarcasm that is merciless in it’s damnation of it’s lead character. Another insanely clever approach Nabokov is taking is that he is almost forcing the reader to take Humbert’s side because his character is the only one we are privy to some insight to. Is what he is saying real? Of course not. But therein lies the beauty of Nabokov’s brilliance; we can only go with what is in front of us, an instinct every one of us follows when faced with something we do not fully understand. That’s right, Vlad manages to trip the reader up twice over in one go.
Additionally, here is a nifty piece of information to ruminate on- quite a lot of “Lolita” makes references to magic, mythology and the fantastical. Humbert’s bombastic wording of his exploits, the names of several locales and featured characters in the book all allude to some type of mystical connection that one might find in a fairy tale, a place of Other. Perhaps the biggest connection is the very word that Humbert uses when describing young girls of particular enchanting looks- ‘nymphet’. The word ‘nymphet’ (and ‘nymphomaniac’ for that matter) can easily be associated with the nymphs, beautiful creatures from Greek mythology that inspire sensations and designs of lust by all those who look upon them. The way Humbert relentlessly pursues these young female children could easily be equated to the Greek god Apollo chasing after the gorgeous female nymph Daphne. Daphne did not want ANY part of that hoo-dilly and turned herself into a walnut tree in order to escape his advances. But Apollo, being the cheesecake fanatic he was always ensured he was nearby if and when she chose to revert back into her previous shape, he would be there to ravish her. Humbert more or less sees himself and his ways as that of Apollo, right down to him blatantly describing himself as larger than life in the text- a god, a monster, an overlord. Lolita and all of the other girls he has developed this sickening compulsion for are his Daphnes and he will chase every one of them in order to obtain his satisfaction.
The most crucial statement Nabokov himself makes come the final page of “Lolita” is not encouragement for men to set out into the world and chase pre-pubescent girls, it is quite the opposite; he stresses the importance of parents to raise better children in a better world and the best place to start this aspiration is to make sure you are fit and able to be a parent.
Phew. That could have got super ugly. I highly recommend this book, not to infuriate, but to give readers who possess a cherished open mind the opportunity to experience another type of author/reader manipulation. It is a well-written, confrontational book but it never pornographises it’s ugly subject matter- it condemns it, and gleefully so at that.