Review: Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.” — Vladimir Nabokov, 1963.

Goal #5:  Read and review at least one book per month (1/32).

Unfortunately I read this book in fragmentary spurts during semester and exam period, so it exists in my mind as an eloquently written, morally disturbing blur. I can’t give a detailed review of Lolita–a lot of plot details escaped me whilst I lay clutching my Kindle in a somnolent haze after an evening of study–but I’ll tell you as best I can what I thought of this controversial classic.

Lolita is a narrative of events, told in retrospect from the highly coloured viewpoint of one Humbert Humbert (pseudonym), presumably from his prison cell. H. H. is a respectable European scholar with good looks to boot when, after failing an earlier marriage, he comes to the United States to write. He also has a dark secret: an irrepressible taste for prepubertal girls.

He takes up tenancy in the house of the widow Charlotte Haze, and immediately becomes infatuated with Charlotte’s twelve-year-old daughter, Lolita/Dolly/Lo. Humbert’s increasing obsession with Lo and Lolita’s emerging precociousness combine to produce a spiralling succession of bizarre and chaotic events that make the reader more and more uncomfortable with each of Humbert’s passing thoughts.

Lolita has been described as a tragicomedy. I found it more tragic than comic, for in spite of Humbert Humbert’s intensely sophisticated and artful prose and his attempts to justify his own shortcomings, the reader sees a man who is weak, morally conflicted and, ultimately, despicable. Nabokov’s book, I believe, is a piece of art because one has to struggle not to sympathise with the central character; not to be unconsciously persuaded by H. H.’s eloquent and intelligent sequence of thought.

Nabokov’s rich, brimming prose, dripping with puns and multilingual word-play, is made even more amazing by the fact that, although Lolita was originally written in English, Nabokov’s first language is Russian. His descriptions skip from metaphor to metaphor in a way that is always acutely lyrical, never jarring. In particular, the build-up to the violent final climax, phrases like “the sun was visible again, burning like a man” and “the birds screamed in the drenched and steaming trees” leave the reader shivering in nervous anticipation.

Yes, okay, Lolita is essentially a story about a paedophile. Some people describe it as the story of a perverted adult destroying the the innocence of a young girl’s childhood. But others have described it rather as the story of the exploitation of a weak man by a corrupt child. I feel like the novel stood at a midpoint. Nabokov himself said that there is no moral to Lolita, and I agree that the book does not convey one. He also said that he detests symbols and allegories.

In summary, Lolita was neither a pleasant nor an easy read. It was different, and artful, and elegantly disturbing. Both Nabokov and our dear Humbert Humbert are writers of astounding aptitude, but, unlike most books, Lolita will not generate in you a sense of fondness for a single one of its sorry characters.

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2 comments

  1. Loved your review! I read this novel in 2010 and felt both deeply disturbed/disgusted yet continually intrigued. It was such a strange sort of ‘enjoyment’ (if I can call it that) of reading something that felt so ‘icky’. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book!

    Like

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