I was interested to see how `Lolita' would read, given the current climate, and was worried that Nabokov, writing in the 1950s, would somehow see paedophilia as being less serious than we would view it today. `Lolita' is undoubtedly an uncomfortable read. It is related from the perspective of a relatively unrepentant paedophile, Humbert Humbert. He documents the origins of his obsession with `nymphets' - pre-pubescent girls - and his pursuit of them. Eventually he meets Lolita, his landlady's daughter, and recounts his (eventually successful) plot to run away with her and take her for his lover while pretending to be father and daughter. Humbert's dual roles, as father and abuser, leads him to obsessive jealousy, and Lolita's accelerated adolescence leave her as a precocious adult in a child's body, scarred and cynical. Both lead to tragic consequences, and wasted lives in more ways than one.
Although Humbert is both the villain and narrator, he doesn't hide the sordidness of his crime, and the effects of abuse on Lolita are acknowledged. Nabokov brilliantly treads a fine line between making Humbert human (and seeing the world through his eyes) and recognising the reality of his crimes. Despite Nabokov's choice of making a paedophile his narrator and central character, there is little sympathy for Humbert throughout the book, and paedophilia is presented as being every bit as repugnant as it is generally viewed today. Where Humbert makes excuses for himself, it is clear that they are Humbert's, not Nabokov's, excuses, and we are not expected to sympathise. Humbert's actions are also not presented as being in any way erotic. There are no graphic descriptions either, the suggestion is enough.
Because Nabokov treats his subject so skilfully, `Lolita' was a fantastic book. It was a balanced psychological portrait of a repulsive man, who watches himself destroying lives. The subject matter was difficult, but Nabokov deal with it brilliantly. The language is lyrical and clever, and there is enough black humour to take the edge off an otherwise disturbing book. Deservedly labelled a twentieth century classic, and not a book to be avoided.