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Darkly sensuous and disturbingly beautiful
on 21 February 2003
Lolita is in many ways an extraordinary book. Not only in its choice of subject matter which is perhaps more controversial today then it was in the 1950s but also in the style of writing. It is perhaps the best written book that I have ever read. Nabokov's writing style has a richness that is even more remarkable given that it is not his native tongue. The expert use of allusion, extended metaphor and generously evocative imagery makes this a book to savour slowly and one that is closer at times to poetry than prose.
But what a poem. Humbert Humbert is perhaps the very model of the antihero but as he is also the narrator everything is seen through the prism of his own monstrous and predatory lusts. Lolita herself, as Humbert admits, remains something of an enigma throughout. The narrator is unable to see her as an individual and she is portrayed as the archetypal 'nymphet,' who serves merely to serve his own needs. Any deviation from this role is regarded as betrayal. But then the book is entitled Lolita not Delores Hayes and 'Lolita' is no more than the perfect nymphet lurking inside Humbert's diseased brain never a girl of blood and flesh.
Humbert does not in fact offer much in the way of self justification beyond the occasional admission of insanity and his sickening claims to truly love the girl. He also seems to grow in awareness of his perversion as the novel goes on but never seems to regret it. He starts by offering various justifications of child brides from history but his final allusion is to Sade's Justine which is surely an admission of guilt. But the prose is so tender and so darkly comic that all this is repeatedly obscured and Nabokov manages to win you a twisted sympathy for his protagonist even, almost, for his predicament. So much of it seems so reasonable the way Humbert tells it.
This is largely because the way the feelings and desires of little Delores herself are so obscured by Humbert's dark longings. This of course serves to make it all the more poignant on the odd occasion that they do surface. When Humbert is in his first rapture of paradise after possessing young Lolita he describes his joy to search an extent and with such tenderness that the reader could be forgiving for believing Lolita welcomed his advances. Until he lets drop in a single sentence that she cries herself to sleep every single night.
A rich though black humour also punctuates the novel for all that it goes on to breed horror. The earlier sections especially those concerning his first wife, her Tsarist lover and Humbert's Arctic expeditions are quite hilarious. The book also deals with a definite sense of place and of being out of place. Humbert,, like Nabokov,, is a European new to the New World and though his depiction of America is not always flattering it is often insightful. No nostalgia is ever shown for 'rotting Europe' however even if he feels it gives him a superiority over the banal pretensions of his new countrymen. Despite his other predilections Humbert is a huge intellectual snob and his writing will probably appeal most to those who feel themselves akin to him in this respect, if no other.
Lolita is a dark and engrossing masterpiece and is in many ways more beautiful then it has any right to be. There is nothing pornographic or prurient about it but it does raise some quite complicated emotions in the reader. It should rightly be considered a classic but is rightly controversial and is quite simply one of the most astonishing things I have ever read. Much as I deplore censorship there is certainly something playfully dangerous about Lolita and it should only be recommended to the more sophisticated reader.