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.
on 21 June 2006
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.
on 21 August 2004
I read this book expecting to be sickened. The story of a 40-year-old's obsession with very young girls (or "nymphets") as said 40-year-old calls them) and in particular the beautiful Dolores "Lolita" Haze, there is certainly plenty of material in this book for controversy. However, as soon as I had read the first page I know that this was no deliberately shocking novel, but instead a subtle, enchanting story of enrapture and lust. Everyone can relate to the longing Humbert feels for someone he knows will never lust after him, and the agony and ecstasy of his forced yet somehow tender affair with 12-year-old Dolores is described in absolutely stunning detail. I finished the novel enchanted but also subtly disturbed, as you have to keep reminding yourself that this man is obviously a ruthless paedophile. Read this and prepare to be both symapthetic and disgusted towards your narrator. A beautiful, daring and subversive work of almost-genius.
on 21 February 2012
I think the story is still quite shocking even by today's standards, but once you get past that and just agree with yourself to stop being appalled and enjoy the book, you realise how amazingly well written it is and what an intriguing story this is. This was the general consensus of everyone in my bookclub so despite the subject matter everyone really enjoyed it.
on 3 March 2012
One of the classics of the 20th century, a brilliant, dark, original and disturbing novel that deserves its place in the canon of 20th Century literature.
on 26 May 2001
Considering the author hadn't been to the US prior to writing this, this is amazing. Ignore the "dangerous" theme of the book, it's about obsession obsession OBSESSION. This book is so well written it makes me ill! Every sentence has meaning and context, sometime you have to re-read it again to appreciate. This isn't a dirty book or "sick", Lolita tells you about a man who has lost sense with reality finding his entire being centred around a 12 year old girl who is not what she seems.
on 19 May 2008
This is by far my most favourite book in the world ever! Words cannot describe how much I adore this book. It is true the subject matter is uncomfortable to think about especially today. Considering that English is not Nabokov's first language he writes it so beautifully that almost every page has a line which really sounds lyrical, rythmic and just plainly beautiful.
The book pulls your moral thoughts all over the place. The question; who takes advantage of who? is one which I always come back to, and like to ask the people who read it.
I have read this book about four times which I almost never do and I recommend it to everyone I read. It is, I suppose, an example of how something can be beautiful and wrong at the same time. It is also ultimately a book about love. Unrequited love, forbidden love, consuming love, manipulative love. There are so many aspects to love explored in this book.
on 13 July 2005
Lolita, in a nutshell, is simply the best piece of prose in the English language. Nabokov is miles ahead of the competition in his command of the language.
For this reason the book took me a long time to read, far longer than many larger novels. Such was the depth and dimension of the writing that I found it impossible to absorb everything that Nabokov intended at first glance. This reading and re-reading was thoroughly rewarding, throwing up new puns, metaphors, references and golden nuggets of literary ingenuity every time.
Many have said that the plot is secondary to the language. Secondary in what way I wonder? Nabokov in my opinion presents both with such remarkable ease and style that it depends on the disposition of the reader whether they pay more attention to one or the other.
To touch briefly on the subject matter: This book is not for the narrow-minded or the faint-hearted. The first few instances of obvious paedophilia made me feel rather queasy. Is it a good thing that I got used to them as the book went on? Many seem to think that it was Nabokov's evil intention to lull the reader into embracing paedophilia.
This is nonsense. Humbert asks for no sympathy; he deserves none. What Nabokov achieves is to encourage us to perceive the paedophile from a different angle, by offering us this rare and vivid insight into the criminal's mind. It is still evil, still utterly twisted, but far more complex than the tabloids would have us believe.
Of course I'm sure that this was not really an agenda that he set out to accomplish. The paedophilia is I think just an example - a good example - of how the human mind can be corrupted. This set the author's template by which to paint the human being that abided by that mind. On this level the book is a fascinating character study, even a psychoanalysis.
There really isn't enough room here to fully discuss every facet of this masterpiece. It examines childhood and adolescence, love, crime, culture, society to name but a few, and is generously infused with irony, poignancy, tenderness and very black humour - laugh-aloud humour at times.
So to summarise, this is a work more deserving of the title 'genius' than any other. If I could award 6 stars I would. You will remember this book for years to come for the language as well as the thought-provoking content. For full enjoyment, keep an open mind and a dictionary at hand.
on 13 February 2016
Nabokov was a playful and mischievous writer: few books are as mischievous as "Lolita", a story of a middle aged man’s obsession with a twelve-year-old girl. "Lolita" is a bizarre and brave novel: I cannot think of one other work of note which deals with this theme.
There is one thing which impressed me more and more, as I read through the story: narrator Humbert’s isolation. This isolation is not obvious at first. But you soon begin to notice the signs. His reluctance to let anyone get too close. His reluctance to reveal too much about himself in conversation. The endless, mindless travelling. All this betokens a very isolated person. Indeed, an isolated couple, for Lolita, while she remains with him, is isolated too. Middle-aged Humbert and adolescent Lolita, throughout most of the novel, have to keep their distance from everybody else. They remain isolated from the mainstream of humanity. Some would add that they are living outside the moral universe too.
A word on the narrative style. Lolita is a worthy successor to Wilde’s "Dorian Gray". There is a decadence in both novels; both are written in gorgeous, hothouse-artificial style.
I discovered an interesting sidelight on Nabokov’s novel. Or rather, upon its name. Nabokov lived in Paris for a time, and spoke fluent French. He may have been familiar with a historical novel by Cecil Saint-Laurent, called "La vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès". The real life Lola Montez was a 19th century courtesan, whose lovers included composer Franz Liszt and the King of Bavaria. Saint-Laurent’s book inspired a Max Ophul movie: "Lola Montez". It was released in 1955, the same year that "Lolita" was published. According to one reviewer, Lola in Max Ophul’s movie ‘is merely a passive blank onto which men project their fantasies.’ Which is exactly what Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert does with his own little Lola. He writes about her at great length, and with great eloquence. The bitter irony (and the sadness) is that this Lola is not a high flying courtesan, but a 12-year-old girl who reads comics.
on 12 November 2015
Tabloid media hysteria about paedophilia makes the middle aged, male reader somewhat embarrassed to admit reading this book and certainly uneasy discussing it publicly. However this owes much to the misconceptions of those who have heard the title but never explored the content.
Nabikov’s portrayal of the predatory paedophile Humbert Humbert is discomforting, but he in no way provides justifications for his actions. On the contrary the main protagonist is increasingly seen, as the narrative develops, as pathetic and at the mercy of his perverted drives, whose origins lie in his childhood. Rather than being the simple tabloid ‘monster’ the author creates something altogether more disconcerting an educated, cultured and sensitive paedophile, a complex human being with real human traits and feelings . Indeed the reader reluctantly finds himself experiencing sympathy for the deluded fool as he experiences the epiphany that the passage of time has inevitably deprived him of his ‘nymphet’ Lolita.
Humbert also acknowledges the harm his actions have inflicted upon his victim and his own deluded belief that fate led to the unfolding of events as told. So there is an acknowledgement of wrong doing and delusion.
Nabakov writes in a poetic style describing the American scenery with pleasing metaphors and lyrical similes, all the more impressive when one recalls that English is not his mother tongue.
Like Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, this is at times a harrowing read but one which provides an important portal into the darker side of humanity.