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4.2 out of 5 stars
Lolita (Penguin Hardback Classics)
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107 of 118 people found the following review helpful
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.
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125 of 142 people found the following review helpful
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.
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45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 29 March 2015
A star rating seems so unhelpful with a book like Lolita, so inappropriate somehow: it's like reviewing snow, or purple, or Tuesday. This is a book everyone thinks they know; a book which anyone with a standard liberal arts education will confidently engage in a discussion about, regardless of having read it themselves or not. Its fame takes it beyond the words arranged in such merciless order on its pages and into the realm of nebulous cultural understanding; people know Lolita like they know the assassination of JFK or the moon landings.

Which, like I say, makes it tough to simply pick up, read and appreciate in the same way you might something more obscure: it is easy to see this as beyond dispute.

But it's not.

Lolita is a long clever puzzle which the reader will, at times, feel they are solving quite brilliantly and, at others, feel they are not. Rarely have I resented an author so much as I did Nabokov so frequently in these pages. So many words, so many meanings and clues and tricks and puns and references near and wide. In it's word-by-word construction, the book is miraculous; that one man could have assembled a work of such relentless intricacy is hard to take in. It's like admiring a beautifully made Swiss watch and realising, with a slow dawning of awe, that this Swiss watch is made from thousands of other tiny Swiss watches, all crafted with the same exquisite precision and working in tandem to power the whole. It is an overwhelming read, in every way.

The problem, as I see it, is that the book cannot be simply picked up and read, enjoyed as straightforward tale running from start to finish. Even the most casual of readers will surely be drawn into the great guessing games, will be goaded into deciphering the clues, will fall into the trap of spot-the-reference. And once you're in, once you glimpse all those thousands and thousands of incredible little watches, ticking away in concert, you're done. The book will flatten you, exhaust you. You'll be thinking about this poet and this work of drama, this French saying and this old pun; this Latin term and this old plant, this genus of moth. You'll be flicking backwards and forwards tying up connections and joining dots; you'll be poring over Nabokov's afterword and his fictional preface, wondering if even these aren't part of the bigger game. And you'll wonder where it'll end; you'll sense, with growing suspicion that maybe the whole thing, beginning to end, first word to last, isn't some kind of great big joke which you can't quite get and that somewhere, somehow, Nabokov is sitting quite still, in a chair, with a devilish smirk as you fall for every trap going.

Of course, none of this is true and quite possibly it's all just me as a reader. All these words, all these games, all this ceaseless, overflowing art has, like the violence in American Psycho, a Bigger Purpose. And the use of language in the creation of Humbert Humbert, the steady pulse of Nabokov's central idea, is one which fully justifies the technical fireworks. Here is an author who is absolutely showing off, showing off everything he's got: but, of course, you realise very quickly that this isn't Nabokov: put this idea away as quick as you can. The showoff is always Humbert. Remembering this is key to not only beginning to understand Lolita but to really draw back and get a widescreen picture of just what Nabokov has achieved here, the lengths he has gone to to really, really create a character.

I like to write and I guess every writer reads those books in print which inspire you: they make you think, 'Hey, I can do better than this.' Lolita is a benchmark for the other end of the scale: 'There is no way in hell I could ever do anything like this.'

But maybe, on reflection, that's not entirely a bad thing.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 July 2002
Never has anyone dared use the English language in such a beautiful way to desribe the most haneous of acts. Monsieur Humbert narrates his painful tail of an illicit affair with the fourteen year old daughter of his departed wife, and his ultimate self destruction at the hands of the nymphet who stole his very soul.
The controversial subject matter could easily be misinterpreted, but to the more insightful reader, it becomes apparent Humbert has an undeveloped heart steming from the tragic loss of his first love, consuquently leaving him in an emotional limbo. Although it is difficult to justify the relationship, Nobokov reveals the intense romanticism and dependacy shared between the pair, never once using any curse or crude adjectives, and just who seduces who?
The enthralling, beautiful language and implicit word play make the book a joy to read, whilst also delivering a sharp twang as we are taken to the edge of our moral barometer. Dig deep enough and you'll also detect the darkly sarcastic, humerous side of Nobokov's story; for example Lolita's two school masters Miss Lester and Miss Fabian, or the tragically ironic demise of the relationship.
The subject matter and the original, passionate delivery makes this novel an extraordinary journey through the most intense of human emotions. Love, hate, obsession, to name but a few are expertly manipulated, making for an unforgettable experience.
Never has controversy been so delightfully poignant.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 22 February 2012
Put simply, this is one of the best books that I have ever read, for a writer to be able to deal with such a subject in the way that Nabakov does is an amazing achievement in itself. Lolita is an absolute work of art and still an easy to read, wonderful, funny story. Amazing.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 16 April 2012
I can't write anywhere near as well as Nabokov, so I'm not even going to attempt to!

Let's just say that this is the best book I have ever read. The heineous subject matter gives it its brilliance; those who think that it glorifies paedophilia sorely miss the point. There seems to be the ocassional reader who does not like this book: to that I would say, there will always be those who do not like the style of a work, no matter how great.

I am hungry for more writing that is as genius as this!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 November 2013
I loved this book and will dive into it time and again. Why? Because the voice of the book is magnetic; hypnotic. So much more than an erotic book (although it most certainly is that) it is also tender, sensitive, brutally funny, exploitative, self deceiving yet also self confessing. It is a brilliant insight into a complex mind that is chillingly self justifying and murderously criminal. A great study of a fine yet twisted mind. A masterpiece of the 'unreliable narrator'.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 29 December 2003
Let me say at the outset that I have never read a book like this ever before! The marvelous writing is magical: alliteration, puns, word-play, allusions, metaphor, simile, poetry, lyricism, humour, wit, sarcasm...this and much more make Lolita a delight to read just for Nabokov's astonishing use of the English language with its veritable palimpsest of verbal textures. He is THE master of language--bar none! In this respect the work becomes precisely that rare thing: a piece of literature that is also a work of Art.
To some extent the plot of this masterpiece is not as important (in my view) as the style of writing. It is so astonishing, so beautiful, so clever. So clever in fact that there exists an Annotated version to explain all of Nabokov's hints, references and allusions in his text.
The poetically inclined reader will enjoy its many hidden pleasures regardless; however the plot is also tightly controlled and the characterization is also brilliantly done. Especially of Humbert and Lolita although the secondary myriad of people who crop up in this tale are also well defined. The subject matter is pedophilia (hence the notoriety the book has achieved) --and incest --this does not prevent one from simultaneously understanding and feeling pity as well as poignancy and revulsion for the male protagonist whereas in a less well written work dealing with this taboo subject it would be very easy to decline into stereotypes and portray the pedophile as a one-dimensional evil villain. Likewise the nymphet is portrayed with a variety of personae-reflecting real people rather than just a stereotype!--and not just that of a helpless victim or a seductress. This is a remarkable achievement and, for once, --from all the novels I have read which are considered 'classics'--this one really deserves the accolade. It is without doubt the most engaging, clever and disturbingly brilliant work of fiction I have yet had the pleasure to read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.
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