Despite owning a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for years, I have put off reading it until now. I could put the blame on owning so many other books, the endless piles that continue to grow rather than dwindle. However, in this case I think there were other reasons. Maybe it was a fear of reviewing one of the most praised novels in all of literature. Pull up any list of the greatest works of all time, and you will surely find Lolita near the top. I also think I had an aversion to the subject matter. This is the story of a pedophile, a man who lusts after young girls. How can this work be among the upper echelons of postmodernist fiction? Well fellow readers, I have now finished Nabokov’s most celebrated novel. I can honestly say that no other novel has filled me with so many contradictory feelings as Lolita. There were moments where I was screaming at myself that I hate this while refusing to look away. Other times, I stopped my reading and thought that this author is quite brilliant. I will save my overall judgement to the end of this review as I organize my thoughts.
Lolita tells the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert (a pseudonym) and how he fell in love and lusted after twelve-year-old Dolores Haze (who he names Lolita). The book is told in the form of a memoir, written by Humbert from prison to which he is awaiting trial for murder. Beginning with his boyhood, Humbert talks about growing up with his father in Europe. At the age of thirteen, he has a short-lived relationship with a girl named Annabel. Although they had a couple of sexual encounters, the two part ways before they can fully consummate their desires. Annabel dies a few months later of typhus. Since that time, Humbert has developed a desire for what he terms “nymphets,” girls between the ages of 9 and 13. Humbert attempts to direct these inappropriate feelings elsewhere, such as getting involved with women who are smaller built and even getting married and trying to live a normal life.
After his wife leaves him, Humbert relocates to America to pursue a career as a writer. He finds a room for rent in the residence of widow Charlotte Haze who is raising her precocious daughter Delores. Humbert becomes obsessed with his new Lolita, but things don’t go according to his twisted plans. Charlotte falls in love with Humbert. Despite his utter disdain for the mother, Humbert asks her to marry him so he can continue to be close to Delores as her “father.” More unforeseen circumstances occur which drive the story to some unexpected places.
“If a violin string can ache, then I was that string.”
Now that I’ve shared some of the sickening plot of this novel, let’s explore why this book has been immortalized as a work of brilliance. It cannot be argued that there are few authors who can write as beautifully as Nabokov. His command of language is nothing short of genius. The language is beautiful, poetic, and is full of incredible energy that radiates throughout the novel. Nabokov seamlessly can adapt from long and flowery sentences to short concise ones. Considering that English was his second language, he can be considered nothing less than a genius of prose. One of the main reasons why I stayed with this book was because of the writing, which doesn’t contain a single meaningless word. Nabokov also has a sharp sense of humor as evidenced by some subtle, and at times, not so subtle wordplay. The interspersed French throughout the book would annoy me sometimes, but I view that as more my own deficit in learning than on the fault of the writer. I typically will jot down some of my favorite quotes from the book I’m reading. Well this one practically had a repeatable quote on every single page. Had this been a love story (it’s not), then this could easily have been the most beautifully charged love story ever written.
“All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do so.”
I said earlier that this is a novel of contradictions. This much is true. Nabokov’s disciplined control of exquisite prose masks the horrible ugliness and deformity of its subject matter. Humbert is a monster. There were moments in the first part of the novel where he is explaining some of his twisted schemes that made me want to abandon the book. Despite his obvious intelligence and charm, he is a narcissist of the most extreme type. Other characters present as objects to him or tools he can use to get what he wants. Throughout his memoir, Humbert is quite honest about being a monster. This fact is brought home to me during a scene where our protagonist is ruminating about what happens when his beloved Lolita gets older. He thinks about having a child with her so that years later the cycle can start all over again. I realized that I was trapped on a ride with a total sociopath. Yet, I couldn’t look away. From a psychological standpoint, analyzing Humbert proved to be an interesting case study. I also needed to see how this demented journey concludes.
The character of Delores also proved to be fascinating but difficult. This entire story is told from Humbert’s perspective, so it proves impossible to see her in the full light of truth. Humbert epitomizes the concept of “unreliable narrator” so we can only see his Lolita through his perverse eyes. She is drawn by her author very realistically, as we see from her and Humbert’s road trip across America. Delores is clearly a victim, yet often there are moments where Nabokov diverts you from feeling any sympathy towards her. Painted as the seducer and knowledgeable in adult ways, we are often made to look at her as more of an adult sometimes. Yet, we then see the true child that is there during her actions in confinement with her captor. Though the story is focused on these two characters, all of the other minor characters are extremely well-rounded with personalities all their own. The role players provide further evidence of the abilities of their creator.
“We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.”
I struggled with getting through the second part of the book. It often moved slower than part one. The road trip across America contains some colorful descriptions, and you get a true sense of Humbert’s complete disdain for American life. This is the section of the book where Humbert and Lolita find themselves at odds, the paradise that is imagined turns out to be nothing more than an illusion. Although we the readers have already concluded that a happy ending is not to be found, Humbert’s realization takes longer to materialize. The pace picks back up in the final act of the book, which I will not fully spoil here. I will say that the conclusion is satisfying once we learn the identity of the victim whom Humbert murders. Interestingly, this person has been a part of proceedings since the beginning, albeit in an indirect way. This presence loomed over the relationship between Humbert and his Lolita for a long time, foreshadowing the inevitable conclusion that this was never a true relationship but rather something constructed from fragile glass.
There are a couple of scenes that, for me, contained the most power. The first one was the night following Delores learning the truth about what happened to her mother. She is broken and can only turn to the only person she has left-a monster. That was the moment I felt so much heartache for her. Dear Lo had no options but to continue her inappropriate relationship with Humbert. This man who is both defiler yet protector is all she has in that moment in the world. The second scene is near the end, right before Humbert’s act of revenge against a monster worse than himself. Begging his Lolita to leave the life she has found to stay with him forever, she gives him a very simple response-“no.” Although we knew all along, the monster himself has the moment when he finally catches a reflection of who he is and the consequences of his actions. “He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.”
As I wrap up my review, I realize I’ve either enticed you to read Lolita, or have totally turned you against the novel once and for all. Perhaps there’s a third option, that you feel as contradicted as I did while reading it. Despite your final verdict of the novel, one point we can agree on is that Vladimir Nabokov is a writer unlike any other. Like his famous narrator Humbert, he is someone who blurs the lines between genius and insanity.
“And the rest is rust and stardust.”