Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.’
I’ve wanted to read this book since I discovered that it was actually banned in the UK at one point – I was amazed any literature was banned in such a liberal country as Britain – and when it came up as a potential text to study on my A-level English lit course. All I knew about the novel was that it was about paedophilia – an older man falling in love with a child and when I mentioned the novel to my parents, it instantly sparked controversy as to why I would want to read a novel about this particular topic.
Humbert Humbert is an literary scholar from Europe with a history of mental instability and is haunted by the premature death of a childhood sweetheart who is supposedly his reason why he has an obsession with particular young girls he refers to as ‘nymphets’. After an unhappy marriage he moves to America to the town of Ramsdale. Whilst being shown around his home by his landlady, Charlotte Haze, he meets her twelve year-old daughter, Dolores with whom he becomes instantly infatuated. He will stop at nothing to possess her and when fate gives him his chance to do so, he clasps at it with both hands. But his actions are not only repugnant but also illegal and he can only possess Lolita for so long and will she tolerate being possessed?
When I eventually bought the novel and started reading it, I was entranced by it even though his paedophilic was inescapably abhorrent. It is full to the brim with wit, wonderful descriptions and it is beautifully sophisticated. The almost excessive use of words in a single sentence piles meanings up to the point where you want a dictionary to hand so you can fully understand the words you’re unfamiliar with. It will make you laugh whilst making your eyebrows creep ever further into your hairline. It’s such a shame I didn’t get a chance to study this for my English lit course because I would have had a field day with it. Even though I managed to resist writing notes on post-its and clogging up the pages with them, I still found myself launching into discussions with people about the book and actively taking notes about my thoughts.
I was very much aware of the fact this novel was manipulating me; Nabokov presents this novel in first person and Humbert talks directly to the reader on several occasions. Nabokov has Humbert actively trying to get us to pity him, to empathise with him. Whilst browsing over other reviews for ideas, I found a line someone had written that I couldn’t have written better myself to summarise this particular point: ‘We find Lolita disquieting because it makes the reader sympathize with a paedophile.’
Although the actions of a paedophile are inescapably wrong and clearly illegal, there is a certain level of detachment because of the clever use of language. In some cases, during sexual scenes for example, I had a hard time working out whether certain acts had actually taken place because it was so cleverly subtle and not obscene. At the same time, what is being presented to us isn’t acceptable (for lack of a better word) but it doesn’t make us want to run from the room screaming.
Another aspect of this novel I encountered whilst looking at other reviews was the discussion of Humbert’s love for Lolita: some called it doomed, some eternal but personally, I find it debatable that he loves her at all. There is no denying that Humbert is obsessed with Lolita so arguably it is obsessive love but at the same time, it can also be argued that he isn’t actually in love with her as a person, as he can’t get enough of her even when he possesses her. Instead, I believe he is in love with a concept – the concept of a Nymphet form which he cannot escape from. Even when he finally has Lolita for himself, he still catches himself looking at other small girls suggesting he is in fact in love with the concept of a nymphet as opposed to Lolita herself.
I was saddened but unsurprised by the reviews this book had received. Although it seemed to have received the acclaim it deserved, I also came across a lot that dubbed it as just ‘pornography’ and even people outright refusing to read it because the main character is a paedophile. Personally, I find both views extremely ignorant as there is a lot more going on in this text than just a paedophile falling in love with a child but I won’t delve into the subtexts, suggestions and innuendoes here – if this was an essay (I wish it was) I would do so fiercely but this is a book review blog, not deep literature analysis.
Even the cover of the novel had an impact on me. my copy had a close up image of a child’s face – her freckles like those on a quails egg, beautiful eyelashes and stunning blue eyes. There was so much innocence in that face that made the content of the novel more striking – to me at least.
Normally at this point in my review I would be saying something along the lines of ‘this novel was fantastic’ or something of that nature but I struggle to find the right words of my own to describe this work. The comment made on the cover of my copy was ‘A Masterpiece’ and I wholeheartedly agree. Impeccably written with some complex concepts and subtexts that literature students can and will have a field day with. I don’t feel I can use the word ‘enjoyable’ for this novel either as it just doesn’t seem applicable. Instead, my personal comment about this piece of work is Stunning. The fact that this novel – the reading in itself, the emotions it makes us feel, the moral conflict clearly shows that this is an extremely powerful novel and cannot ever be simply branded as ‘pornography’ or a man falling in love with a child. A must read. If I had to make a list of books to read before you die, this would be on it.