Review: Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Oh dear god, what can I even say about Lolita?

I had an experience reading this novel. It was an experience unlike any other novel reading experience I have ever had. I am not saying I did not enjoy the book. The writing was beautiful and fluid. It was just also repulsive and a bit nausea inducing. It gave me, how do you say, the heebie jeebies. The flowery language and general disgust were nice complements, I think.

If you are unfamiliar with Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita is the story of one man’s passion and lust for twelve-year-old Dolores Haze (also known as Lo, Lola, and Lolita), as it slowly unravels him and tests his sanity. For a book about pedophilia, one of the most taboo topics in humanity, it is an oddly compelling read. My friend Liz said the novel was like an episode of Criminal Minds. You get to peek into the psyche of the mentally disturbed.

Humbert Humbert has been attracted to young girls his entire life. When he himself was a young boy, he lusted and lost. He never quite grew out of the taste for what he deems ‘nymphets’: “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic.” Rather, these are not normal little girls, but little temptresses put on the earth to make men’s libidos pulse and lives miserable. Humbert struggles with his desire from afar most of his life, loitering in playgrounds and seeking out young looking prostitutes. He even marries because his betrothed dressed in a childish manner (this marriage does not end well). But the possibility to obtain, to be with, to actually possess a nymphet does not occur until he travels to the United States and becomes a lodger in the Haze household.

The relationship between Humbert and Lolita is complex to say the least. To begin, all of Humbert’s actions toward Lola are selfish, reprehensible, inconsiderate, and wholly debased. He has a way of completely separating the living, breathing person from his all-consuming desire. In whole, Humbert spends three years cohabitating with Lolita, raping her continuously, but never really getting to know her as a person or considering her feelings or desires. To do so would destroy the illusion he created of romance and care and force himself to face actions that ultimately condemn him.

Yet, it is not simply black and white. Yes, I think we can all agree that Humbert’s actions are monstrous, but there is a lot of gray in the creation of Lolita as a person and a character. The first time Humbert and Lolita have sex, it is initiated by Lola. Lolita has a flirtatious and coquettish personality. Even before the situation arises where Humbert whisks her away, she flirts shamelessly with Humbert in front of and in spite of her dopey mother. Lolita thinks of it as a game, a continuation of her exploits at summer camp. She does not think through the implications of that first coupling. She does not realize that once Humbert gets what he maddeningly desires, he will never, ever let her go.

Throughout reading I went through feelings of serious dislike of and deep sympathy for Lolita. At first, she comes off as an entitled brat, a sarcastic tween. But the reader must remember that we are only receiving the observations of Humbert, an extremely unreliable narrator. He makes sweeping statements, condemning strangers, railing against this or that, pleading with the narrator to understand his lust and torment. It is a very self-centered view.  It is only later in the book when Lolita’s sadness and corruption are unavoidable that fragments of it peek through and we are able to see the suffering Lolita has had to go through. It is not a matter of blame, but rather a terrible situation that should never have occurred. Many young girls have a tendency to be flirts as they grow into their sexuality. They have crushes on older men, from teachers to movie stars. But it is the responsibility of the older party to show restraint because they know better. In this, Humbert shows his entrenched weakness and fails as an adult and guardian. The relationship between Humbert and Lolita is perverse on so many levels ranging from pedophilic to incestuous. Humbert is never redeemed, but I think he does realize the extent to which he inflicted damage upon Lola as the story closes.

There is so much going on in this novel. Nabokov is one hell of a writer. It is insane how the point of view gets the reader to lapse into sympathy with the narrator before reverting to repulsion.  Humbert’s voice is strong and thorough. There are many literary allusions and references throughout. And, as I said earlier, the writing is pleasant, even if the content is disturbing. I was reading an essay Nabovok wrote about Lolita and its difficult reception in the United States. It was certainly a novel ahead of its time. The problem remains people’s inability to separate art that happens to discuss the sensuality and perversions and simple unadulterated pornography. They are two different things, leagues apart. Of course. Nabokov’s novel falls in the category of art. It’s supposed to be distasteful and also confusingly sympathetic. It is meant to be a complex exploration of a fallen man lost to his depravity and insatiable lust. It is a challenging novel. In that, I believe it succeeds. It is unlike any other novel I have ever read and for that I have to recommend it, even if the reading experience is more than a little uncomfortable.

Until next time!



One thought on “Review: Lolita

  1. Brilliant review. I just finished the book in the last hour and had to see what people thought of this book. Thank God you share my view. This book was brilliant but yet a disturbing read. The language and puns in it are exceptional but it was horrific to read the physical description of Lolita at times. ‘It is insane how the point of view gets the reader to lapse into sympathy with the narrator before reverting to repulsion. ‘ This happened to me time and time again. I constantly had to remind myself he was a pedophile!

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