I recently read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for the first time. Ranked #4 on the Modern Library Best Books list, the book is generally accepted as one of the best English language books written in the last 100 years, if not longer. I needed to read this book, partly for my own literary ambitions and partly because the book is so famous it would be a crime not to enlighten you all with my thoughts. I will warn you that there will be some spoilers, so proceed with caution all ye who venture past this paragraph.
Lolita is so famous (and as I discovered, rightfully so), it is hard to review the work without parroting the decades of critics and academics who have dissected it. Still, I wanted to write something that, if not unique, was at least interesting or entertaining. We shall see.
For those not familiar with the book, Lolita tells the story of a man (Humbert Humbert) who kidnaps, repeatedly rapes, and possibly falls in love with a twelve-year-old girl. After Secret Agent, topics like these no longer particularly shock me. Published in the US in 1958, I cannot imagine what the average reader must have felt reading it. By today’s standards, the vulgarity is tame and Nabokov is so talented that even the truly vulgar parts are described in such well-constructed metaphor and symbolism that the scenes have a decidedly literary quality rather than appearing as smut for smut’s sake. Still, it was the 50’s and such a book must have really rocked the boat. Nabokov foresaw this, which is why his first instinct was to publish under a pseudonym. Probably a smart move, considering there is a scene where Humbert covertly grinds to orgasm on Lolita while she is laying on the couch reading a magazine.
Many modern readers still consider the book a bit boat rocking. If you visit Goodreads, you will see that roughly 15% of the approximately 250,000 reviews give the book 1 or 2 stars. Some of these reviews are pretentious trash, a number of “I know better than you that Nabokov is a hack.” The reviews that draw my attention are of a different sort. Many dwell on the repulsive nature of the subject matter and how a reader can feel terrible after being immersed in it for several hours. These reviews are worth talking about.
If the book makes you feel disgusted, then Nabokov is doing exactly what he set out to do. This seems simple and obvious, but there is a big difference between these two responses:
Reader 1: “Holy shit, I feel terrible after reading this book. Raping kids? But, god damn it, the writing is so amazing and I know I am supposed to feel this bad. Good job, Nabokov, you pedophile portraying scamp! 4 stars!”
Reader 2: “Sweet Jesus, this book makes me feel disgusted. Raping kids? It is well written, but god, reading this book is like eating a shit sandwich. Nabokov, you filthy pervert. 1 star!”
When I inevitably write my book about raising Labrador Retriever puppies as a food source, I would kill to have a million readers give me 1 star because that would mean a million people read my book. For Nabokov, these 1 star reviews mean he has succeeded as an artist. Readers should and do hate the reality he creates. They detest the reality of the book to the point that their negative feelings towards Humbert color their actual enjoyment of the book. Imagine if you directed a horror movie and upon seeing it, audiences proclaimed that they hated it because it scared them too much. Would this disappoint you?
I was more fascinated than disgusted by the reality Nabokov creates, but the book still succeeds on multiple levels. The narrator is famously unreliable and the story works because of it. By the end of the novel, we know next to nothing about the titular character, Lolita aka Dolores Haze. Everything is told through Humbert’s delusions and so we see Lolita acting like a typical child one moment and speaking like the well-educated adult of Humbert’s dreams the next. These points come up in every review and by every critic, so I know I am not breaking any new ground here, but that’s not the point. For me, these things make the book fun to read. It is fun to squirm and think about how different the true reality is from the narrator’s version of it. Is Lolita really some underage temptress? Is she living in fear? Has she been so emotionally damaged that she apathetically accepts her fate? Nabokov keeps these answers mostly obscured, leaving the reader to speculate. The framing of this story is also great. The book is presented as a posthumously published memoir by a man we know is in prison, but Nabokov leaves us wondering whether Humbert is rotting away for his pedophilia or some other criminal act (hint, hint).
While many people talk about the book being written to shock, Nabokov stated that his goal was to write a romance novel to the English language. The book is beautifully written and it does play with words in a way that makes even the most morally problematic scenes seem clever, funny, or even romantic. I have to admit that I used my dictionary more for this book than any book I have ever read and most definitions included the tag “Archaic.” So, really, Nabokov hit it out of the park here.
If you are serious about shoring up your literary chops, this is a nice place to start.
8/10 Delusional Academics