Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Originally published: 1955
This book belongs on the: Top shelf
A reader’s automatic reaction when they read a synopsis of a book that includes pedophilia and married-into-incest is to recoil with disgust. The idea of delving into the world of nymphets, illicit sexual acts and ruined childhoods is generally not what I would call a good time.
And it’s not that Lolita was a good time but it was a fantastic piece of writing. For all the cringing it made me do, it made me think just as much.
A mark of a good writer is their ability to create empathy for a character that, on the surface, you would want nothing to do with. Nabokov created a man honest about his desires from the first few pages of the novel and I found myself, chest clenched, reading on with my guard up. Do I want to read about fictional pedophilia? No, not really. Did I do it anyways? Yes, and I’m happy I did.
There was more to this story than the surface plot line of the gravely ill-advised relationship between Humbert Humbert and Delores Haze. Nabokov brilliantly creates two characters who each play a part in the seducing of the other. Granted, little Lolita is the more innocent of the two at the age of twelve and is more-so playing a role of seductress as she discovers her sexuality, but there are faults found in both parties. The lack of overt sexual terms or phrases in the text lends a mild tone to the actions of its characters – a choice I found to be both highly intelligent and a great relief on my part.
What I found to be most interesting was I discovering an understanding that Humbert was not simply a pedophile who had found his victim – he was a man who had fallen into a sort of odd, mentally deranged, passionate love with the completely wrong girl. Had this novel been written with the female protagonist being ten years older it would have simply been a story of a man’s unrequited love and his panic-stricken search to find its source once it has decided to no longer be with him. That is not a story that is hard to relate to. In fact I would venture to say that many people have had their hearts broken or thought they held love in their grasp only to have it disappear on them. Suddenly, when you look at it regardless of age, Nabokov has you understanding poor old Humbert a little more than you would like to.
Add to this the use of intelligent word play, puns, satire, and overall humour used throughout the text and you have yourself a very interesting, thought-provoking read. The most insanely wonderful thing about this novel is the way he uses language in ways that are playful, a little silly, and sometimes just downright dazzling. You can tell Nabokov had fun with this manuscript. You could read this again and again, finding a different pun or nuance you missed the first few times. Beyond the pedophilia, the love aspect, the creepy human nature moments in this novel is something so much more it almost doesn’t matter what Lolita and Humbert are doing to each other. The debate over who seduced who is irrelevant. The wonder of if it could possibly be real love is moot. If you can look past the things that on the surface make you queasy (which somehow in this instance is surprisingly easy to do) you will find in your hands a novel that rivals the greatest cryptic crossword.
Don’t dismiss it because of the subject matter, I urge you. This is a portrait of someone who is descending into madness for a variety of reasons, pleading with you to listen to him as he tries to defend himself, and using English in such a wonderful way you can’t help but do as you’re told.
It is possible for the beauty of the writing to make up for, and surpass, the ugliness of its subject matter.