Humbert Humbert – what a creep. Sexual predator, public masturbator, effete pseudo-intellectual; it’s not an easy prospect to spend 300+ pages with a pretentious paedo as a narrator, but Nabokov pulls it off (pun intended) thanks to some beautiful writing and razor-sharp wit.
Lolita is the story of a European literary scholar who develops an all-consuming fixation with nymphets – his term for girls on the cusp of puberty. In his twenties, Humbert alternates between sordid indulgence and tortured repression. His determination to escape temptation leads him to take multiple coalescence in mental hospitals, to marry the most coquettish woman that he can find, and even to flee to the arctic. Conversely, his attempts to seek at fulfilment are so wretched and farcical that I almost – almost – felt sorry for him.
Inevitably, though, he accepts his perversion, and begins to seek out opportunity. He gains accommodation and even marries a woman with one intention in mind – to gain access to her precocious twelve year old daughter, the titular Lolita. The consummation of this obsession is the subject of the first book; the second is devoted to his downfall.
Despite his despicable actions, Humbert possesses a number of qualities that render him tolerable. First, he is witty – his disgust for healthily proportioned, adult woman is so scathing as to be ridiculous. Second, he is an outsider, ridiculous, wretched and persecuted, perhaps deservedly, but nonetheless cast as the underdog. Third, he is a romantic. Not, of course, in the flowers and chocolate sense, but for his exaltation of youth and aesthetics.
It is these self-perceived higher sensibilities that blind him to the reality of his actions, most apparent in his practice of naming and re-naming Lolita, whose true identity is the distinctly less exotic Dolores Haze. While most readers would condemn his actions, there is something relatable in his delusion.
The unreliableness of the narrator is also one of the greatest achievements of this book. Nabokov is able to simultaneously immerse the reader in Humbert’s obliviousness, while clearly showing the harm he is causing. In the second half of the novel, this makes the eventual dissolution of Humbert’s illusions and his sincere regret all the more satisfying and poignant.
And god, what a daring book. It’s hard to believe it was written almost sixty years ago. Nabokov must have known that many readers would identify the narrator with the author, and still he had the courage to write from the perspective of a paedophile, and completely flesh out his world view, and write graphic sex scenes between an adult male and a pubescent girl.
He even had the courage to shun the conservative sensibilities of his time, what we might now call political correctness; instead of making Lolita a passive victim, she is sexually assertive, manipulative, and in many ways more powerful in her and Humbert’s relationship. This ambiguity makes her a much more interesting character, and Lolita a much better novel.
What elevates Lolita to greatness, though, isn’t its themes or its shock-value, but its writing. Literally every sentence in the book has tension or a hook; you never know how each will end. They give the narrative an energy that keeps it rolling along, despite the sometimes slow plot and indulgent descriptions. In my first read through, I found that many of the beautiful or witty turns of phrase were lost to the sliminess and pretention of the narrator, but a second reading allowed me to appreciate and bask in them.
Ultimately, this is what I’ll return to the book for: not for it’s characters, or its story, and definitely not its classic status, but because its a lesson in sentence construction. It’s a completely different school to my other favourites, Hemingway and Murakami, but goddamn it’s beautiful. Recommended.