Author: Vladimir Nabokov

Publisher: Penguin Books

Published: 1959 (this edition 2015)

ISBN: 978-0-141-18253-7

As famous books go, you don’t get much more controversial than Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the tale of a 40-something year old scholar who falls madly in love with a 12 year old girl, then marries her mother in order to become closer to her. He then runs off with the child, taking her on a wild road trip all over the USA. I must admit I had my reservations about this book due to its controversial subject matter, but after delaying it for some time I eventually decided to try and approach it with an open mind, partly due to some positive recommendations. I can now say I’m glad to have tackled the book, as it really is an experience, however I must confess its subject matter made it a difficult read for me. Try as one might, any moral reader will find it impossible to set aside or forget the fact the sexually explicit description is aimed at a twelve year old girl.

To discuss the characters is also to discuss the narrative of Lolita, as it is told from the perspective of Humbert Humbert- Lolita’s ‘lover’- himself. This transpires to be both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, it does attempt to explain just what could entice a middle aged man to fall for a child, but on the other the repulsive description of said child serves to eliminate any sympathy or understanding one might have felt toward the character of Humbert. At the start of the novel, he is a sexually depraved outcast coveting a young girl and prepared to go to any lengths, including marrying her mother, to violate her. By its end, his crimes have made him both kidnapper and full-blown paedophile. Nabokov’s writing may make Humbert a layered character with an intriguing backstory, and the book is indeed a fascinating study of the psyche of those who commit such heinous crimes, yet it is extremely difficult to imagine anyone actually feeling any sympathy for either him or his unfortunate end.

The opposite, however, can be said of Lolita herself- the misguided, innocent twelve year old who is coerced and ultimately forced into joining him as they journey around the US, trying to stay one step ahead of law enforcement. Whether she’s naively convincing herself she has feelings for Humbert and a normal relationship with him, or trying to escape his clutches, readers can feel nothing but pity for her plight. As a character, she is an insightful study of how child abuse can permanently skew one’s views on relationships. In fact, one of the few criticisms one can make of the characterisation of the titular character herself is that as a personality, she is somewhat bland. What little personal characteristics she does possess are soon consumed by the fact she is an idea rather than a person- she simply represents any sufferer of abuse, and an advantage of her lack of defining characteristics is that the reader can imagine her to be themselves or one of their loved ones, reinforcing the powerful message of the book. Just as abusers might seem intelligent and respectable from the outside,  victims of child abuse really can be anyone, and readers are expected to feel they can put themselves in Lolita’s shoes. Her blandness may make it harder to sympathise for her as an individual person, but as a whole it does little to detract from the powerful, nature of her story, and the general sympathy Nabokov evokes for all in her position.

With regards to Nabokov’s actual writing, it both adds to and detracts from the book as a whole. On the one hand, it can’t be denied that he writes extremely well, his detailed description explaining Humbert’s deranged thoughts in the first person, and Lolita’s views on the situation indirectly, as the protagonist tells us how she interacts with him. Through this, we are able to observe how, heartbreakingly, her ‘love’ for Humbert morphs into resentment and fear. Nabokov also uses his narrative to explain how Humbert himself views the situation- audiences will find his suggestion that it was Lolita who seduced him particularly disturbing. However, there is a downside to the inclusion of so much detail too. Sometimes, Nabokov includes so much detail, one feels like  the actual plot of the novel becomes lost in the dense description. At times, readers will find themselves so deep into either descriptions of Lolita’s beauty or the sickening musings of Humbert that it becomes difficult to ascertain what is actually going on outside of his mind. Considering the book has a complex plot consisting of a frenzied road trip round the United States, this isn’t exactly helpful. Personally, I took a long time to read the novel, possibly because I grew tired of trudging through the description. It’s fair to say description isn’t actually what I wanted from the novel either, as I was engrossed by the actual story. If ever a book proves on can have too much of a good thing, with regards to description and insights into its characters views, Lolita would be that novel.

If you’ve read my posts before, you may notice that I always use the final paragraph of a review to disclose my opinion on the actual plot of a novel. In this case, I feel I must first explain the reason I procrastinated to avoid typing up my review of Lolita for so long. And that is, I had no idea how to express my feelings towards the book, the reason being, for all it is beautifully written and explores a darkly fascinating subject, I simply cannot bring myself to say I enjoyed a book with such a depraved plot. Whilst I can appreciate that it’s beautifully written and detailed, I just can’t forget that the subject matter of this book is, effectively, the statutory rape and subsequent abduction of a child. For me, this is a book one reads because of its infamy, not for any kind of enjoyment. Without spoiling the ending, I will say that one might not be left feeling quite so bitter if the ending was at least a little happier. Sure, Humbert gets his deserved misfortune, and maybe an unhappy ending adds gritty realism, but surely Lolita herself deserved better. As a character, she is a human embodiment of misfortune: she is flattered, abused, abducted and, ultimately, it feels like she pays the price as much as her abuser, as though she is as guilty as he just because she fell for his flattery. And that is why I cannot ‘like’ such a book.

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟 (3/5)


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