Lolita: The Book Review

Introduction

The cover of Lolita (1955)

Lolita  is a 1955 novel written by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov. The novel is notable for its controversial subject, which engages an unethical relationship between a middle aged man and a minor girl. First issued in 1955 by an unorthodox Paris press after being rejected by a string of American publishers; banned by the French government, presumably out of solicitude for immature English-speaking readers (the ban was later quashed by the French High Court); pronounced unobjectionable by that blue-nosed body, the U. S. Customs office; and heralded by ovations from writers, professors, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic, became a near-instant bestseller in the US, shifting over 100,000 copies in its first three weeks alone. The shocking subject matter, gleefully punning unreliable narrator, and Nabokov’s spellbinding sentence-level prowess combined to create a book as repulsive as it was inviting—comic and horrific and utterly absorbing. The novel was later adapted in two movies with the same name of the novel, Lolita(1962) and Lolita(1997) .

Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977) in Rome to work on the film screenplay of his most famous book, ‘Lolita‘.

About The Author

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov , also known by the pen name  Vladimir Sirin, was a Russian-American novelist, poet, translator, and entomologist. Born in Russia, he wrote his first nine novels in Russian (1926–1938) while living in Berlin. He achieved international acclaim and prominence after moving to the United States and beginning to write in English. Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945, but he and his wife returned to Europe in 1961, settling in Montreux, Switzerland.

Nabokov’s Lolita  (1955) was ranked fourth in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novel  in 2007, Pale Fire  (1962) was ranked 53rd on the same list; and his memoir, Speak Memory (1951), was listed eighth on publisher Random House list of the 20th century’s greatest nonfiction. He was a seven-time finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

Cinematic Adaptation of Lolita (1962), starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert and Sue Lyon as Lolita

Storyline of The Novel

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s immaculate and disturbing masterpiece, is the story of middle-aged paedophile man Humbert Humbert—a handsome, French-born intellectual on the one hand, and unapologetic sexual predator on the other and his tragic love affair with his 12-year-old, bubble-gum popping stepdaughter Dolores Haze, who is fondly called Lolita by Humbert. It’s a post-war road novel, the odyssey of a venerable European man and a prepubescent American girl bouncing across the United States, trying to outrun the past and find a future that doesn’t exist.

Lolita (1962)

Humbert’s sociopathic behaviour might be traced back to a sexual experience when he was 13, when he meets his “first love” Annabel—a 12-year old girl who is travelling with her parents. They lust for each other fervently, with an intensity that leaves a permanent impression on Humbert. He describes his passion with a cannibalistic “frenzy of mutual possession [that] might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh.” Their failure to complete the dirty deed leaves an indelible, unresolved tension in Humbert—an impoverished thirst for early-pubescent girls that carries through to adulthood, which he is forced to lie about . He gets married to a widow who he physically abuses to get his own way. He constantly admits himself to sanatoriums, but finds the doctors ridiculous and uses his intelligence to mislead them. He swings from “ashamed and frightened” to “recklessly optimistic,” craving hedonistic intercourse with 11 to 14 year-old girls, but living in the wrong country and century. He tries to justify his urges by recounting accepted paedophilia throughout history, but even his vindications are half-hearted and remorseless—he’s a grown man who wants to have intercourse with children, and there’s nothing to be done about it. He’s an “artist and a madman, with a bubble of hot poison in his loins.” His anguish is illustrated beautifully by Russian-born Nabokov, whose mastery of English is mind-blowing. The animalistic language that he uses is both shocking and enthralling, and some sentences are appalling in their vividness.

Cinematic Adaptation of Lolita (1997), starring Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert and Dominique Swain as Lolita

Humbert understands the precariousness of his attachment to Dolores. She’s a hostage who he appeases with countless and expensive bribes, spawning a crippling jealousy that his nymphet will run away with someone else, especially because of her flirtatious nature. The juvenile sensuality of Dolores Haze makes a paedophile and a green-eyed monster of Humbert, who becomes more and more paranoid as the story unfolds. 

Analysis of The Novel

To be sure, this novel isn’t for the faint of heart, but neither should prospective readers retreat to any kind of moral high ground. Nabokov, in fact, threads an unexpected and affirming emotional serenity through his portrait of obsession. His enigmatic narrator leaves us in spellbound rapture. Because for all of its linguistic pyrotechnics — as Humbert confesses, “you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” — and for all its controversial subject matter, Lolita is one of the most beautiful love stories you’ll ever read. It may be one of the only love stories you’ll ever read. This is the most thrilling and beautiful and most deeply disturbing aspect of the novel — and it’s what most persuasively recommends the book — that in addition to finding Humbert’s soul on the page, we also find, like it or not, a little of our own.

Lolita (1997)

The Author has afflicted poor Humbert with a special and taboo variety for a couple of contradictory reasons. In the first place, its illicit nature will both shock the reader into paying attention and prevent sentimentally false sympathy from distorting his judgment. Contrariwise, I believe, Mr. Nabokov is slyly exploiting the American emphasis on the attraction of youth and the importance devoted to the ‘teen-ager’ in order to promote an unconscious identification with Humbert’s agonies. 

Criticism of The Novel

The art that palliates Humbert’s misery has not notably relieved the distress of reviewers, most of whom have felt obliged to ask themselves, how the author could come up with such horrific storyline. Some have concluded, rather desperately, that he hasn’t done it at all. According to one interpretation, Mr. Nabokov has merely written an allegory of a European intellectual who falls in love with America and discovers, to his gentle sorrow, that the country is still a trifle immature. Aside from the difficulty of assigning roles, the fact that the author is obviously capable of writing such a story without the aid of a nympholeptic allegory throws considerable doubt on the argument. It has also been suggested, ingeniously, that Mr. Nabokov really wanted to write a tale of romantic passion in the grand, or nineteenth-century, manner, and found that the only way to make such a passion interesting to the contemporary reader was to disguise it as psychopathology. If this interpretation is correct, one can only say that Mr. Nabokov has beautifully concealed his disappointment at having to portray his heroine as a child.

Lolita (1997)

Despite Humbert’s evil, the fallout from the relationship is heartbreaking. Our empathy for the odious rogue is Nabokov’s greatest achievement in the novel. We both detest and sympathise with him, leaving us feeling confused and perhaps a little guilty. Humbert’s vile actions and fantasies, in which he dreams of painting a mural and re-live hopelessness of falling in love with a girl who could never love him back. Like Humbert’s love for DoloresLolita felt like a forbidden fruit, breaking the sturdiest of taboos to illuminate the mind of an infatuated, sociopathic paedophile, which is a mind we rarely get to see. 

Lolita (1997)

Conclusion

Lolita is old enough and infamous enough to be known as a story of unhinged paedophilia. But it’s also a beautiful and depressing love story, with a tortured antagonist who despite his crimes, and due to the skill of the book’s author Vladimir Nabokov, we can eventually empathise with.