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Book review: <i>Lolita</i> by Vladimir Nabokov

the cover of the book

If this was about a pubescent boy instead of a pubescent girl, it would confirm everything a certain sort of person likes to pretend lurks primarily within the purview of the homosexual mindset. But it isn't, so deal with it, heteros.


Mine had simple text over a low-saturation photo of the author as an old man, in a louche smoking jacket, idly fingering a flower. Call me dirty-minded, but I couldn't decide if this design decision was dishonest or oblivious. It draws a connection between the author and the subject which has no business being drawn, and creates a false impression of the narrator. Even if this book is one of a series featuring author portraits as covers, could they not have chosen a less suggestive photo? On the other hand, the modern penguin version my flatmate owns has a decidedly un-implicit Dolly-style photograph of an underage model on the front. For public transport give me the greyed-out portrait of Mr. Creepy, thanks. (And if you're thinking that it's prurient and immature of me to be considering such things in regard to a classic work of English literature, then consider this: The friend of mine who recommended Lolita to me is now a school teacher. Nothing wrong with that, right? Of course not. It's a great book and he was telling me it was impressive long ago. Re-reading it now, he was equally impressed, but eventually had to concede that, no matter how completely innocent and artistically justifiable his choice of reading matter may be, it simply doesn't look good in the Staff Room.)


Humbert Humbert is a troubled Parisian writer. After the dissolution of his first marriage he moves to America, ready to bury himself in his next book and to embrace the suburban Yank's preconception that any bookish gent with a European accent must be some kind of real smart professor guy. Humbert is, indeed, smart - he is under no illusions as to his character, and his character is, to put it simply, irredeemable. Humbert is attracted only to girls who evoke his pubescent sweetheart Annabel, who died before their relationship could evolve. Humbert is a handsome, clever middle-aged man who has no trouble generating female attention, but his being is focussed only on, as he calls them, "Nymphets" - socially precocious pubescent girls first experimenting with their power over the male. Sometimes he pries himself from temptation, sometimes he embraces it, but the ideas never leave his mind.

When he moves in with a single mother of his own age, he is instantly smitten with her daughter Dolores, nicknamed Lo, Lola, Lolita. He marries her mother and creates a suburban facade of normality. Meanwhile, brazen little Lolita develops a crush on her handsome step-Dad and sees this as a chance to compete against her mother, using her emergent femininity. In short order, the mother dies in an accident, leaving Lolita in the "care" of her stepfather. Things go downhill from there.

The good

This is a truly great piece of writing; astounding, given that English wasn't even Nabokov's first language. The prose is an unending delight - Humbert's jaded European eyes roam the landscapes of fifties America, from the mountains to suburbia, leaving in their wake flowery, vividly overripe afterimages. And every scene, no matter how beautiful, is perfectly tainted by the poison of Humbert's yearnings. There are as many fantastic sentences as there are immaculately drawn moments, minutes, hours. In the presence of such very obviously great writing (as opposed to complicatedly, subtly or difficultly great writing) I become a club-footed yokel at a Fred Astaire show. Lookit all them sen-ten-ces! Believe me, there's enough footwork to please everyone. I'm not naturally inclined towards florid prose, but Nabokov's is so finely weighted that it achieves an economy which is belied by its flourishes and dictionary-demanding vocabulary. As I said, the contrast between Humbert's grandiloquent narrative and the toxic, single-minded flavour of his life is matched perfectly by the contrast between his Euro-bohemianisms (including his constant attempts to drag the ancients into rationalisations for the very contemporary harm he enacts on the innocent) and the stolid, healthy folk of the U.S.A.

Who are all a bunch of freaks, of course. Humbert may be an inexcusable human being entirely enslaved to his demons but he isn't blind to the world; his (of course, Nabokov's) powers of observation and description are formidable. Nabokov nonetheless distinguishes the narrator from the author with finely measured precision - we can trust Humbert's view of the world, and his place within it, to the extent the plot requires, but not a great deal further. Humbert seems honest with us concerning his dark heart, but he is also deluded, vain and, of course, in the thrall of the sun-God obsession, that deity who leaves his worshippers sweaty, denuded and delirious.

The central characters form a short list, but they are skilfully realised, particularly Humbert and Lolita. Despite the perversion and damage at the core of their relationship, Nabokov has the stomach to let it evolve before our eyes into a situation where H and L grow into these grotesquely cynical but mercilessly well-drawn caricatures of A Man and A Woman in A Relationship. Humbert becomes a rotting, avuncular facade propped up by little else than a stupid, stiff-backed resistance to the inevitable, sheltering a schizophrenic who swings between self-loathing adulthood and a jealousy-fuelled teenage paranoia from moment to moment. Lolita turns from a wilful, precocious child into a spoiled, devious, castrating harpy, who thinks intimacy is a series of transactions and there is no emotion which is not fundamentally manipulatory. Of course, Humbert is undoubtedly the villain - even his formidable powers of rationalisation can rarely overcome this conclusion - but, in the most horrific of ironies, it is actually he who loves Lolita, not vice versa, and is thus in the weaker position of the pair. Of course, one of the reasons he has most to lose is that he has taken so much from Lolita already. At one point, much later in life, Humbert tries to wring from Lolita some admission of fellow feeling, comparing their time together with her romance with another suitor. She brushes him off, and then: "I finish her sentence for her, internally: "No, he broke my heart; you merely broke my life."

For a story of abuse, pain, shame, and all attendant horrors of the human animal, this is far more romantic, moving, melancholy and funny than it has any right to be. It's also fucking awful, don't get me wrong, but, to leap my high-powered jetbike across Conclusion Canyon, this novel both plays with AND embodies our concepts of the collision between an enlightened but morally ambiguous old Europe, and the honest, naive, not-especially-self-aware folk of the West. If you think, furthermore, that the ongoing controversy engendered by such a book ignorantly plays into this theme, you would be one hundred percent correct.

The bad

Well, occasionally Nabokov does seem a little too enamoured of the English language. Don't get me wrong, the Russian-born writer is so good that it's hard to know whether to be proud, embarrassed or flattered, but I did have occasion to suspect that he was showing off. It might be an intentional aspect of Humbert's character, or it might be that thing teenage writers who've just discovered a Thesaurus do, thirty years too late (Either way, if anybody out there could provide definitions for the words lonago, dackal, or logodaedaly I would be grateful.) What I'm trying to say is that the prose, though superb, will not be to everyone's taste. It IS a bit dated, it IS a bit "foreign", I concede, and I'd even be prepared to discuss terms with someone claiming that there's an inherently depraved quality to it, but all in ways so much more interesting than what you're imagining.

Regarding issues of sexual offensiveness, there's not a lot worth saying. The descriptive language is not explicit (this was the fifties, remember) but, given the subject, it doesn't need to be, and in any case it's far more disturbing being party to Humbert Humbert's fantasies and attempts at self-justification, quite frankly. There's a fantastic scene near the end where Humbert compliments a child who he has no bad intentions towards, yet is angrily mistaken by her father for exactly the sort of animal who lurks within him, cloaked in flimsy layers of cultivation and self-knowledge.

Martin Amis' introduction to my edition didn't do much for me, but he did point out an important fact, from the prologue, which lacks import before the book's completion and is thus easy to miss on a first reading. He also used a phrase which stuck with me: "Lolita is a cruel book about cruel people." I can't argue with that. It's also beautifully written, horrible, and, certainly in terms of what it seeks to achieve, close to perfect.

What I learnt

A few new words, when I could locate a dictionary that contained them. That Russian writers really seem to have the "doom" thing down pat. That it's possible to write this well in a language you didn't grow up with.

In short

Title: Lolita
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Publisher: Orion
ISBN: 0297819100
Year published: 1997
Pages: 336
Genre(s): Fiction, Contemporary Literature, Extreme Dodginess
Review Type: