‘Lolita’ is a difficult book to read because of its subject matter. However, it is a triumph of the English language in such a way that it can be an incredibly enjoyable experience because of this discomfort. The novel is written from the perspective of Humbert Humbert. A man that is well spoken, well travelled, suave, sophisticated and a paedophile. For those who have not read ‘Lolita’, this description of the narrator sounds off-putting at best. Reading in detail the ‘seduction’ of a twelve-year-old stepdaughter from the perspective of her predator hardly sounds like a beach read. However the fact that many people read this novel and when it ends revel in how much they enjoyed it and even go as far as to call it ‘beautiful’ or ‘profound’ should reveal Nabovok’s genius when it comes to manipulation of his readers, or rather Humbert’s readers. This is definitely a novel where the author is removed entirely, you do not get the sense when reading that Nabokov is in favour of paedophilia. Truly you do not get any input from the author at all, Humbert is completely in control of the story from what we see to how we feel.
“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
Humbert is funny, he can be sarcastic, intelligent and poetic. Humbert can also be cruel, deceptive, abusive and egotistical. Humbert is human, despite paedophilia usually dehumanising any character. That is the key to unlocking the genius of this book. Although English was not Nabakov’s first language, his mother tongue being Russian, he takes English and masters it in such a way that you begin to sympathise and enjoy Humbert’s company. How many other authors can be said to make their reader comfortable with hearing the internal monologues of a child rapist? If that is not impressive I don’t know what is.
A book full of child abuse justification and victim blaming could have easily been written in such a disturbing way that no one would wish to read it due to the obscenity. It could have sounded like a criminal rap sheet. There is a reason why ‘Lolita’ has been read by so many and yet not been ‘too much’ to handle. This is because it is written beautifully. I do not mean to say everything abusive happening is merely smothered with purple prose and the book is simply insinuations. Rather the details are altered and told in such a way that you may read an entire paragraph and revel in the language and remain in awe only for it to dawn on you that you have actually read statutory rape. Not an enjoyable realisation but a remarkable feat for a writer. When you conclude with the story you may be left understanding that what you have read is both tragic and disturbing yet pleasantly surprised by just how persuasive and devious language can be. We take for granted how powerful how we are told events can change our perception of them. As an example of my own, which in nowhere as brilliant as Nabovok’s, here are two synopsis’s for ‘Lolita’:
“‘Lolita’ is a coming of age novel chronicling a young girl bonding with her stepfather during a road trip through America. This is a story of adolescence, new experiences, and first loves”
“‘Lolita’ follows Humbert Humbert, a serial paedophile as he infiltrates an American suburban family with his sights firmly set on the 12-year-old daughter. A novel of death, rape and being hunted while on the run”
Both of these are true.
Somehow Nabokov is able to blend both the truth and the lie together. If you want to know how he does so, you know where to look. View discretion is not advised. If you really wish to have a soundtrack to this novel I suggest that song ‘Put Me in a Movie’ by Lana del Rey. Many of her songs are inspired by ‘Lolita’ and this one is sure to send a shiver down your spine for its creepy child-like vocals and beautiful composition. I highly recommend it for those who wish to amerce themselves in the world of ‘Lolita’. Moreover, Jeremy Iron’s version of ‘Lolita’ I find to be the closest to the novel although for legal reasons and rightly so we shall never have a true adaptation. Of course as always read the novel first it is far superior to anything it spawned.
Let me know below if you have read ‘Lolita’ and what you thought!
Side photo credit: ‘Lolita Shoes’ by Claudia De La Rosa