Chances are that even if you have not read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita you at least know what it is about. It’s about an older man loving a pre-pubescent girl, or nymphet as Humbert Humbert calls them. It is is titillating and immoral.* Well, this is what I thought going in. But this is not what the book is about. If you are looking for a pornographic or lascivious book, then Lolita is bound to disappoint you. Yes, Humbert is a pedophile, but he openly admits this at various points. Yes, there is sex between an adult and a minor, but it is never portrayed directly nor is it crude or lewd. What Lolita is about is a self-deluded and totally unreliable narrator.
This is not to say that the novel is not slippery. Humbert is cunning as he tries to get readers to sympathize with him. The novel is set up as a kind of memoir written while Humbert is in jail, long after his relationship with Lolita is finished. I say Humbert is cunning because he gets readers to sympathize with him through his various rationalizations of what is he doing, but then something slips in the narration and we suddenly realize that we have unwittingly crossed some kind of moral line. Nabokov is masterful in his ability to string readers along and then expose them for their own failings. As my friend J said to me about the book, part of its strength is its ability to make us realize that we are all, at heart, animals; we are not so different from Humbert no matter how much we want to be.
This might be the first case, at least since my high school years, where I was nervous about reading a book in public. J and I had a long argument about this, but the fact that most people assume Lolita is an immoral and pornographic book, even though they probably have not read it, meant that I was careful where I brought it out to read. I have read far worse books, yet Lolita’s popular reputation tended to precede itself.
Two things really surprised me in the novel. First, that it is a road novel in the sense that a lot of its action takes place on the road. Humbert and Lolita travel across America several times, and I loved how Nabokov dove into the tourist countryside, exposing its cheapness yet also showing how we enjoy it all the same. A lot of this comes in the first few pages of Part 2, and most of it is quite funny. For example, Nabokov writes “we avoided Tourist Homes, country cousins of Funeral ones, old-fashioned, genteel and showerless, with elaborate dressing tables in depressingly white-and-pink little bedrooms, and photographs of the landlady’s children in all their instars” (146). I could immediately call to mind a couple of different roadside inns that fit this example quite well. This is just one of a number of descriptions that resonated with my own experience travelling across North America.
The second thing that surprised me was how Humbert actually loses Lolita with more than a third of the novel left. She disappears and he spends several years desperately searching for her. This was a turn I had not expected and kept me turning the pages.
Humbert does find Lolita again, but by this point she is out of his “nymphet” stage. Yet it is at this point that his love for her actually becomes visible. He even recognizes that he has, in a major way, stolen Lolita’s childhood. I really appreciated the emotional depth that Nabokov suddenly springs on the readers. Lolita is a masterpiece. That being said, it is not for everyone. It is about a very problematic relationship that has troubling implications, but it is also quite high-brow in the sense that it is loaded with allusions to French, German, and European literature. If you get an annotated copy, it is probably easier to make sense of the dense writing, but this is not totally necessary either.
I would hesitantly recommend this novel for those interested in American literature. But if the subject matter is not something that you can, at the least, suspend judgment about, then this is not for you.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 1955. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.
*If you have made your judgment based on the movie (Kubrick’s or the other more recent and less successful Lyne adaptation), please read the book. It is different in a number of critical ways.