‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov ***

‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov (Penguin)

On reflection, it was possibly a touch controversial to start reading Lolita whilst on a train into London, but I had been looking forward to reading it for such a long time, and since I finally had a copy of it upon my to-read shelves, I thought the journey offered me ample opportunity to begin.  Before beginning his most famous novel, I had only read one of Nabokov’s works, Speak, Memory.  This gave me the impression that Lolita would be just as intelligently written, and it certainly is.

I am sure that everyone knows what Lolita is about, so I shall just summarise the beginning of the plot.  A college professor named Humbert Humbert, who seems to do very little work throughout the novel, travels to New England and falls in love with the daughter of the woman who runs the house in which he stays, the pre-pubescent Delores Haze, whom he knows as Lolita.  The opening passage was one which I knew off by heart, and I love the importance which is given to Lolita’s name:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. 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.”

Now, I admit that the novel sounds a little seedy, but the way in which Nabokov has crafted the story allows the reader to be swept into the tale, almost understanding Humbert’s rather questionable actions in consequence – a very odd thing indeed.  The entirety of the book is narrated by Humbert, which allows us a glimpse into even his dirtiest of thoughts.  As Nabokov himself did in Speak, Memory, Humbert feels pretentious and rather full of himself, but once begun, his story is a difficult one not to want to read to its end.  Nabokov’s prose is opulent – entirely overdone at times, but he certainly does not write in a forgettable style.  I really did not like Humbert as a protagonist, and my dislike of him increased as the novel went on.  The more I read of him, the more I saw that he was a real creep – the kind of person whom I would probably run away from in real life.  Although he was, of course, so necessary to the story, it felt to me as though his presence was rather overdone at times.

Throughout, Lolita felt rather hazy, more of an ethereal figure than a tangible being.  She only really seemed to come to life at around a third of the way through, which must have been Nabokov’s intention all along.  Saying this, I far preferred the first part of the novel to the rest of it.  The relationship portrayed between Lolita and Humbert becomes really quite stifling after this point.

On reading Lolita, I can understand quite clearly how so much controversy surrounded it upon its publication, but it is also possible to see how it is an incredibly important work of literature.  It approaches one of the most taboo situations, which is heavily frowned upon and the circumstances of which are, indeed, illegal in many countries, head-on.  I did found the novel rather sleazy in places, and some of the euphemisms really did make me cringe.  In consequence, t was really quite difficult for me to decide how to rate Lolita.  I admired the writing and Nabokov’s telling of such a story, but I would not really say that it was a novel which I liked, as such.  Personally, I feel that it is a book which is better to be revered than loved, for Nabokov’s rather brave portrayal of such a forbidden relationship.  I must admit that I found the entirety rather underwhelming, and it was both as I thought it would be, and entirely different to my expectations too.

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10 thoughts on “‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov ***

  1. It’s so hard to write objectively about “Lolita” – it comes with so much baggage and so many preconceptions. But I think you have to try and stand back and look at the language of Nabokov. I like your distinction about revering a book rather than loving it – that’s a good way to think about difficult works that you admire but can’t say are in your heart!

    • Oh, definitely! It is a beautiful piece of art on the whole, but yes, I agree completely that it comes with preconceptions. I’m surprised I didn’t get any odd looks whilst I was on the train, because my boyfriend eyed it a little suspiciously. Thanks so much for your lovely feedback!

  2. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about this book. I read it a few years ago and was dazzled by the language while feeling squirmy about the subject matter. I’d of course never condone Humbert Humbert’s behavior, but there’s something to be said about a writer that can make even the most taboo things readable and literary. That being said, I’ve never recommended it to anyone because it can be a lot to take if you can’t separate the art from the message, so to speak.

    • Thank you Kelly! I’m so glad I wasn’t alone in my reading experience, and I completely agree about Nabokov being able to make something so awful into a story which you feel you just have to read. I’m with you on not being able to recommend it too – I don’t think I’d dare!

  3. It’s been a while since I’ve read Lolita, but I remember greatly appreciating Nabakov’s writing style – even if the subject matter made me nervous. I’ve read some of his literary lectures, also, and really enjoyed his insight.

  4. Thanks to Sting writing a Police song with a Nabokov reference, I read this when I was 13. Not really knowing the subject of the book, It certainly opened up a whole new world to me!. It really was a gateway to serious and disturbing(!) adult fiction

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