Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Ah, Lolita. One of the most controversial books of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. It’s a novel which approaches the incredibly taboo subject of paedophilia from a very unusual angle- a romantic one. We are drawn into the twisted mind of Humbert Humbert, an attractive European academic, who develops an infatuation with his landlady’s daughter, who reminds him of a lost childhood love. Nabokov does not portray Humbert as a hero, but does allow him the odd moment of sympathy throughout, and he boldly resists characterising Lolita as an angelic, innocent child.
This novel is, in short, mind-blowing. From Nabokov’s lyrical writing style- which often makes the novel seem more like poetry than prose- to his wonderfully complex portrayal of the disturbing relationship between Humbert and Lolita, he takes your expectations of a novel about paedophilia and turns them on their head. At times, novel is erotic- romantic, even- and forces you to empathise with Humbert’s desire for Lolita through wonderful descriptions of her tanned, bony feet and glossy hair. Even though Lolita is Humbert’s victim and her life is effectively ruined by him, she is often portrayed as cruel and manipulative. Meanwhile Humbert, the predator, who does despicable things such as have Lolita perform sexual acts upon him in the car whilst he watches children walk out of school, often seems weak and pathetic- in making Lolita the object of his affections, he gives her the upper hand. In the end, it is Lolita who breaks Humbert’s heart, not the other way around. Lolita is undoubtedly a victim and suffers some terrible things, but she is strong whilst Humbert is weak, and Nabokov challenges convention- and flirts outrageously with controversy- in playing with this unusual balance.
However, I disagree with those who call the novel ‘immoral’, or even ‘amoral’. Although he is a desperate, pitiful man at times, we are never permitted to forget that he is a lecherous paedophile and any brief flashes of sympathy are soon replaced by enduring disgust. Humbert wishes to view himself as a lover, and in a sense, he is- the problem is, his ardent passion is directed towards a child. He tries to delude himself, and the reader, that his relationship with Lolita is a great love affair, but he has moments of clarity when he is overcome with self-loathing and begs her forgiveness- much to her disgust. Nabokov delights in playing with conventions of romance and his style is poetic, but at the centre of Humbert’s magniloquent narrative lies a rotting core of disturbing obsession; Nabokov leaves no doubt as to who the villain of the piece truly is. However, Lolita is not a morality tale, and nor should it try to be; do we really need a work of fiction to tell us that rape, exploitation and murder are wrong?
Have YOU read Lolita? What did you think? I’d love to know your thoughts, so please leave a comment!