Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is hailed as a classic among literature and the scandalous book is held as such for good reason. When I learned the premise of the book I thought there was no way I would ever be able to enjoy such a tale. A 40-year-old scholar Humbert Humbert lives his life in the grip of a constant obsession for ‘nymphets’, demon girls poised on the brink of worldly experience between ages 9 and 14 that display certain insidious charm and fey grace. Essentially a novel about a man who has paedophilic tendencies, but only for ‘nymphets’, eventually enters into a kind of arrangement with his step-daughter where he lets her pick where they travel and treats her to material gifts in return for physical gratification.

I read the introduction as one is supposed to do to gain some more insight into the text. I was shocked, wary and slightly horrified by the content. However, the minute I began reading Lolita transfixed me. The reader enters into an obsession with the text the same way Humbert enters into one with his little love. The voice Nabokov engineers is one of worldly self deprecation; that of the knowledgeable addict that still can’t resist the next hit.The French that appears only adds to the persona of this sophisticated European protagonist. Nabokov creates him through a series of minuscule layers that are slowly built upon to the point that repulsion is impossible.

We grow with Humbert as he goes through his education, seeking young looking prostitutes, his first marriage and even admitting himself to various psychiatric hospitals. All the while the focus between these episodes is the constant obsession and need for the presence of ‘nymphets’. A casual gaze, a slight caress, a knowing smirk. These are the highlights of his memory and where the vivid colours of Nabokov’s writing truly express its talent.

After another mental breakdown Humbert Humbert moves to the small New England town of Ramsdale to write. There he lodges in the house of widower Charlotte Haze. There he meets and falls under the spell of her ‘nymphet’ 12-year-old daughter Dolores Haze. While Dolores, or ‘Lolita’ as Humbert affectionately labels her, is away at camp Charlotte Haze writes a letter to our protagonist expressing her love for him and begs that he either leave the house or stay and marry her. Humbert stays in order to be able to remain near Dolores, and reasons that as her step-father casual caresses and a certain physical closeness would be innocent. However after a short period into the fateful marriage Haze senior finds a journal containing Humbert’s dark secret. She writes 3 letters but upon going to post them is run down by a man and his father completely coincidentally.

I know what you’re thinking. Humbert did it. I thought so too. However we soon learn through various hallucinations of Humbert’s that no matter how horrific or perverted his mind may be, he is not a murderer. This is particularly striking for the reader as the book opens with Humbert in a prison cell preparing to explain the story of his Lolita. The plot thickens. We wonder the whole way through how a seemingly innocent man, apart from his obsession, could be pushed to murder. This is the real story throughout Lolita.

Humbert eventually collects his little love from camp and sets off on an endless adventure around the USA. During the night while laying next to his sleeping little step-daughter in a bed he imagines all the ways he could touch her in her sleep, whether the sleeping pills he had garnered would work, whether he could get away with it. It is all in vain. Lolita does not sleep lightly and he eventually gives in and admits defeat. Dolly on the other hand, who has always garnered a small crush on Humbert, effectively seduces him the next morning after revealing she spent the majority of her time at camp exploring sex with the son of the camp leader. The reader is in shock. It seems impossible, yet not. The 12-year-old girl we have read with has never been innocent nor particularly well behaved. She truly is a ‘nymphet’.

This is perhaps where sympathy is taken away from our ‘heroine’. She has deliberately destroyed her innocence and entered into the contract with Humbert on her terms. She is the true perpetrator here. Slowly though the colours are reversed. No longer is the shades of Nabokov’s writing glorious when Humbert and Lolita join, our protagonist grows slowly more self-deprecating, the tone turns dark and the embellishments are removed. Dolly by contrast ceases to be Dolores and slowly becomes Lolita more and more. With this transformation she eventually grows to hate the relationship she engineered. She grows bored of Humbert and seeks more.

Eventually Lolita disappears after Humbert is driven into a nervous condition through a combination of paranoia, pills and alcohol. Humbert deludes himself that there is a man following them in order to steal his Lolita and though he doesn’t know it yet, he is right.

After her disappearance Humbert enters a state of depression, trying to gain back some semblance of his former life, even taking on a travelling companion whom he takes care of in a role similar to that of a parent. Eventually Humbert does track down his love. She is now 17, married and pregnant. Yet even though she should have outgrown her ‘nymphet’ status he still loves her. Beyond the new face and the dismal future she carries to him she is still the same. Something she uses to her benefit. She asks for money in order for her husband and her to set up in Canada where he can get more work. Humbert agrees but begs her to leave with him. She refuses. She is no longer his.

Somehow even though the romance is warped, perverted and even quite unrequited the reader cannot be anything other than saddened at the gloomy outlook of our now old protagonist. Once young and handsome he charmed his little Lolita, now he simply doesn’t matter to her. He has been forgotten in favour of the man who stole her from him. A movie star mentioned earlier in the book who holds orgies in a house in the countryside. This is ultimately what transforms our Humbert into a murderer.

In the last chapters the book is transformed from a romance to a thriller. We chase down this fiend alongside Humbert, begging for that eventual climax we have already been promised. The reader is left confusingly breathless due to Nabokov’s high intensity writing coupled with slow timing. After a painstakingly drawn out climb we arrive. Nabokov has done the impossible. We side with Humbert, we believe he loved Dolores. The reader celebrates when the second pedophile ultimately dies after several ill-aimed shots. This is where the reader realises the true power of Vladimir Nabokov. This is where you realise you have sided with a paranoid paedophilic murderer. The reader has journeyed with Humbert through addiction, love, paranoia and eventually peace.

With the final flourish of perfection Humbert asks that this memoir be only published after the death of both he and his love. He has granted them immortality together when a world would not accept their sordid love. Yet somehow this is one of the best romances if not the best i have ever read. To call it anything but this would be only to insult Nabokov. Lolita is truly the most powerful romance there is, a true classic. The journey through the protagonists’ mind and emotion leads to one conclusion. Lolita is the romance of Humbert Humbert. And the reader is left thoroughly seduced and disturbed.

9/10 – A true classic that every fan of literature should read at least once. Nabokov seduces and transfixes you though can be a little slow after the loss of Lolita. Perfect to explore the human mind in all it’s emotions. 

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BA English student at University of Southampton and Editor for The Edge (2015-16). A deep love of reading, theatre and all things entertainment.

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