First U.S. publication
Russia, United States, Switzerland
Approx. 112,000 words
Falling for the charm of the predator
Lolita is the kind of book that grows thicker every time you read it.
The first time you may race through to take in the plot of the adult male who loves and loses a preadolescent girl, what he calls a "nymphet". It's still shocking more than half a century after its publication. Still shocking in how non-shocking it seems, as you first read it in Humbert Humbert's calm voice, in Vladimir Nabokov's entertaining prose.
It's some trick to have a pedophiliac relationship at the centre of the story, and yet carry the reader along, wilfully ignoring the horror of what this entails. It's not that child abuse is normalized in Lolita, as some have charged. It's never justified, and even the perpetrator-narrator Humbert Humbert seems to know he's doing a bad thing. But it's handled so matter-of-factly, without sensation or explicitness, that one can glide through it without repulsion.
And you get taken in by Nabokov/Humbert's charm. The first time through you may notice the book's thicket of cultural allusions. You may note a few of the multifarious puns. You may catch the sidelong critiques of the consumer society. The clever turns of phrase and invented expressions. You may also spot the unreliability of the narrator—the odd things that just don't add up.
But you brush past all these quickly in the heat of exploring the larger story of desire, narcissism and retribution. It's a good fast read.
In a later reading though—perhaps in a slower, more deliberate read—these smaller stylistic features stand out. You wonder how you missed so many of them earlier. This is a very dense novel, you come to realize. Dense with observations and word play to distract you from the central rot.
Normally, like most readers, I shy away from writing that requires footnotes. But in the case of Lolita I can't help but find comments in the annotated edition of the novel a great aid, at least on a second or third read. It actually makes a game of the novel, if that can be an appropriate description, given the subject matter. What is really going on with Humbert and with the girl while he diverts the reader with light-hearted observations?
You also start to notice the nuances in their relationship that make you question earlier assumptions about the girl's acquiescence, possibly instigation, as seen through Humbert's eyes. It becomes clearer how even the novel's title is part of his predation, adopting the sexualizing, belittling name Humbert gives to the girl known as Dolores or Lo to everyone else. Despite his accounts of continually trying to please the girl, it's increasingly obvious he's driven by his own rapacious drives and has no idea of her as a real person. Afterwards, he is surprised to learn he was never a great love for her as she has been for him.
And we have to wonder whether she really was the great love of his life, or how much, rather, he created her from the memory of an aborted love affair in his youth. His rhapsodies about her aside, Lolita/Dolores seems shallow, crass and uninteresting for such a supposedly cultured man. There's a disconnect between his fevered, desirous descriptions of her and the pallid object of his affections we sense through the haze of his narrative.
Humbert Humbert is also a pseudonym, by the way. One that he takes for himself as he writes his story from his jail cell. (This is not a spoiler. The fact that he wrote this "confession" from prison—and that he died there—is given away in the faux foreword to the supposed memoir by a fictional psychologist. Story within story within story.)
Another minor game goes on with readers who already know how the relationship works out. They start watching for appearances of Humbert's nemesis, the man who takes Lolita/Dolores away. Author Nabokov works this figure anonymously into the pages of Lolita leading up to her leaving, without Humbert the purported narrator realizing it. Canny readers watch for clues to the mystery man's surreptitious appearances, never quite sure if they've spotted him.
But the biggest game is how Humbert, or Nabokov, plays us, the readers. Especially in the first reading we are charmed into accepting what should be unacceptable. As they say, we become complicit in Humbert's exploitation of the girl. Then, by the end, as we learn with Humbert the girl's real anguish, we are humiliated into realizing what we've almost fallen into.
Some have taken the nuance in the predator-victim relationship and the young woman's final request of the man as evidence of her having taken advantage of him all along. By this account, she's the one who seduced him for her own financial benefit, until she found a more promising mark.
It's easier to dismiss this exculpating interpretation today, when we know so much more about the complexities of child abuse. But this is not a matter of rehabilitating Nabokov for current sensibilities. For, even in the supposedly repressed 1950s, Lolita was written in a manner to challenge our presumptions.
Nabokov could have made Dolores a character to fully engage our sympathies—a snow-white innocent child soiled by the big bad man, a tortured soul, a terrified little girl. But this would be too easy, would not require us to think about the matter any deeper than siding with a character for whom our sympathies have been obviously elicited. Lolita is disturbing because it lures us into emotional places we would otherwise never go and gently eases the rugs out from under us.
On the other hand
Having said all this in defence of Lolita and having insisted on the need to re-read the book to really get everything Nabokov is up to, I have to issue one caveat.
Lolita often tops lists of the greatest books of the twentieth century, sometimes ranked among the three or four greatest novels ever. I think this is due to Nabokov's writing here being both popularly accessible—the "good read" aspect—and offering more literary-minded critics so much grist for their academic mills: the literary and cultural allusions, the word play, the layered characterizations.
And we love unreliable narrators. From the first great novel, Don Quixote, through Tristram Shandy, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, and Lolita's contemporary, The Catcher in the Rye, to the recent Life of Pi, deluded main characters have provided us material to write and argue about. And reason to go back to the texts over and over.
Nabokov has disavowed the use of symbolism, allegory and Freudian analysis in his works, and expressly in Lolita. But that hasn't kept critics and other writers to up the literary game-playing even further by building interpretations on their purported discovery of these devices in the novel.
None of which bothers me. It makes literature fun. You can take any piece of work as deep or shallow as you wish, to use it as a jumping off point to ponder and discuss life itself.
But I don't think it makes Lolita one of the greatest works of all time. Not above such deeply felt and earnestly written novels as those by Tolstoy, Dickens, Hardy, Hemingway, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Melville, George Eliot, Steinbeck.... Next to them, Lolita, once all the games have been played and revelations revealed, seems less substantial. Disturbing, provocative, enchanting, perhaps a story for our times and worthy of our era's highest accolades, but not one of the best humanity has to offer.
Which shouldn't deter you from reading it, but spur you back to it again and again to prove me wrong.