Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov Book Review
Hailed as one of the greatest and one of the most controversial novels of the 20th century, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a roller coaster for all. For the avid, language-loving, prose enthusiast to the story-centered, content critic, Lolita presents a tale that frequently polarizes its readers. And there are many reasons why.
Published in 1955 (for the first time in France, as of course, it was too obscene for America), Lolita is Vladimir Nabokov’s third novel written in English succeeding Bend Sinister and preceding Pnin. It is absolutely Nabokov’s most popular work and is regarded by many to be his magnum opus. It took Nabokov five years to finish the book, and upon release the first five thousand first printings sold out within a week. In 1958, when the book was finally printed in the US, it sold over 100,000 copies in three weeks. Graham Greene, a prolific English novelist, in the Sunday Times called it “one of the three best books of 1955. And in the Sunday Express, editor John Gordon called it “the filthiest book I have ever read” citing its “sheer unrestrained pornography.”
So the big question here is why do some regard Lolita as one of the greatest and most seminal works of the 20th century while others cannot contain their sheer disdain for the novel, often drawing upon its abominable content?
Summary [spoilers ahead]
The book is told by the main character and narrator Humbert Humbert, which is a pseudonym that he addresses immediately, and throughout the novel, Humbert talks to the reader as a jury at his subsequent sentencing for his actions, which we don’t learn about until the very end of the book (but is alluded to on the first page, *cough cough* murder). While the book is told solely from Humbert, he often jumps from first person point of view to third person (yes, he talks about himself in the third person, which is a true testament to his character).
Humbert is a multi-lingual, middle-aged college professor from Europe who begins his tale drawing on a memory from his childhood where, as a boy, he fell in love with a young girl named Annabelle who shortly died before he and she were ever able to get intimate. Humbert cites this (possibly as justification) as the formative event that spurred his intense and unwavering attraction to nymphets, as he dubs them, girls between the ages of 9 and 14, aka hebephilia (more commonly called pedophilia, though that term actually refers to children younger than 9 years).
Humbert travels to America after his uncle dies where he is to take over his perfume business. (I’m skipping a little bit; he was married to a woman named Valeria, but later split after an interesting series of events, go read it). After a few years traveling to northern America on a weird scientific expedition, he ends up lodging at Charlotte Haze’s house, after an unfortunate arson changes his plans a bit. It is here that he meets Dolores Haze, aka Lolita, the daughter of Charlotte Haze. Humbert immediately becomes infatuated, nay, falls in love with Lolita and he decides that he cannot live without her. He spends many months living with them, all the while as he is falling deeper and deeper in love, writing about Lolita in his bedroom and stashing the notes away, lest Charlotte finds them and he is found out. Well, we’ll come back to that later.
Humbert meets all of Charlotte’s friends, all of whom he has some choice words in describing, but generally he seems to be happy for the most part simply being able to be close to his Lolita. But one day, Charlotte decides to sends Dolores off to camp for three months, and suddenly Humbert is faced with a decision. That decision is made more complicated by the fact that, unbeknownst to Humbert, all this time, Charlotte has been falling deeper and deeper in love with him. When Charlotte goes to drive Dolores off to camp, she leaves a note with the maid instructed to give it to Humbert. In the note is an ultimatum for Humbert: either reciprocate my love, or leave by the time I get back. Humbert who couldn’t dream of being away from his Lolita, decides to marry Charlotte, and thus becomes Dolores’s stepfather. But of course Humbert and Charlotte’s marriage is not of the best; he’s a silent companion, meagerly putting up with Charlotte and her loud, extroverted, and times manic personality, all the while thinking of ways to escape while still being able to be with Lolita.
[Side-note: there’s a fantastically humorous and somewhat graphic scene where they’re swimming in a lake and Humbert is fantasizing about how he would drown Charlotte, and what the results would be. Seriously go read it.]
But one day, Humbert comes back to the house to find that Charlotte has found his letters in which he has described in vivid detail the love he has for her daughter. They have an argument, but in the midst of their quarreling, Charlotte, totally distraught, runs out of the house and gets hit by a car and dies. And suddenly Humbert’s fantasy is set in motion. He picks up Lolita from her summer camp (he only tells her that her mother is sick) and they stay the night in a hotel. On this night, Humbert tries to drug Lolita with sleeping pills that he bought from a doctor, but the pills don’t work, and all the while as Humbert is waiting for the pills start working, he gets restless and ends up wandering around the hotel. He runs into Clare Quilty, a famous playwright who used to know Charlotte Haze, and had been acquainted with Dolores. (That’s going to come back later). In the morning, Lolita wakes up with Humbert by her side, and she goes into this diatribe about how she is not a virgin, and Humbert fakes that he knows nothing about sex. This is when they make love for the first time. And part one ends as they are leaving the hotel and arguing in the car because Lolita wants to call her sick mom, to which Humbert straight up tells her that she’s dead.
Part two begins with Humbert and Lolita driving on a long tour throughout the U.S. (this part, while beautifully written of course, was still a bit sluggish, as it’s just description after description of landscapes.) Throughout their journeys, as Humbert falls deeper and deeper in love, Lolita seems to be getting restless; she suggests, after a year of traveling, that they settle down, and so they go back to Ramsdale, New England, and Lolita enrolls in a girls’ school. At that school, she joins the school play, which unbeknownst to Humbert, is a play that just so happens to be written by a Clare Quilty. During the opening week of the play, however, Lolita and Humbert start arguing more and more and their home life grows increasingly intense until one night Lolita runs away and Humbert chases after her. They make up (have sex again) and then decide to go once more on a long journey throughout the country.
Pretty early on into their second cross-country trip, Lolita and Humbert begin arguing more and more, and she starts to get reckless, walking off by herself at truck stops and what not. But also right about here is when Humbert starts noticing that a certain man has been following them. He drives a red convertible and wears sunglasses, and Humbert begins to obsess that they’ve have been found out. Humbert begins growing super paranoid. He even starts to carry his gun in his pocket (cue Chehkov’s gun).
Then Lolita gets sick and spends over a week in the hospital, and though Humbert essentially is by her side from the most of her stay, on the last day he comes back after grabbing some food and magazines to find that Lolita has been discharged from the hospital and that her uncle has come and picked her up. Well of course you can imagine Humbert’s dismay as Lolita has no uncle and suddenly she is gone, vanished into thin air (dum, dum, dum).
Humbert spends the next two years (yes, TWO YEARS) trying to find Lolita, all the while finding tiny hints that her captor has left for him. [This is an especially cool part of the book as the clues are crazy-filled with puns, literary allusions, and even anagrams.] Humbert, in the midst of his searching, meets a girl named Rita with whom he (kind of) starts dating. She’s an off-the-wall, rambunctious alcoholic from California who aids him in his search but eventually they both give up and take up residence in New York City. Some time passes, and then all of a sudden, Humbert receives a letter in the mail from Dolores. In the letter, Dolores writes that she is married to a guy named Dick and is pregnant with his child but is also desperately poor, and she asks Humbert for 400 dollars. She signs the letter: Dolly (Mrs. Richard F Schiller). Well, that’s all that was needed to send Humbert hurling back into his obsession with Lolita and so he starts up his search again, this time with the lead of knowing her new name.
Eventually, Humbert finds her. He plans to shoot and kill her husband on sight, assuming that he is the unnamed man from the convertible that had taken Lolita in the first place and led Humbert on that crazy witch hunt of indecipherable clues for two years. However, when he gets to her house, he finds out that her husband is not the same man from all those years ago. In fact, he is half-deaf, blue collar worker who Dolores had met at a bar. This part is a bit weird, as Dolores is awkwardly cheerful when Humbert arrives and pretty much dismisses all that has happened over the past years. She introduces Humbert as her father to her husband Dick, and Humbert is a bit stunned at what to do and how to feel. Eventually he decides to leave but not before he asks her to run away with him. Humbert’s love has come flowing back tenfold and he realizes that he still cannot live without her. Despite her insistent refusal, he still gives her, not 400 dollars, but 4000 dollars and heads out. Just as he is leaving, Dolores reveals the identity of her captor those many years back: Clare Quilty, who she had been in love with this whole time. They even lived together for a few years in a strange, sex-crazed commune on his ranch, but Quilty ended up banishing her because she finally got tired of participating in his bizarre sex games (weird, I know).
Humbert is of course pretty upset at learning all this and so he decides he is going to kill Clare Quilty. He sets off to find him, and learns Quilty’s whereabouts from his uncle who is a local dentist (Humbert says he wants all of his teeth removed lol). Then Humbert rolls up to Quilty’s house, a huge mansion by the way, and proceeds to invade and stalk Quilty as he floats about the house. Down in the lounge, Humbert confronts Quilty, who is intoxicated and initially thinks Humbert is a repair man called for the telephone. They have a long and awkward exchange, intermittently brawling and wrestling, and eventually Humbert ends up shooting Quilty many times as he tries to escape up the stairs. Weirdly a bunch of people arrive, friends of Quilty’s, and Humbert tells them straight up that he has killed their friend. Well, they don’t believe him and even start making jokes. Humbert leaves and start high-tailing it across town, running red lights, driving on the opposite side of the road, until finally he crashes and the police catch up to him. He surrenders to the police and there’s this beautiful albeit super creepy passage at the end where he describes seeing a playground in the distance as he’s being taken into custody. He states that “the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.”
The book ends with Humbert’s admission of guilt and a recognition of his crimes, but what is interesting is the specifics. He states that he is opposed to capital punishment, and that he believes that he deserves to be charged for rape and all the other charges should be dropped. And in the ultimate conclusion of his “memoir” he states, in reference to the book, that “this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
There are two polar-opposite extremes to this novel and, in my opinion, it is that dichotomy between those extremes that gives rise to such polarizing opinions and contention among readership. However, it is also within that dichotomy that the novel rises into the echelon of high art.
On one side, we have a book that is about a pedophile’s engagement (essentially abduction and rape) with a young girl. We know that it is incredibly violent and harrowing at times, without really having to read the gory details as Humbert never actually dives into extreme graphics of his sexual actions with Lolita. He beads around the bush in many instances and what graphic scenes he does write about, he buries in flowery prose that tends to muffle the severity of what actually happens. In that light, the book, while still pretty sexual, in my opinion, isn’t actually pornographic. This book is not smut, despite what many critics have labeled it. And the reason being is Nabokov’s writing and furthermore (don’t judge me) in a strange literary way, at least, the violence and horrible things are not simply made for the sake of writing only violence and horrible things.
One the other side, we have a book that because of the way that it is written lends itself to the reader as an incredible love story, and subsequently, a story of man descending into and ultimately succumbing to his own obsession. Nabokov’s prose, filled with grandiloquent passages of affection, development, care, not to mention the countless, multilingual puns and social critique on American pop culture, pulls and pushes the story into a light that alleviates the dark contents of the story.
It is because Lolita walks that dangerously thin line between two huge trenches that, again I stress in my opinion, the book is and remains considered a masterpiece of literature. And in a way, the whole thing is a perfect example of irony: Nabokov has told a brutal story about a pedophile but he’s told it in such a way as to make it seem “not so bad?” I hesitate to write that last bit.
Because the entirety of the novel is told solely from Humbert’s point of view, we never get to see what or how Lolita thinks about or feels about Humbert and his actions. And it is because of this one-sided narration that allows the reader to feel, think, understand, and see the world as Humbert does, and so in a way, Humbert lends himself to the reader as the sympathetic, hopeless romantic. And the moment the reader begins empathizing with Humbert, Nabokov has done it, he has succeeded in what he was trying to do.
The one sided perspective of Humbert also opens another window for the reader. While Humbert is seemingly oblivious to his own transformation, as a man is wont to do (it’s difficult, especially in the throes of love, to take an objective, honest look at yourself and see what others are seeing), the reader gets a first-hand look into the increasing solipsistic descent that Humbert falls deeper and deeper into until ultimately…well we know what happens. There is, however, one tiny instance that alludes to Humbert’s recognition of his faults, though not totally, and that’s that tiny passage on the last pages. Humbert, who throughout the whole book refuses to refer to his intimacy with Lolita as rape (though she brings it up once or twice) and yet also acknowledges his own pedophilia (what he called “pederosis”), seems to undergo a slight epiphany after he’s gets carted away by the police. And it is in that tiny moment, the reader finally gets the feeling that Humbert is both aware of his abominable actions and unware of the extremes of those actions. In his weird, twisted, cross-wired head, confessing to the crimes he committed against Lolita was enough to grant him mental absolution, to clear conscience so to speak, while not acknowledging the fact that he killed a man was deemed worthy of a charge. Like what the hell was that?
Phewwwwwww this book was something. I had picked up a used copy a long, long time ago, and I had thrown it into the pile of “gonna read at some point.” But slowly but surely, Lolita began giving me that “dagger-eyed stare” from across the room, and letting curiosity get the best of me, I cracked it open and read the famous first passage of the book:
“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.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
I made the mistake of reading that, immediately falling into the beautiful trap of alliteration, the blissful simplicity of diction, and the mysterious allusion to murder, and instantly Nabokov had dug his verbal hooks into me. I read continuously, glued to each word, the pages turning themselves, until after two days I closed its back cover. And then I sat, in reverie staring into the vacant space, blinded by what I had just read. It was truly unlike anything I had ever read before.