‘Lolita’ is the most controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov, and because of this, his most famous.
The premise is fairly simple from the outset, though upon hearing it, many immediately write off any likelihood of reading the book, so hold on to the end:
H. Humbert is a professor of English in the US. He also has a habit of sitting in the park to watch children – many of whom he fantasizes about. He is also the narrator of this story.
Upon going on holiday, he stays in a house owned by a landlady with a young daughter, revealed in the story by the nickname ‘Lolita’. Humbert slowly begins living at the house with the aim of getting closer to Lolita, and even goes as far as marrying her mother in the hopes of this encouraging more affection from her.
After opportunity arises to runaway with Lolita, Humbert travels across America in this illicit relationship with the young girl.
So bluntly, the story is about a paedophile, written from his perspective. He is completely and obviously unrepentant of this too, and so many come under the impression that the book therefore is written sympathetically towards paedophilia, and that Nabokov himself must have felt this way.
This, in my opinion, is the complete opposite of what the book was intended for, but unfortunately due to many being unwilling to finish (or start) the book without jumping to conclusions, they won’t reach this point:
The book is written from Humbert’s perspective, so in his eyes, this relationship was great: running away with a compliant young girl. The problem is that if the reader reaches the end and can read between the lines, they will see how unbelievably damaging this has been on Lolita: once a likely heiress to a moderate estate, she ends up with nothing due to the actions of this man’s sick and uninhibited desires. She also ends up in essentially abusive relationships, with little consideration of herself. She doesn’t even hold a grudge against Humbert, only taking more of his money due to poverty.
Humbert himself is only driven by jealousy at Lolita’s outcome, and his selfish actions against another only show that he is now and only ever was thinking about himself. Even his love he describes towards the child scream out the actual truth of ‘I’m getting what I want, and therefore I want to keep her’, and is not at all for the betterment of Lolita: and so the ‘love’ is no love at all.
Nabokov himself joked that, upon seeing the poster for the Lolita movie (by Stanley Kubrick) showing a young girl licking an ice lolly, that the director had clearly missed the point.
But we have to appreciate the cleverness of this novel: the completely unlikable narrator who can still keep you reading, to the fact that with Humbert being an English professor he can describe nothing explicitly but only poetically, which lends a necessary level of censorship to the book.
Though not necessarily my favourite book by Nabokov, it certainly had an impact on my view on the value of human life: the suffering of children being a coincidental theme in other books I read at the time certainly spurred me to consider how I viewed those trapped in situations with seemingly no escape, and only as the result of others.
This book is holistic in it’s message and many can’t stomach it, but with perseverance, its certainly worth it for the message it gives between the lines.