“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.”
Oh my lord, this book devastated me. With Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote a book that is disturbing and enthralling in equal measure. If you can handle the emotional turmoil, though — and it is genuinely agitating — it is a beautiful and important read.
Here’s the thing: Nabokov’s prose is lilting and lyrical. It lulls you, sliding gently from one beat to the next; so utterly smooth, so utterly sad. You take a nibble, a wee bite of his beautiful writing, and before you know it you’ve devoured the whole thing. It’s easy to get lost in Nabokov’s narrative — until you arrive at his gut-wrenching descriptions of Lolita.
Humbert Humbert is an aging academic, who falls in lust with Dolores Haze. Dolores is a child of 12 when they first meet. He renames her Lolita; takes her away from the only world she’s ever known; and sexually abuses her while publicly raising her as his daughter.
Lolita is not a “love story.” It’s a tale of abuse.
Because the story is told from the perspective of protagonist/unreliable narrator Humbert, Lolita has no real identity. Her existence is filtered through his twisted mind. She grows up with him, becoming an echo of herself in his telling of her story. He perceives her as precocious and consenting, even as she attempts to escape his clutches.
I know many condemn Nabokov for writing Lolita at all. Many publishers turned him down before any said yes. It is controversial, difficult, and potentially triggering for those who have survived sexual and emotional abuse.
I enjoyed Lolita because it’s difficult. I love that Nabokov leaned into the tension of an unreliable narrator so skilfully. I like that Lolita shone a light — whether intentionally or not — on the ways that survivors of sexual assault are often disbelieved, while their abusers are given the benefit of the doubt. Humbert is clearly not to be believed or trusted. He is a heinous character by Nabokov’s own admission. While Humbert describes his love for Lolita, Nabokov never lets you forget that she is a child.
Read books that aren’t easy. Read books that make you uncomfortable and shake you out of yourself. Read books that stick with you after you turn the final page. Read books that are slow-paced and beautifully written and dense with prose. Read books that are fucked up like this one.