At some point in their reading careers, all readers experience the internal debate over whether a text is necessary, a Canonical masterpiece that has transformed into a world renowned classic, or whether it is just pure obscene, an absolute abortion of the highest morals of our society.
Can it be both? Is it both? And what does that say about the reader and the society in which they reside?
The internal battle began to rage with my second reading of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and even after letting it settle for a few weeks, I’m not sure which side has won the battle within me.
I say my second reading of this charming, delightful, shocking, abhorrent little novel because I attempted to read it once in college, but because László Krasznahorkai was hogging up all my time (he is a demanding fellow) for a critical analysis, I abandoned poor Lolita after a chapter or two. She has listlessly waited on my shelf for my post college days for her owner to pick her up again, and even though the text is disgusting and difficult, I’m largely glad I read it.
Chances are you’re probably familiar with the plot, even if you haven’t read the novel. It depicts the tale of a middle aged European professor and an extremely unreliable narrator, who we only know as Humbert Humbert. Humbert is the very definition of a pedophile, and he does not hesitate to go on for pages about this love for nymphets, girls of the age of 9-14.
HH finds himself in New England where he eventually finds a room to board in the house of an overly dramatic widow, Charlotte Haze, and her middle school age daughter, Dolores Haze. Enter our Lolita. Through a strange turn of events, Humbert is able to essentially abduct and kidnap Lolita for the better part of two years as they travel back and forth across the United States, all while Humbert’s paranoia and psychosis begin to bring down the mental walls of the pedophilic safe house he has built with Lolita.
Looking through the Goodreads reviews, I am very surprised that there aren’t more negative reviews than there are. I would have thought the readers would be much more up in arms than they appear to be. After all, does this story not center around atrocious acts of rape and abuse of a minor? However, Nabokov provides such a convincing account of Humbert’s love and obsession for this girl that it seems to have separated readers into two camps: one that he is simply a man in love and one that is he the lowest form of scum in all of human existence.
I can’t say exactly where I stand regarding whether or not Lolita is necessary or just obscene, but as someone who is captivated by words, I have more of a tendency to lean towards it being a necessity simply because of the masterful writing style and language usage of the novel’s author.
Nabokov’s style is so gorgeous that it’s nearly intoxicating. He is in love with the sights, sounds, and smells of the words of the English language, and the descriptions are so crisp and so precise that the reader has a literal mental picture painted in their skulls. I was inspired to practice a few writing prompts in Nabokov’s style when I was finished Lolita, and it was actually a pretty refreshing exercise.
At the same time of being so clear in his descriptions, Nabokov is a master at creating suspense and moving the story along…to a certain point. The first part of the story is an out-of-control, overwhelmingly suspenseful tale. The second part of the story is like a long waste of time, easily irritating the reader with little action and too much description of mountains and scenery. This is where I really became disappointed with Lolita. I felt in myself a quick abandoning of the girl, no longer wanting to suffer through 200 more pages of descriptions of rivers and lakes only to find out the conclusion of the story in the last 25 pages. (Spoiler alert- the ending sucks).
Lolita is not my favorite Nabokov novel, but it far better than many other things out there, even if the content is a revolting challenge. However, be prepared to have an uncomfortable combination of shock and boredom in such a beautiful way that only Nabokov can achieve.