Some books leave a lasting impression, some for their beauty, some for their shock value, some for their masterful handling of mystifying subjects, some for their ability to make you laugh out loud and some for the ability to illuminate you on the absurdity of life. Lolita has all of these and more.
It speaks volumes that Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece is as shocking today as it was when first published over 50 years ago. In a way ‘Lolita’ can be classed as an ‘erotic’ novel in that it deals with erotic themes, but it is never lewd, instead expertly suggestive in a way that proves even more disturbing than the most explicit erotica, so readily available today.
The book tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a European academic, urbane and sophisticated, who, after a nervous breakdown, moves to the New England town of Ramsdale, and takes a room in the house of widowed Charlotte Haze, whereupon he falls hopelessly in love with her bubble-gum-popping 12-year-old daughter. So obsessed is he with the young ‘nymphet’ as he calls her, that he even marries her mother to stay close to her. Eventually he succeeds in seducing her and the two embark on a cross-country road trip trying to outrun the past and avoid questions about their relationship, in search of a future that can never exist.
It is, above all a tragedy, but is handled in such a masterful fashion, illuminated with sparkling prose and dry sardonic humour. “She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled on in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola, the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock …"
As much as the subject matter, paedophilia is shocking, the truly disturbing thing about the book is the empathy the reader has for the main character Humbert. He is undoubtedly the villain, a sexual predator, who wilfully steals the innocence of a young girl, yet while reading there is somehow always the nagging suspicion that Humbert, the adult, is the victim of a corrupt child, the victim of his own desire, that renders him helpless to fight his compulsions. The whole sordid tale is narrated by Humbert himself and therefore seen entirely from his perspective, the motivations and thoughts of the girl are left completely to the imagination, she is the object of his desire and an Inpenetratable mystery. This is the genius of the novel like this, in that it not only shocks, but gives us a real insight in to the perverse mind.
As an allegory, the novel is an eloquent study of victimhood and corruption, indeed some have claimed that the tale is a direct treatise on the destruction of Russian proletariat under the corrupt Stalinist government. In any case the book is a masterpiece, the way Nabokov, delves into the darkest recesses of human behaviour, handling the most treacherous of subjects, yet gleefully accenting it all with elegant writing, absurd humour, and sympathy. In the end, the reader is no nearer understanding the motivations of its two main characters, only that events transpired the way they did. We can never understand the mind of someone who behaves in this way, but Vladimir Nabokov was the first to try, and his effort is just as eye-opening today as then, at times leaving the reader speechless, at times breathless.