November 2023


— Lolita, written in 1955, is a book that can cause a myriad of confusing reactions.
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Lolita, written in 1955, is a book that can cause a myriad of confusing reactions. Humor, horror, disbelief and the thrill of the reader becoming a voyeur as we look into the mind and soul of a pedophile and a very pretentious man.

Humbert Humbert, professor of literature, fluent in French in a Marquis de Sade fashion, is enchanted with young ladies. Nymphets, he calls them. Twelve-year-old girls, with colt-like legs and downy hair on their flesh, are the pinnacle of his joyous fantasies.

Can we blame his childhood? A distant father? An overbearing mother? His aborted romance with a twelve-year-old one summer when he was the same age with a heart full of love? Or was he born with a genetic disposition to be evil? Is pedophilia a learned response? So, invites the author for the reader to speculate.

The novel is prefaced with a fictitious foreword by an editor of psychology books. The memoir was written using a pseudonym of a man who has recently died in jail, explains the editor. An elaborate ruse used to seduce the reader into believing they are reading the memories of a tortured, misunderstood man.

This reviewer has read Lolita four times. The first was an adventure in reading a book that has been both admired and vilified. The second time, I was extremely amused. The third time, I reflected this was one of the nastiest books ever written. And the fourth, now that this reader is both older and wiser, I had to admire the wit and the elegance of Nabokov, for portraying one of the most pathetic and devious characters ever created in fiction.

He needs to rent a room. He finds a young widow with a young daughter. He is enchanted. He weds and beds the widow. Disaster follows. He is now the sole guardian, albeit illegally, of his young step-daughter. 

This novel is very heavy with Humbert’s interior monologues about life and his justification for being a predator. With his step-daughter, Delores, or Lolita as he calls her, they embark upon a road trip to escape their past and to attempt in his eyes, a new life that will blur the boundaries of his depraved intentions.

The young girl, Lolita, why does she go along with it? She has just lost her mother. Does she cling to him out of fear, pubescent lust, or an ignorance of what is appropriate living? Why was the mother so delusional, that she didn’t see that her new husband had an unhealthy interest in her daughter? Are humans really so blind in their needs that we rewrite our narratives to reflect the situation we want instead of what is ethical and proper? 

Humbert and Lolita are followed by an interested pervert, Clare Quilty, who attempts to steal Lolita away from Humbert for some nefarious activities. 

The doomed lovers are separated. And life moves on. Consequences must be dealt with, penance must be exacted and paid. Lolita doesn’t need Humbert anymore, but we find that he cannot live without her.

Nabokov, born in St. Petersburg in 1899, is considered a brilliant writer. Although Russian was his primary language, Lolita was written in English, as were his other important works, Pale Fire (1962), Speak, Memory (1936-1966) and Ada or Ardor (1969). The New York Times has compared Nabokov to Kafka, Proust, and Joyce.

In the late ‘50’s, Lolita was considered too difficult a subject matter to be published in the United States, so it was first published in France. After a time, reviews were both favorable and damning. Dorothy Parker applauded the novel as did Martin Amis and Lionel Trilling. Scholars perceived Lolita as a metaphor for the totalitarianism that destroyed the Russia of Nabokov’s childhood.

Our favourite quote from Lolita

Awe and exhiliration--along with heartbreak and mordant wit--abound in Lolita, Nabokov's most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert's obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America. Most of all, it is a meditation on love--love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

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Lolita is an extremely complicated novel. Considered an erotic novel by many, although not in the opulent fashion of the French writer Colette, where courtesans of a young age could seduce and survive in Paris, but as a novel that explores the lust and justification of a man’s passion even as he destroys the innocence of a young girl.

Read Lolita first for entertainment, then read it again as a psychological experiment into the mind and heart of a pedophile. Can we like Humbert? He is not a boor or an unmannered man. But his needs obscure his education and his background. His heavy use of the French language to wiggle his way out of reality is pathetic.

Lolita is fascinating, like watching a serpent uncoil before striking. We should look away, but we cannot, even as we tell ourselves it would be safer if we did. The decadence is mesmerizing and we hope for a resolution that brings redemption. It does not.

Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don't have.