I’ve been wanting to read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov ever since I read Pnin and absolutely loved Nabokov’s writing style. Like most people, I was aware of Lolita’s subject matter and, I have to admit, this made me apprehensive about reading the novel. While Lolita certainly divides opinion, one thing that seems to be constant is a love for Nabokov’s beautiful writing style. The novel’s been sitting on my shelf for a while so I thought it was finally time for me to take the plunge and start reading it.
Lolita tells the story of middle-aged professor Humbert and his love and obsession with the young Dolores, known to him as Lolita.
There’s no denying that Lolita’s subject matter makes it an uncomfortable read. Throughout reading, I almost detached myself from Humbert and his actions because otherwise I could stop reading – in fact sometimes I found that I was reading more for the beautiful language rather than the plot or the characters. Yet I found myself drawn into the story and eager to see how it unfolded. While there were some shocking scenes at the beginning of the book, these petered out as it continued, so I’d recommend persevering with the novel if you’re having doubts at the start.
For Humbert, the novel is a confession designed to be published after his and Lolita’s death. Because of this we are almost asked to view the case and pass judgement on it. Humbert wants us to understand his love for Lolita and his justifications, while uncomfortable to read, make Humbert feel very real and disturbing. I’ve read a few reviews and articles where the novel is described as a love story, but throughout reading it feels to me as if it’s more about obsession and possession.
Humbert also feels untrustworthy as a narrator which adds an interesting element to the novel. He is so consumed by his obsession with Lolita that he’s paranoid and I began to doubt what he was claiming. He regularly admits that his memory may be impaired, which casts doubts in the reader’s mind. This unreliability poses questions about how Lolita is depicted by Humbert: is she promiscuous and manipulative as he sometimes suggests? Or is she a powerless victim? The subject of this novel is distressing and sad, and the fact that we never hear Lolita’s point of view exacerbates this.
What I loved most about Lolita was the language – beautiful, witty, humorous and intelligent, it completely engrossed me. In some ways, the story of Lolita and Humbert almost feels secondary to it and, in fact, in the essay “Vladimir Nabokov on a Book Entitled Lolita” found at the end of my edition of the novel, Nabokov says that:
“An American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel. The substitution “English language” for “Romantic novel” would make this elegant formula more correct.”
With this in mind, Lolita seems to be a demonstration of Nabokov’s love of language which explains why the novel is so beautifully written, so full of intelligent word play. It continually astounded me while reading that Nabokov wasn’t writing in his mother tongue – his command of language, impressive vocabulary, witticism, and word play would be remarkable in a native speaker, yet alone someone not writing in their first language.
Throughout the novel there’s an interesting juxtaposition between the beauty of the writing and the horrible situation he is describing – I felt I almost shouldn’t be enjoying the book but I couldn’t stop reading it. In some ways, the reader is almost seduced by the language and put under Humbert’s spell. The humour of the language is also in stark contrast to the subject matter of the novel, with several examples making me smile. One of my favourites is found on page 1: ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’. Reading this on the first page, I knew from the outset that I would love reading Nabokov’s prose. His word play throughout is also humorous and a joy to read. I’ll definitely read the novel in the future because I’m certain I missed things – an original description, a witty word play, a joke that I didn’t quite catch. I’m convinced that as I reread it, I’ll discover new aspects to the novel and explore new layers.
Vladimir Nabokov’s writing is stunning in Lolita and really does seem to be a “love letter to the English language”. His mastery over language is impressive and, while the subject matter is unsettling and uncomfortable to read, the novel showcases Nabokov’s outstanding abilities as a writer.
Have you read Lolita? What did you think? Have you read any of Nabokov’s other novels?