Thoughts on Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’

For once it’s easy to choose Goodreads 5-star rating for a book, given that the rollover reminds us this means ‘it was amazing’ rather than the 4-star ‘I really liked it.’ Lolita was amazing. I’m not sure I really liked it. I’m very glad I read it. I doubt I’ll ever read it again.

I suppose the most astonishing, and uncomfortable, single aspect of a generally astonishing and uncomfortable book is that for 350+ pages it locates us squarely inside the mind, the emotions, the urges and the actions of what must surely be one of the most venal, vainglorious, pathetically evil characters in all of literature. Humbert Humbert is intelligent, educated, witty and eloquent, and as such his confession/memoir, delivered through the veil of his own justifications and excuses, is shockingly seductive. In the course of our time with him we find ourselves laughing at his jokes, agreeing with his assessments, recognising his dilemmas. When his true nature shines through – and this is a negative shine, as it were, chinks of purest black in the light, bright armour of his self-aggrandisement – the pure horror of it is so overwhelming that it is, paradoxically, easier to ignore than to focus on. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to comprehend what those flashes of unvarnished truth tell us is really happening to Lolita. His endless expositions of undying love and amused observations on the idiosyncrasies of early adolescence are so much easier to bear. And because he is unable even at the end, when the horror he has wrought can finally no longer be concealed even from himself, to acknowledge that his Lolita was never more than an innocent victim, and he never less than the most guilty of predators, he remains, for me at least, irredeemable.

Because in some ways his greatest crime is this: Lolita is never a person to him, never an entity in her own right, never a being entitled to any rights. She exists only in relation to him. He defines her nature, implicitly, in terms of his own reactions to her. The notion that he might be, indeed should be, completely incidental to her is not one he can countenance. And the greatest tragedy of the book is that because he never challenges, never wants to challenge, his own duplicitous perception, he makes of it a reality. Lolita is, in the end, what he has made her, and no more. We are unable to know her except as he has known her. Her life is truncated by his understanding of it.

It’s easy to see why Lolita is on virtually every best-book list since the middle of the 20th century. It deserves to be there. It’s a book that should be read, and talked about, and thought about. Should it be enjoyed? Well yes, for its mastery if not its subject matter. Nabokov’s achievement is superlative. The style and structure of the thing, the framing devices and concatenation of tales, the pearls of prose, the characterisations, the sheer thrust and power of the narrative, are literally breathtaking. Readers talk about being transported, and it is a book that is deeply moving in every sense. For a writer it is an awe-inspiring work, an intensely difficult story to pull off in the purely technical sense made to look easy by the sheer lyrical bravura of the author. There is much for us later generations of wordsmiths to learn here – and be intimidated by.

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