Sunday, 3 October 2010

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta.'

From the very first line the narrator of Lolita, Humbert drags the reader into his world. Due to the subject matter of this book I was initially unsure how to begin reading this. I wondered if the subject of Paedophilia would be taken as seriously in Lolita as it is today. I wondered if Nabokov was going to manipulate the reader into sympathising with a Paedophile or if the relationship between a Paedophile and a 12 year old girl was going to somehow be presented as a legitimate love story. More puzzlingly I wondered how on earth people how had read this could describe it as a page turner given the disturbing subject matter.

So it was with curiosity and interpretation that I began to read Lolita and as soon as I did I couldn’t put it down and I began to indeed find it a ‘page turner’.

A simple review of Lolita is not going to give the book justice in anyway and will not demonstrate the beauty of the writing, the clever wordplay or that at points the reader has to look beyond parts of the narrative which are sometimes an illusion and try to see what the actual words are telling you. Instead of a review in my normal style, this will just be an outline of my thoughts from the book.

Lolita has an unreliable narrator, a VERY unreliable narrator. Just one look at the top passage demonstrates this, the way Humbert is talking there anyone would imagine that the object of his affection is some long limbed goddess. But of course Lolita is not. If you or I saw Lolita walking down the street all we would see is a normal looking 12 year old girl, but as the book is told through Humbert’s eyes so the reader sees Lolita as seen by him. While Humbert (because of how his Paedophile mind works) might perceive that Lolita is often a willing participant in their relationship and will sometimes narrate the story this way, the reader is left with clues as to how Lolita really feels or how certain scenarios really did play out. Not everything is quite as it seems and what you are reading did not necessarily happen in quite the way you are being told.

Lolita is a difficult character to pinpoint as she is only seen through Humbert’s eyes, but at various points in the narrative I felt her voice came through very strongly. When her voice does come through I saw a very unhappy girl with no where else to go. Humbert does go into detail on how he has to manipulate, lie and threaten Lolita to get her to stay with him on the crazy road trip they embark on; I was not given the impression at any point that Lolita was a willing participant in all of this.

'At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.'

There are no ‘sex scenes’ but the narrative surrounding these events and the odd comment from both Humbert and Lolita have given me the illusion of thinking I have read more in this regard than I actually have.

'And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey.......was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tyres, and her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep.'

I am sure many people will disagree with me but I think the point of the beautiful prose was to keep me reading and turning the pages rather then to get me to ‘sympathise’ with Humbert. If the book had been written with a sparse realistic narrative I am sure I would have stopped reading within a couple of chapters.

This is not a story of redemption. Although Humbert acknowledges at the end that he ‘destroyed something’ in Lolita he is never really sorry. Do not read this expecting a moral tale.

'I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mas je t'aimais. Je t'aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller'.

The above are my garbled thoughts and the parts which I think I will take away from it. It’s the kind of book which demands a re-read as I am sure that many parts of it went right over my head. If I was going to criticise I would say that towards the end, the book did linger quite a bit and became drawn out.

Would I recommend this? I can understand why people would have reservations about picking this one up (I did) but I would recommend that anyone interested in literature in anyway should give this a go.

Verdict 4 ½ /5

Posted by Jess


  1. Such a wonderful review for a controversial book! After your review, apart from the million others, I think I will pick this book up!

  2. LO lee ta the tip of my tongue takes a trip 3 steps down (or something like that) It's been about 15 or more years since I read this & I loved it & would recommend it wholeheartedly, yes the subject matter is fraught with controversy, but it's such a beautiful book & Nabokov was such a fantastic writer.

  3. Lolita is such a masterpiece. I really need to re-read it!

  4. The language is the star of Lolita. And Humbert is portrayed as such a bumbling sleaze-ball that I laughed at him more often than anything.

  5. I really, really love this book. I haven't read it in a decade so I really need to reread it, but oh it is so beautifully done.

    What I really got out of it the first time was that Humbert is TRYING to get you to sympathize with him, but Nabokov is so skilled that the narration turns on Humbert even though he doesn't notice. Halfway through the book - right about when the actual "relations" start, the text becomes more tedious and tiresome, and you start hearing Lolita's voice come through more and more, until at the end, you see her from this disillusioned point of view that shows really what she was all along.

    I agree, it dragged a little towards the end, but that dragging made sense to me in light of Humbert's world view and how it shifts once he sees her again.

    The whole turning against the narrator is an amazing technique that Nabokov uses quite often and I really love it.

  6. Great review!

    I like your point about Humbert being an unreliable narrator, I often forget that haha. And the last quote you used is one of my favourites, my absolute favourite quote ever being the part about how he wanted to turn her inside out and eat her lungs, heart and kidneys. Faaaantastic :D

  7. This post makes me want to go read it, so I think this will have to be the next one off my list. :)

  8. Fantastic review. I loved this book and would highly recommend this as well. I think it is the most beautifully written book I have read to date.

  9. I've been avoiding this book for years but you, and the comments have persuaded me to give it a go.

  10. This book is so lyrically written, like Lolita's name. Great review!

  11. JoV - I hope you do end up picking it hope (you can always put it down again!)

    parrish lantern - I think that has to be one of the best opening lines ever. Its really sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the book.

    Stephanie - I will re-read it in a few year I think, Im sure there is loads I missed.

    Chrisbookarama - I was surprised there was so much humour in it, a kind of tragic comedy in lots of places really. Humbert really was a snob but I though Lolitas mother was highly commical.

    Amanda - Im sure I remember the film dragging towards the end as well. I think Humbert becomes close at the beginning to being sympathetic but like you say, as soon as the relations start then the narrative turns more and more agasint him. Im sure Id notice this more on a re-reading.

    Toni - I almost used that quote but then thought that for ppl who havent read the book might think 'eh?' LOL

    Allie - I am sure you'd really enjoy it and you would get more out of it on a first reading than I did.

    Brenna - I think I'll have to agree with you there.

    Katrina - I had the same reservations but somehow Nabokov makes it work.

    Whitney - Perfet name for the character which fits the book so well. Mind you, you dont get girls named that any more do you?

  12. Hmm. I watched the movie, but I never really had any inclination to pick the book up .. until now. I might see if the library has it. Thanks for the interesting review!

  13. I am really enjoying the fact that you often post about books I read many years ago, probably when I was about your age now or maybe even younger! Even now I still shudder at the thought of 'Humbert'

  14. Thanks for the great review! Lolita's been on my to-read list for a while, but it just moved way up.

  15. Have you come across What you read 's(Pete Karnas)review of this book, I think you may enjoy it

  16. This is one of my favorite books and I'm always a little embarrassed admiting it ;) It does demand a reread.

  17. I read this book for the first time about half a year ago. I completely agree with you that the book relies on the personal testimony of HH. If some detached narrator were to have told this story, it would have been near unbearable. It is HH's world that the reader is seduced into. The reader falls in love with the narrative voice while abhorring the narrator. That's a contradiction not found in many novels and what makes Lolita truly unique.