The Pequod Review:
Published in 1955 to great controversy (which for many years overshadowed its literary brilliance), Lolita is one of Vladimir Nabokov’s finest novels, a blend of high style, uncomfortable humor, and intense psychological turmoil.
The story is the first-person account of Humbert Humbert, a manipulative and calculating pedophile who describes his love affair with 12-year-old Dolores Haze — or “Lolita,” as he nicknames her. Humbert narrates the story from his jail cell where he awaits trial for murder. His account begins with one of the most memorable openings in all of modern literature:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
The rest of the novel traces the course of Humbert’s life, beginning with his tragic childhood first love (Annabel Leigh, who died of typhus) through to his adult life as an academic textbook writer living in New England. It is when the adult Humbert is looking for a boarding house that he first catches a glimpse of 12-year-old Dolores, who reminds him of Annabel. Humbert quickly moves in with Dolores and her widowed mother (Charlotte), first as a boarder and later (cunningly) as Charlotte’s husband. When Charlotte dies in a freak accident, Humbert’s control over his step-daughter becomes complete.
Humbert and Dolores travel across the country for two years, on the move to avoid suspicion, staying in cheap motels while they develop a sexual relationship. They eventually settle in a small New England town, where Dolores enrolls at a local private school and begins to participate in school plays. When Dolores is hospitalized for a minor illness, she is “rescued” and discharged by an old family friend (Clare Quilty), who has dishonorable intentions of his own. Humbert later finds out that Quilty was Dolores’s abductor, and proceeds to kill him; it is this murder which now has Humbert in prison awaiting trial.
The book’s central theme of pedophilia is of course shocking and disturbing. But it is the way that Nabokov handles it — with witty prose, comedic scenes, and a lack of any clear moral judgment — that creates such complex feelings in the reader. Despite Nabokov’s public claims that Humbert is “a vain and cruel wretch,” he goes to great lengths to make him a sympathetic character, from his psychologically traumatic childhood loss to his eloquent narration. Meanwhile, Dolores is portrayed as selfish, rude, and even manipulative of Humbert as she trades sexual favors for material objects. As a result, intelligent reviewers like Robertson Davies were able to plausibly argue that in fact Humbert was the true victim — that the primary theme of the novel was “not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child. This is no pretty theme, but it is one with which social workers, magistrates and psychiatrists are familiar.”
Humbert is indeed one of the most unique narrators in all of American fiction, and it is his voice that carries the novel. His refined language is often beautiful, even when his actions are indefensible. Here is his tender description of an afternoon with Dolores:
The implied sun pulsated in the supplied poplars; we were fantastically and divinely alone; I watched her, rosy, gold-dusted, beyond the veil of my controlled delight, unaware of it, alien to it, and the sun was on her lips, and her lips were apparently still forming the words of the Carmen-barmen ditty that no longer reached my consciousness. Everything was now ready. The nerves of pleasure had been laid bare.
Here is Humbert describing his mother, a passage that features one of Nabokov’s finest parenthetical asides:
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory.
And here he describes Dolores on the tennis court:
There was nothing wrong or deceitful in the spirit of her game — unless one considered her cheerful indifference toward its outcome as the feint of a nymphet. She who was so cruel and crafty in everyday life, revealed an innocence, a frankness, a kindness of ball-placing.
Vladimir Nabokov has done a remarkable thing with Lolita; he has written an unexpectedly touching and often very funny novel using the most objectionable subject matter. He expertly controls the mood and pacing of the story in order to generate narrative tension and keep the reader off balance. We are repulsed by Humbert, but also charmed and seduced. Nabokov may have written books better than this one, but Lolita is a novel that rightfully earned him worldwide fame and recognition.