It would indeed be easy for the average reader to think twice before picking up Lolita. Opinion was divided upon its release with some critics damning it for its erotic contents. In 1955, the Sunday Express’ editor called it “sheer unrestrained pornography” and the book was even banned in Britain for two years. However, the book has also received high praise for tackling such controversial themes with undeniable elegance and beauty. Whether you love it or loathe it, Lolita has become a modern classic and was ranked the fourth greatest book of the twentieth centaury by Modern Library. With this all in mind I decided to try it out for myself.
Within only a few pages it’s clear that Lolita is without question a beautifully written book, a fact made all the more impressive with the knowledge that the author was not writing in his native language. If Lolita is one of the most controversial books ever written then it’s also one of the most well written. The novel begins with our protagonist/antagonist unremorsefully declaring his love for Lolita and I defy anyone not to be, just for a moment, taken in by his love, at least until they remember his love is for a 12 year old girl, then they’ll be yanked back into the reality of the situation and feel bad for being drawn in by our unreliable narrator. Such is the power of Nabokov’s writing.
Our main character, Humbert Humbert admits to having been attracted to young girls all his life but falls totally in love when he meets a young girl named Lolita. After scheming his way into her life, Humbert then takes Lolita on a road trip across the States. Along the way Hubert initiates a sexual relationship with his beloved child and tries to convince the reader that his love for Lolita is sincere.
Whilst I had heard that Lolita was beautifully written and I knew it was controversial, I was genuinely surprised to find that it is also a very funny book in parts. Humbert is aware of how bizarre the situation he and Lolita are in and he knows that few readers will approve of his actions. After one particular scene between he and Lolita, Humbert reflects that the reader’s eyebrows must have reached the roof by now. As a reviewer for The Independent wrote: “There is no funnier monster in modern literature than poor, doomed Humbert Humbert.”
I mentioned earlier that some have called Lolita “erotica” or even “pornography” but these are labels I have to disagree with. The book itself doesn’t contain a single curse word and the infrequent erotic scenes are subtle and could well be missed by the reader. This is not a book who’s point is to titillate or shock, at least not in a sexual way. Those of you who have read the likes of 50 Shades of Grey or Game of Thrones have read far bluer things than anything this has to offer.
One of Lolita’s most intriguing points is the fact that our narrator is unreliable. Perhaps not intentionally so, he does seem to want only to try and show his side of events, but there are at least two sides to every story and in trying to make us understand his version of things he, perhaps intentionally or not, glosses over how Lolita may be feeling. Taking everything Humbert says as fact could lead a reader to conclude that Humbert’s relationship with Lolita, whilst certainly very morally grey, isn’t quite as abhorrent as it may initially seem. However, look a little closer and it’s clear that Nabokov has left clues which indicate that Lolita’s state of mind is slowly but surely beginning to darken as the trip winds on and her tolerance of Humbert turns to disgust. It’s debatable as to whether Humbert is aware of the toll his actions have on Lolita, but that toll is still there. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I would be fascinated to read a version of the same events from Lolita’s point of view.