Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov book cover
Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male (1955) is Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous tale of Humbert Humbert, pervert and raconteur. A literary scholar and European immigrant to America, Humbert is a snob, intellectually and culturally. Surrounded by crass American culture - which both shuns and lusts after European culture - he feels himself superior to the young and vulgar nation he calls home. No one optimises this conflicted Americanism more than Charlotte Haze, landlady to Humbert. While he disdains ‘the Haze woman’, Humbert feels somewhat more strongly about her twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores. A ‘nymphet’ as he identifies her, little Lolita is quite the thing in Humbert’s eye. Hot with passion and proximity he falls into engagement to Charlotte in the hope that by installing himself on a permanent basis, he will have opportunity to deflower the younger Haze. Things go better than Humbert could ever have expected: when Charlotte is killed in a car accident, he is left as sole carer to Lolita. The two live a nomadic lifestyle, travelling around the country, Humbert the protector and corrupter. Naturally, the transient lifestyle cannot survive: sooner or later, time or a rival will rob Humbert of his nymphet, and yet he dreams on to a future that will never come, savouring each day but always hoping for more.

Humbert’s seductive and loquacious voice quickly draws the reader into viewing the world through his perspective, framing Lolita as an American Eve – a temptress who is more corrupting than corrupted. Humbert’s mythologizing of Lolita is so compelling that one can easily forget how very warped his perspective is. This highlighting of the power of language to override moral, rational, and normative responses to any given situation is spectacularly powerful and one of Nabokov’s finest achievements in Lolita. The reader is led into this trap by a series of brilliant literary devices, which deceive rather than inform. For example, the coupling of Lolita’s presence with an apple on several occasions only reinforces her Edenic aura, so too the linking of Humbert’s sexual behaviour with gardens to suggest his role as Adam, as well as numerous references to ‘snakes’, ‘paradise’ and similar Biblical allusions. In a wider sense, the novel is laden with literary allusions, but one must treat all with caution – Nabokov is master at turning tradition on its head and pulling the rug out from under the reader.

Humbert’s delusional grip on reality allows him to create for himself a partner to rival any Greek goddess, but Lolita is far from an active participant in this fantasy. That Lolita is described crying at night time and scratching Humbert while trying to resist sex certainly points to this fact. When Humbert acts on impulse, he may plead a crime of passion, but as an authority figure his mental manipulation of, and the control he exerts over Lolita’s young life, is something as dark as the physical act, pre-meditated and cynical as it is. Humbert makes an exile of Lolita, first by disposing of her mother, and then by creating for her a nomadic lifestyle that mirrors his own emigration from Europe – all connections along the way proving transitory, bar the central connection between the lovers. Along the way, Humbert robs Lolita of any conception of self – she is merely an object of his desire, and because of this fails to fully develop her own sense of self, even after escaping her keeper’s clutches.

The boundaries between ‘normal’ sexual behaviour and ‘deviancy’ are far from fixed, and the uncomfortable moral relativity that Humbert espouses touches a nerve. The willingness of some critics to condemn Lolita, as Humbert does, for her role in her own molestation only highlights the subjective nature of any moral question. Indeed, all social ‘norms’ evolve and change over time, and Humbert is keen to stress this. In the 1950s, sexual life was changing, the boundaries being constantly, often dramatically, re-drawn, although not so dramatically as to allow Humbert’s act any legitimacy.

The initial inclination may be to see Humbert’s feelings for Lolita as a hot lust, but as the novel develops one begins to appreciate that this is a (troubled) man experiencing a form of love. When, at the novel’s end, Humbert finds himself still infatuated with the grown Lolita, ripe with another man’s seed, one can but accept that this is not just paedophilic lust, but love. Uncomfortable, unconventional, but still at its root the same emotion which society deems ‘acceptable’ in other circumstances.

Early in the novel, Humbert reveals his own stuttering introduction to the sexual world – his first, failed attempts at love and intimacy – and this, his own halted ambition, is, perhaps, the root of his passion for nymphets. A reminder also that one’s first love is never forgotten, but simply reincarnated in subsequent partners – an attempt to recreate one’s first love. Humbert tries to suppress his predilection by attempting relationships with adult women, but to no avail – he is condemned to lust after the innocent, attempting to recapture a moment which passed him by.

Quilty, Lolita’s eventual liberator, is Humbert’s equal, exhibiting an even darker version of the same predilections. Where Humbert claims love for Lolita, Quilty sees his nymphets as disposable and unashamedly abuses them. Humbert, at least, has an air of repressed contrition. Here the question of moral relativity raises its head again. Could anyone be worse than Humbert? Quilty is the answer.

There is something about the pull between high art and the sterility of science in Lolita, too – Nabokov was far from a fan of psychiatry, and the frequent digs at the scientific method as a way of understanding human nature highlight this fact. Indeed, the novel is introduced by a (fictional) social worker, full of self-righteousness and proclamations against the narrator and depravity in general. He clearly fails to engage with the situation, but rather talks in sterile, unconvincing terms. While the introduction contains many truths, it is undoubtedly satire, and a satire which puts the reader in an uncomfortable position, both agreeing with the sociologist, and slightly uneasy with his approach.

In contrast to the rudimentary language of this opening, Nabokov’s lush prose is, as he would have it, “aesthetic bliss.” But one must not be drawn into imagining that Lolita is purely a novel of amoral, aesthetic splendour. Rather one must consider the aesthetics of the prose, and the sensuality it describes, as part of the moral question: the smokescreen through which one must look in order to confront the fundamental morality of any issue. This is, in itself a moral question: the distraction from seriousness by beauty. An undoubtedly prescient question in the rampant consumerism of America at the time, which kept its inhabitants spellbound with the glitz and glamour that was being imported into their homes. Lolita, herself, is paid off by Humbert with treats and trinkets – the submission of the body for the transitory pleasures. Sex is a financial transaction; Lolita is a consumer consumed.

Humbert, because of his European roots, see himself as above the crass American consumerism that surrounds him and while this is cultural snobbishness to an extent, it also highlights the incompatibility of much of European culture with American. Humbert’s frequent use of foreign languages – a product of his European history, he a displaced immigrant – is brilliantly done by Nabokov. His deployment of French to indicate high culture, to assist in the mythologizing of Lolita and seduction of the reader, and German (Humbert is often mistaken for a German) to ingratiate and supplicate. They also alert the reader to the deeper roots of the novel, which stretch across European literature.

The truth, or so one must assume, is that Lolita is nothing but a healthy young girl whose progress towards sexual maturation, which has already progressed to a level of knowledge, is entirely skewed by a troubled, if cultured, man. The glimpses, which Humbert crucially allows, of her depression and erratic behaviour are testament to the indelible harm the narrator has bestowed upon the fragile soul of his obsession. That popular culture, led by many critics’ responses to the book, has led the common perception of ‘Lolita as Nymphet’ to be propagated is indicative of a societal problem when it comes to the sexual question. Lolita’s impact on popular culture is testament to its appeal, despite its frequent misrepresentations. This is a remarkable book, which seduces and challenges in equal measure.

Any aspiring writer whose reaction to Nabokov’s prose is anything but utter deflation, demonstrates a serious ignorance. Lolita is breathtakingly brilliant; utter gorgeousness in book form.


Useful Links
Reviews of Lolita on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Lolita on Amazon (US)
1962 Film adaptation of Lolita on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of Lolita on Amazon (US)


12 comments:

Matthew Selwyn said...

Here are some left over thoughts / sentences that I had, which didn't quite make it into the review:

*Critics' response to Lolita, at times, has been reminiscent of Rape Culture – the blaming of the victim, the discussion of their morals and part in their own downfall, rather than focusing on the act and the perpetrator.

*Nabokov’s writing is mesmeric; mixing the blackest humour in places with an opaque morality.

*Humbert writes the manuscript from within jail, ironically, the place where he is afforded the most freedom, no longer constrained by his hidden desires, as he is.

*Humbert might have Lolita as a nymphet, but the name actually means ‘sorrows’ - perhaps a clear indication of her own part in the 'seduction'.

Jason C. said...

This is the most intelligent and insightful review that I have ever read on this book. Bravo.

I am so glad to have discovered your site.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Jason, thank you for your kind comment. I'm never happy with what I post, always feeling like the reviews need more time. But this is one of the few that I'm pretty happy with, so I'm glad if that extends to a few other too :)

Ethan said...

This is a really well written and thoughtful review. I really like that you post your leftover thoughts in the comments. When I write I review, there are always things that I wish I could say that just don't fit into the review. This is the perfect solution!

Matthew Selwyn said...

Haha, thanks Ethan. It's not particularly elegant, but it works, I guess. Sometimes I feel like I'm overflowing with things to say about a book. When that happens, this happens. It's a good system.

Thanks for stopping by.

Petra said...

I agree with others, great review. :)

It's quite amazing he was so great with words, even though English wasn't his mother tongue, isn't it?

And what about the idea/theory of recreating one's first love? Is this usual? Does it apply to all of us?

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks, Petra. Glad you could stop by :)

It's ridiculously impressive, and entirely deflating. There is some art that just seems unobtainably exceptional, and I think Nabokov's writing falls into this category for just about all of us.

I'm not sure, I suspect it does in a way. Reading back that sentence it's really not very good, but I think the point stands about Humbert. For the rest of us, I think there is something to it, although it's not all that straight-forward. What do you think?

Petra said...

I read the review earlier, but it's quite hectic time for me now, so it took me a bit longer to actually comment. But I always love reading your reviews, it reassures me there are still some intelligent people left in this world. :)

Yes, it's definitely deflating and awe-inspiring.

I'd say it's more about trying to experience again the feelings which come with first love and not so much about trying to find a similar person?
And what is actually first love? Something we experience as children or as young teens? In this case is it really love the way adults understand and experience it? Is it really love?
It's a big and complex question with no right answer, and it only makes me ask more questions. :)
I think it's nice to remember one's first love, but it might not be the best idea to try to recreate it or even try to date the particular person.

Grace A. said...

As always, I enjoyed reading your review, Matthew. Very well written and thoughtful comments. Lolita has always been one of my favourite books, although unlike you, I see it primarily as a doomed love story. I actually felt sorry for Humbert Humbert...

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ Petra

Well thanks for coming back to comment then – I always enjoy reading your thoughts. You’ve very perceptively picked up on a lot of things I was thinking when I wrote that line. First love is definitely a sense more than a definite person/type, so I don’t say you chase exclusively after redheads if your first girlfriend was a redhead (unless you’re in a certain pongy Suskind novel). Rather I think you can include parental love and all sorts else beside in the sense that you’re trying to recreate.

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ Grace A.

Thanks for stopping by - it's always lovely to have you in these parts.

I can see Lolita as a love story of sorts, and do empathise with Humbert to a point, but beyond an unspoken and uncontrollable admiration, I think I draw the line.

Hindi SMS said...

The first time when I heard about the book was when I was in school, but never had a chance to read it through, albeit in bits and pieces from the school library collection. Now after so many years reading and examining one of toughest novels like Lolita was quiet interesting. To be able to say that for the sake of love if one is wanting to demolishing one's own set of values, morals and the stated norms of love that one grew up feeling comfortable in is, strictly speaking, something of a no-no. Needless to say, it was no less than a struggle to deal with what the novel has to offer me. Above all else, Lolita is a deeply felt and a profound novel dealing with the controversial subject of illicit or illegal love: of a middle-aged literature professor Humbert Humbert obsessed with the 12-year-old lady by name Dolores Haze.