You see this book called Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov on nearly every single list of books to read before you die. But why? What is the “big deal”? If you are not yet familiar with the story of Lolita it concerns a middle-aged man Humbert Humbert and a twelve year old Dolores Haze also known as Lolita. By telling you this little about the novel, you can probably assume that the book is highly controversial and has made a number of people to deem this book disgusting, inappropriate or unsurprisingly perverse. All of this notwithstanding, Lolita has been considered to be one of the best novels ever written since it was first published in 1955. But why is that?
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was a Russian-American author who wrote in both languages, English and Russian. His literary career was in Russian until he moved to the United States in 1940. He also wrote in French, but in the United States, he appears to have determined that writing for a broader audience and in the country where he lived would provide him with far more employment opportunities. Nabokov spoke Russian, English, and French fluently. He earned a B.A. in Slavic and Romance languages from Trinity College, Cambridge. After that, he resided in Berlin and authored Russian novels and stories for the Russian emigré community under the pen name V. Sirin. He wrote for such a small community due to the fact that he was a persona non grata in his home country, Russia.
Many are surely interested in why Nabokov wrote Lolita the way he did and what he himself thought about it. In one of the many interviews Nabokov gave he was asked whether he closely followed Lolita’s fate, to that he replied: “Lolita is an indictment of all the things it expresses. It is a pathetic book dealing with the plight of a child, a very ordinary little girl, caught up by a disgusting cruel man … But of all my books, I like it the best. The last bone always tastes the best.”( Niagara Falls Gazette, 1959). Following that, Nabokov in the New York Post (1958) said that “Only fools would find Lolita obscene…” and also predicted that “ Those who keep looking for spicy bits will not find them. They will not be able to read the book through- they will get bored too soon. The only thing that might be attractive is diary H.H. keeps. And then, who would be attracted by a 12-year-old girl?” “If a few elderly gentlemen read it in that spirit, that is surely their business.” From this, we can see that the author certainly did not intend to make people think that this is in any shape or form a pornographic novel. Despite that so many people do find it this way for obvious reasons but is there more to it?
What I personally chose to focus on when reading Lolita for the first time ( I think I was 17) was the language. English is not my first language yet I still managed to appreciate the beauty and eloquence Nabokov conveys the psychological processes of Humbert Humbert. What intrigues me the most til this day is how, despite the fact that his mother tongue is Russian, managed to use English in his own benefit and was not afraid to experiment. In 1958 for the Cornell Daily Sun, Nabokov shared that he believed that “ English is the richest language in the world. The spirit of the language is a harmonious one…”. In my opinion, the author definitely showed in Lolita how “rich” English actually is. Needles to add that after finishing Lolita for the first time five years ago, I became absolutely devoted to literature for the rest of my life. That’s what a great book does to you.
As we all know, one of literature’s goals is to deal with complex subjects. Lolita is not about a man rapping a girl for the purpose of titillating the readers or anything. It’s a superbly written, extremely informative glimpse into the life of a pervert and murderer. It’s presented from his point of view, and his gradual unraveling, as well as his anxiety over his stalking doppelganger, is regarded as one of the best character studies in modern literature. There are no graphic sex scenes, yet Lolita’s character is equally complicated. Finally, because the book was prohibited in so many countries, it should pique your attention on a cultural and historical level. What was the source of the fear? What did that indicate about the artistic liberties of the time? The attitudes toward art and criminality should be considerif you read this book.
The way I see it is that Nabokov wanted the reader to challenge himself/herself and go beyond what at fist seems to be a “disgusting” and “ perverse” novel and look for something else, because, as we all know, things are not always the way we think they are at first. We should never try to hold on to the idea that characters have to be ideal, at the end of the day, their flaws are what makes them interesting. One thing that I was wondering for ages after reading the novel (and you might be too) was whether or not it was based on personal experience. For I could not understand how someone is able to describe and convey one’s mind and needs in such a deep and realistic way. It must be a real experience, right? About a year ago I discovered that the answer is no, Nabokov completely made the story up as he said in a 1959 interview for the Los Angels Mirror News.
As almost every great author does, Nabokov asks for your full attention while reading his Lolita. You might need to read it with a dictionary beside you, you might need to read it several times or shut the book and stare at the wall for a couple of minutes to fathom Nabokov’s compound ideas. However, the complexity of not only the main character and following them all down the rabbit hole will make an intriguing read for you. I can not say if you’ll like the novel or not, what I can definitely say though is that you won’t forget Lolita.
Featured Image Credit: Anna Nova