Long being a fan of pushing the envelope when it comes to reading, I took up a dare that a friend of mine posed. She asked that I try reading Vladimir Nabokov’s highly controversial novel to see if I could stay the course. This is the review for that book and my announcement that I did finish the book and have some sentiments to share for my troubles. Humbert Humbert is a European man who opens this first-person narrative by describing a life that saw him feel highly unfulfilled. He went through the motions and seemed to live a somewhat beige childhood and early adolescence, but soon escaped that when he made it to America. Humbert’s arrival permitted him to sit in parks, where he could admire many nymphets (girls aged 7-13 or so) as they frolicked in the various places he would frequent. Careful not to tip his hand, Humbert inwardly enjoyed this, but never engaged in even the slightest conversation with them, raising no red flags. After moving into a house, Humbert took a stronger liking to his landlady’s daughter, young Dolores Haze who is all of twelve. As the narrative progresses, the reader learns that Humbert not only enjoys being around Dolores, but he takes to calling her his Lolita, if only to himself. Smelling towels she may have used and playing games with her—at times letting his hand inch along her thigh—Humbert seems to be grooming her while staying just on the right side of the law. He openly admits in the early stages of the book that he knows how society will see him and chooses not to cross any clear lines that could pose issues. After taking some certain steps to get even closer to Lolita, Humbert enacts a plan and takes her on a trip. He detects a strong mutual connection between them, which he presents in flirtatious comments and acts by Lolita. This carnal watching of his nymphet soon leads Humbert to drug her and pursue something more physical. While things got a tad blurry for me, it appears the narrative moves from this into a wholehearted physical—read, sexual—relationship between the two, consensual in the loosest of terms (not covered by the law), as Humbert and Lolita travel through various communities. The rest of the story pertains not only to the ongoing journeys of these two, but the change in dynamic from simple lovers to a parent-child interaction, which only adds fuel to the fire of something paedophilic and incestuous at the same time. Will Lolita mature out of this magnetic connection with Humbert? Might others clue in and alert the authorities, Humbert’s greatest worry? A shocking piece, as I was led to expect, which will surely open eyes and turn heads. And yet, for reasons I cannot comprehend, it is considered classic literature.
I know nothing of Vladimir Nabokov or his other writing, which might handicap my ability to properly analyze the story here. However, I know the basic laws of the land (in this case, America in the late 1940s), which do not permit this sort of action between a child of twelve and an adult. It is quite possible that Nabokov sought to push the limits of what is acceptable and display the lengths to which some people will justify their choices and actions. Humbert Humbert is a man who appears to be on the straight and narrow from the outside, but this novel is his first-hand account of sentiments and thoughts that push him into a realm that society does not readily accept. His sentiments, while made in literary ways, will leave some readers with chills up their spines. The subtlety of his assertions and constant reminders to the reader that he knows the line of permissibility leaves many to wonder if he cares. Lolita is presented as the typical tween/teenage girl, seeking to find herself and perhaps experimenting with things along the way. Nabokov does not delve too deeply into her actual sentiments on what is going on, as the entire novel is through the eyes of Humbert, but one can only wonder if the grooming that occurs and the lack of any other parent figure left her thinking that this was ‘right’ or at least part of the adolescent experience. The story flowed extremely smoothly and the chapters blended well into on another. Nabokov may drop bombshells throughout, but the subtlety of the language and the insinuations keeps the reader from feeling the spikes in action, but rather a smooth ride as Humbert denotes happenings and struggles along the way. This was, for me, one of those books where the reader is watching a car accident in progress and cannot turn away, even as things get more gruesome. Attentive reading is required to pick up much of the highly controversial acts, but even then, most readers are likely hoping for a stop or something to rescue Lolita before things get too far. Let me be clear about this here and now (though I am sure comments will try to skewer me all the same), the high rating I gave to this book is for the writing style and delivery by Vladimir Nabokov and NOT the subject matter. I do not condone statutory rape, grooming, or any form of abuse on children. That Nabokov can write this book and leave the reader feeling so out of sorts without creating a smutty delivery of subject matter is to be applauded, but I can see why many readers might want to steer clear of this, holding young ones they healthily love close to them.
Kudos, Mr. Nabokov, for this eye opening piece. I may have to read more of your work (please, fellow reviewers, recommendations welcome) to remove this film from my brain, so as not to associate you solely with this type of writing.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons