Lolita is a controversial novel; there’s no denying that. My time reading Lolita has been necessarily surreptitious and discreet, for the simple reason that this novel is erroneously judged by its critics, often in ignorance, as somewhere between ‘subversive erotica’ and ‘a paedophile’s handbook’, both of which are phrases I have heard used to describe Lolita, and both of which are terminally inaccurate.
I want to make this plain: Lolita no more glamourises and encourages paedophilia than Trainspotting glamourises and encourages heroin use. (It doesn’t. At all.)
Humbert is variously described, even by himself, as a ‘pervert’, ‘horrible’, ‘abject’, and ‘a shining example of moral leprosy’. Dolores, even as the legal victim, has a history of abuse and often of complicity, although this is hardly an excuse as much as an explanation of her consent.
I would certainly not describe Lolita as an ‘erotic’ novel, barely even a novel with erotic motifs; all that detail is conspicuously lacking, and the focus of the narrative is shifted purely onto their difficult and dangerous relationship – both as parent and step-child, and later as ‘lovers’ – told through the highly unreliable lens of Humbert’s paranoid psyche.
Starting as a tortured story of a lonely foreigner before developing into a storm of emotional instability and introspective mayhem, Lolitafollows the creatively anonymised Humbert Humbert as he seeks to either gratify or cure himself of his ‘pederosis’. When meeting Charlotte Haze with the unenthusiastic intention of become her lodger, he meets and falls in love with her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores – nicknamed Lolita. Discovering every intricacy of the plot was a genuine pleasure of which I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone else, so I’ll leave it at that.
Lolita shocked me with its stunning prose, its sardonic commentary, its solid story, its beautifully painted characters, its subversive yet compelling nature, its sarcastic observations of America, and its sheer frank audacity.
From a literary perspective, it is nothing short of a masterpiece; every sentence is constructed with glorious succinct precision and wit, and a luxurious love of language. The narrative is both clear and sufficiently vague so as to provoke intrigue, but never to masquerade confusion or cryptic monologuing as ironic mystery, or at least almost never.
I found it charming in places, and horribly unsettling in others – though not for reasons many who have not read the book might expect – increasingly shot through with fear, doubt, and melancholy.