Every so often, I like to pick out a so-called classic to read, to try to broaden my literary knowledge but also to decide whether I think they’re actually worth the hype e.g. a resounding yes to Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and all the Sherlock Holmes outings… a resounding WTF to Moby Dick and flat no to Tess of the D’Ubervilles. This time I decided to go for Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov.
I think most people know that Lolita is about an older man who falls in love with an underage girl and that “Lolita” has become synonymous with the idea of pre-pubescent and pubescent girls in inappropriate sexual situations. There have been two major films based on the novel and there are endless songs, parodies and an entire Japanese fashion style “inspired” by the concept that Nabakov explores, so there’s no question of its enduring and far reaching influence on popular culture.
The story is told through the eyes of protagonist, Humbert Humbert the son of a European hotelier, who escapes Paris for the USA after his ill-advised marriage falls apart. Since his own early teenage years, HH has had strong sexual feelings towards young girls, who he dubs “nymphets” but none captures him quite like Dolores Haze, the daughter of his landlady. HH is so taken with Dolores, nicknamed Lolita by him, that he marries her mother to remain close to her.
When Lolita’s mother is killed in an accident, HH uses this as an opportunity to take off with Lolita, embarking on an entirely inappropriate relationship with her, not only from a sexual aspect but also in his absolute control and manipulation of such a vulnerable individual. HH’s obsession with Lolita leads him to believe that another man is trying to steal her, which drives him to ever more disturbing measures with shocking consequences.
Reading Lolita was a strange experience for me. The subject matter is repulsive and HH, with all his fancy manners made me feel ill with every turn of the page (except I have a Kindle so it’s more like a press of a button). There is a suggestion that Lolita is partially complicit in what happens to her, which I found impossible to accept. In fairness to Nabakov, HH is unquestionably an unreliable narrator so his portrayal of Lolita is twisted as is his perception of her behaviour and his behaviour towards her. If those were my only issues with the novel I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more than I did. Unfortunately I found HH’s ramblings utterly tedious. I hated having to step inside his mind and the more unhinged he became the more I resented having to listen to his jumbled up, bitter, self-indulgent ravings. It didn’t help that he kept digressing into French either. I don’t want to sound like an utter pleb, but I am not sure a reader should need a minimum of conversational French to fully understand an English novel.
I’m unsure whether it’s my lack of sophistication or inability to get past the subject matter that’s at the heart of me not connecting with Lolita. Either way, I didn’t enjoy or find reading it a worthwhile experience. Sorry, Vlad, but it’s a no from me when it comes to adding Lolita to my genuine classics list and I’m not going to recommend it.