BOOK REVIEW: Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

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.

2/5

13 Comments

  1. yea, I have no desire to read this or even watch Kubrick’s adaptation of it. Not an easy subject matter regardless…

    at least u got thru it…

    1. It is quite challenging as a topic. Definitely not for everyone.

  2. I struggled with the book in my late teens, and found the style very pretentious. I thought it came across much better as a film, and enjoyed both adaptations, neither of which paint HH in a good light. It is a difficult subject, the exploitation of young girls, but it is also something that still goes on, perhaps even more than it once did. Although this book doesn’t really address the social issues surrounding it, it does mark one common thread, that of a man marrying or living with a woman, to get close to her young daughter. That in itself should probably serve as some sort of warning, but it is unlikely that any woman in that situation, or her daughter, is ever going to have read this rather stuffy book.
    (I quite liked ‘Moby Dick’ though… 🙂 )
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. I loved parts of Moby Dick. It was just such a strange book. I almost felt like I could go whaling after reading it because it was so detailed.

  3. I do the same thing with the “classic” genre (though I did like Tess of the D’urbervilles so much I managed to get through it in 2 1/2 days! I blame a totally boring Spanish holiday with the parents though. There was nothing else to do!). I couldn’t get through Lolita. I make it a point never to give up on a book (for this reason it took me the best part of a year to read Gone With The Wind…retrospectively, AMAZING. I highly recommend!) but I had to throw in the towel (book) with this one. I found it too creepy. I love the Jeremy Irons film (also creepy, but in that way that you can’t not watch!) but the book was just too much. I applaud you for finishing!!

    1. I’m not sure Thomas Hardy is for me but I can see why people enjoy him.

      I have read Gone With the Wind and I absolutely loved it. I really need to see the film.

      1. Yes you really do!! But you will need around a 4 hour window! So worth it though!!

  4. It’s one of my favourite novels. I just recently got an annotated version whiuch I haven’t yet started. There are some puns that are so clever, especially as Nabokov wrote it English – Russian being his first language. One I remember was perineum/peritonium.
    I’m still not sure why this book doesn’t bother me since if a read a blurb on another book describing the same subject matter I doubt I would read it.

  5. Thinking about it some more – It’s so well written! That’s why I like it!
    I tried teading Silence of the Lambs once and that to me was disgusting. I don’t like descriptions of blow by blow violence and or murder – especially when the book has no literary merit.

    1. I think when it comes to writing style it depends so much on what appeals to you. I can absolutely see the art of Nabakov’s prose but it just doesn’t chime for me. Silence of the Lambs, I’ve not read. Could be an interesting one.

      1. I didn’t get very far with it. ☺

  6. Like you, every now and then I give classics a shot to broaden my literary knowledge and all that. I have always wondered about this. This: “It didn’t help that he kept digressing into French either.” – totally convinced me to skip it. Would totally piss me off.

    1. I think if you spoke French it would be fine but since I haven’t touched it since year 9. I am beyond rusty.

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