As a student of Russian, I have had Nabokov recommended to me from time to time. I had heard that his prose style was excellent, but I was never interested in his most famous and controversial book, Lolita. It wasn’t until I read another book, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, that I became interested in reading Lolita.
Since I had been meaning to try Lolita for several years now, it seemed like a good choice for Banned Books Week. Lolita was banned in several countries during the 1950’s, usually for being “obscene.” More recently, it has been challenged in Marion Country, Florida as being “unsuitable for minors.” The novel has also earned a great deal of critical acclaim, including a place on the World Library’s “100 Best Books of All Time.”
Lolita is narrated by Humbert Humbert, the pedophile who becomes obsessed with the young Lolita, in a voice characterized by humor and word play. This voice creates a constant contrast with the tragic plot of the novel. It also makes him surprisingly sympathetic, although he is still clearly the villain of the novel. The book is presented as a memoir/confession he is writing from prison, so the reader knows just by reading the foreword that things are not going to end well for Humbert Humbert. Despite this premise and the notoriety of the novel, I was often surprised by the plot. Although I had heard and read about Lolita, it’s reputation comes mainly from the topic and the quality of the writing-most readers should still be able to enjoy the story without knowing what will come next.
Humbert Humbert definitely falls into the category of an unreliable narrator, since his “confession” is being written as preparation for a court trial. All of the other characters in the novel are seen only through his (often critical) eyes. As a result, it is very difficult for the reader to know what the characters, even the other main character, Lolita, are actually like or what they are thinking. In my opinion, this kept the novel very interesting-I was often wondering what the other characters thought of Humbert and doubting that anyone else saw them the way he did. Humbert’s descriptions of the various settings of the novel also contain his characteristic humor and criticism, but they are above all unique. It is impressive that Nabokov managed to include such a wealth of description of the American landscape, since he had lived in Europe for most of his life.
Lolita is not a book for the squeamish, but I would heartily recommend this novel to anyone who appreciates good prose. If you can’t get past the subject matter of Lolita, at least read something else by Nabokov! He was truly a master of the art of writing. The prose was some of the best I have ever read, but tragic plots are not really to my taste as a reader, so I will give this novel four and a half stars. I would also recommend that anyone reading this book skip the introduction. There is a huge spoiler right at the beginning of it! (At least, there is in the edition I read.) I borrowed Lolita from my local library, but you can find it here.