This is easily one of my favorite books. I’m sorry, but I have barely any complaints. To quote John Updike, “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written: ecstatically.” Honestly, I would’ve just stopped at “written.” Before I give a more thorough review, I must preface by saying that you need to read this novel. You owe it to yourself.
Gosh, where do I begin? Let me do a short summary for those of you who don’t know what Lolita is about. Lolita is about a man named Humbert Humbert who has a predilection for young girls, which he calls nymphets. As you might have guessed, Lolita is the name of one such nymphet, with whom Humbert can’t help but to fall in love. Oh yes, it’s a very controversial subject. But I swear, Nabokov makes you love how bad it is.
How? Well, you know how English teachers are always blabbing about a writer’s “voice?” More often than not, it’s quite hard to pin down. Sure, each writer has a distinct voice, but usually it’s not so distinct as to be noticeable. Only rarely do you stop in the middle of reading and say, “Damn, how bout that voice?” I’ll give you the opening lines and you’ll see what I mean.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
You can hear the voice. Indeed, it is a “fancy prose style.” However, it is not just a snobby, overly intellectual sort of voice. It is the voice of a maniac. That is not to say that Humbert is a maniac. He is not insane, just driven insane by Lolita. Note the varying sentence structure. Incredible. One moment you are given a long, complex string of words and the next moment you are given a conversational fragment. The diction, the attention to sound. Oh, it’s all so perfect.
There are other beautiful things happening in this opening. You see how desperately obsessed Humbert is with Lolita, so obsessed that even her name drives him mad. You see Humbert’s recognition that this is all “sin,” suggesting perhaps a bit of guilt. You see that Humbert has a strong narrative self-consciousness in the phrase “ladies and gentleman of the jury.” Oh, and uh…he’s a murderer?
As with any work of literature, the key is focusing on the characters. Nabokov does a fantastic job of this by showing you nearly each and every one of Humbert’s thoughts. You see how he changes, moment by moment. And what he doesn’t show is quite deliberate. Humbert will often leave important thoughts out for use later in the story, or he will leave you wondering and simply say that the thought is a matter for another story. Ooh, Humbert, you tease.
And don’t forget about Lolita. Her name is the title. Clearly, her character is of utmost importance. So much time is spent talking about her, her looks, her mannerisms, her comings and goings. However, unlike Humbert, we rarely see what she is thinking. Undoubtedly, she goes through character changes, but they’re really such mysteries to the reader. At times, she seems so innocent, making Humbert look like an awful, sinful lecher. Other times, she seems much like a temptress goading Humbert on to make his move. As a result, we as the reader, hate her, love her, admire her, and are disgusted by her. But surely, she is always interesting.
One thing people might be turned off by is the fact that Humbert often speaks in French. The majority of the text is in English, but there are French expressions sprinkled throughout. It can be annoying, but it certainly adds to Humbert’s snotty, intellectual characterization. Get over it.
Plot-wise, the pace can drag on in parts and speed up in others. Sometimes it seems like all you’re doing is listening to Humbert talk on and on about how lovely Lolita looks. Personally, I find that just as interesting as the quicker-paced parts. Besides, you need to change things up every now and then. You can’t cruise at the same speed for the entire book.
This is one of the greatest works of all time. Regardless of how much time has elapsed since its publication, Lolita remains just as readable. Also, it isn’t too long. Lolita is roughly 300 pages. That’s a whole lot better than reading another classic, War and Peace, which is 1200 pages long.