Lolita has been my favourite book for what seems like an infinite number of reasons since I first leafed through its opening pages a few years ago. The fact that it regularly tops lists of the best books in the English language despite its author’s native tongue being Russian must give potential readers at least some sort of clue to Nabokov’s way with words. The novel follows the sad tale of Humbert Humbert, a character who can perhaps compete for most unreliable narrator of all time and who introduces himself as a murderer with “a fancy prose style”.
Grieved by the untimely loss of Annabel, his childhood love (which should rightly sound familiar if you’re a fan of Poe), Humbert is condemned to spending his adult days in the pursuit of fixing “once for all the perilous magic of nymphets”. If you’re not familiar with Nobokov’s coinage, a nymphet is a rare creature: a girl between the ages of nine and fourteen, their true nature is not entirely human and is betrayed by their subtle features to which Humbert’s senses are attuned – a particularly feline outline of the cheeks perhaps, or the slenderness of a downy limb. Humbert frequently oscillates between attempting to justify his perversions and accepting their vile nature, at once appealing as victim to nymphets’ charms and then claiming his contempt for “pumpkins or pears for breasts”. In his quest the young Dolores Haze – eternalised as the eponymous Lolita – falls under his gaze and becomes the object of his sexual obsession, her own questionable virtue causing the narrator excruciating torment and the reader insatiable intrigue.
Lolita is often called an ‘erotic novel’, yet to call it such seems to be doing it a great injustice and Nabokov himself, in On a Book Entitled Lolita obstinately denied its being a ‘lewd book’. It is, however, incredibly saucy, yet least of all in a sexual way. The entire work is a shameless demonstration of Nabokov’s love affair with the English language; every word is honeyed and saccharine and you feel almost naughty for drinking it in so greedily. It is somewhat sickly sweet; the glorious prose with which Humbert praises himself can lure you in and artfully disguise the sticky subject at the novel’s core – Humbert presents his sorry case so ruefully that it’s not so difficult to begin to take pity on him and then, like any careless binge, experience the intense guilt of having so freely indulged. Yet despite the subject matter that one preliminary publisher claimed, if he printed the novel, would land both he and Nabokov in jail, Lolita remains a masterpiece of fiction. Shunning symbolism and denying morality, it is as enthralling and ultimately evasive as its wayward protagonist.
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