Lolita was the novel that shocked a generation but it’s the paperback by Katie Bryant’s bed she thinks deserves a second read, if not a third.
There is something uncomfortable about recommending Lolita.
The sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a twelve-year-old girl was too much for readers in the 1950s (the book was banned in the UK until 1959) and it continues to cause controversy today. Yet Lolita has earned classic status, the taboo-ridden novel being firmly placed on Time’s list of 100 Best English-language novels published since 1923. Even influential twentieth-century writer Graham Greene is a fan.
So what makes it so good?
Nabokov seems to effortlessly capture an unreliable narrator, sounding a voice we’re not used to hearing. Middle-aged Humbert Humbert is a villain. But he’s also educated, charming and handsome. Well, at least he tells us
as much in his fictional memoir.
Humbert deceives those around him as much as he does himself. He frames his tale as one of tragic romance rather than paedophilia (or if we’re being fastidious, hebephilia). Nabokov is so skilful in his construction of Lolita that the reader must actively avoid feeling sympathetic towards Humbert. Humbert sees himself as alone, a victimised man who can never be with his great love. But, his mask slips.
The reader sees Dolores’ pain as Humbert’s guilt grows. In one chapter we are shown a sexually precocious manipulative young girl, in another she’s an orphan, envious of another child who sits innocently on her father’s lap.
Lolita is not an erotic novel; it does not cheaply play on a taboo to capture an audience. Nabokov’s style is enchanting. Dreamy prose describes a desire-filled Humbert, which transitions to fast-paced ramblings as his fantasy slips away. Yet the author’s written word cannot displace the horror the reader feels at the protagonist’s actions.
Despite the dark tone of the novel, Nabokov also unleashes his playful side through a love of wordplay. Secondary character, Vivian Darkbloom is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov.
It is details like this, along with faultlessness of prose that will garner the audience for a second read.