4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Year Published: 1955
Pages: 317
First Sentence: Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
Rating: 2/3 (meh)

A few months ago, I listened to a podcast called Hunting Warhead, which is about taking down an online pedophile ring. It was tough to listen to—there are interviews with reporters, cops, family members and friends of the guilty parties, and some details of the crimes. It's so hard to imagine what it's like inside the heads of people who are sexually attracted to and abuse children, some entirely unrepentant and unconcerned about the harm they've done.

Vladimir Nabokov tried, and that's how we got Lolita. It's narrated from the first person perspective by a man calling himself Humbert Humbert. He likes young girls, specifically those between 10 and 13 years old, and only specific ones, who he refers to as nymphets. After taking us through some of his history (an unconsummated juvenile romance, his unsuccessful marriage, several stints in mental hospitals), Humbert goes to stay in the town of Ramsdale in New England with a woman named Charlotte Haze and her daughter. Humbert immediately identifies Dolores as a "nymphet" but Mrs. Haze doesn't identify Humbert as a monster. He calls the little girl "Lolita."

Obviously I've known about this book for a very long time. It's notorious, and it's been waiting for me in the highest reaches of The List for over a decade. That's not mentioning how it's so famous that it's become cultural shorthand. However, just like with Lord of the Flies, it doesn't play out quite as I expected from its reputation. I'd never been sure, for instance, whether Humbert actually abused Dolores during the book. The answer is yes, this book is full of child sexual abuse. It's often obscured, but it's there if you don't allow Humbert to charm you into looking the other way. 

Lolita is in some ways an objectively excellent book but I didn't enjoy it much. I like the manipulation of the English language by a non-native speaker (neither Nabokov nor Humbert has English for a first language, and the book is packed with French words and phrases). I like a good unreliable narrator, and Humbert is definitely that. But in addition to the horrifying subject matter, the pacing in the book is also not the greatest. When Humbert and Dolores are touring around the United States, things often get a bit boring.

For my second foray into Nabokov's work I'm again impressed and yet failing to connect. I don't know if it's me or him or both of us, or just the books I've tried. (I'd be a bit concerned if I had any kind of close connection to Humbert.) Maybe someday I'll read Pnin.

But as far as recommending this book goes, I don't know what to say other than read it if you were already planning to. I don't think it's essential. I do think that an understanding of pedophilia is critical for our society in order to hopefully reduce child sexual abuse in an era when it's easier to perpetrate than ever before. For daring to present things from a pedophile's perspective, I think this book has some value, I'm just not sure how much. I've seen a few descriptions that call it a love story (and also some that say it's about Europe vs America, to which I say—ok, sure). If it reads as anything other than a "love" story about one-sided obsession and abuse then I would suggest the reader needs to examine their values.

I just can't help comparing Lolita to Bastard Out of Carolina, in which we see abuse from the child's perspective. Comparing the effete tone of Lolita to the raw brutality of the other book leaves me wondering which one of them we need more right now. Is it possible that we need them both?
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You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. (This is (one of) Humbert Humbert's descriptions of what a "nymphet" is. -MR)
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