(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)When it was published in 1955, "Lolita" immediately became a cause célèbre because of the freedom and sophistication with which it handled the unusual erotic predilections of its protagonist. But Vladimir Nabokov's wise, ironic, elegant masterpiece owes its stature as one of the twentieth century's novels of record not to the controversy its material aroused but to its author's use of that material to tell a love story almost shocking in its beauty and tenderness. Awe and exhilaration-along with heartbreak and mordant wit-abound in this account of the aging Humbert Humbert's obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America, but most of all, it is a meditation on love-love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.With an Introduction by Martin Amis "From the Hardcover edition."
There comes a point where the atrophy of moral sense, evident throughout this book, finally leads to dullness, fatuity and unreality. Humbert’s ‘love’ for Lolita is a matter of the senses, even of the membranes; his moments of remorse are few, brief and unconvincing; it never really occurs to him to ask himself just what the hell he thinks he is up to. There is plenty of self-absorption around us, heaven knows, but not enough on this scale to be worth writing about at length, just as the mad are much less interesting than the sane.
Goldilocks, Goldilocks, wilt thou be mine,
Although I am ninety, and thou art but nine.
I was told to read this book for the language and for the beautiful writing. I was told not to read this book because no woman needs to subject herself to misogynistic crap. I approached this book wondering which side would win and strongly suspecting the second. I've given up on Phillip Roth, after all, for just that reason. And aren't there enough non-misogynistic authors out there to keep me busy? Except Lolita wasn't misogynistic at all. Sure, Humbert regarded actual women with repulsion and dread. He looked at girls with either disinterest or as bodies to use to get off on. But Nabokov manages to make clear, from the depths of Humbert's delusions, that what he is doing is destroying another human being for his own momentary pleasure. And Humbert is quite a piece of work. Every event in his story is about him. When Lolita cries in pain and despair, she hurts his feelings. When Lolita's mother stands between him and his object of desire, she must be removed. This is no grand justification for pedophilia, but a shocking revelation of its costs.
And the writing is among the finest I have read. It doesn't get in the way of the story, but shines through, using the right words at the right places, seamlessly. I'll be reading more of Nabokov, and rereading this in due course.
French academic and literary scholar Humbert Humbert comes to America to renew his life after his divorce in France and a prolonged stay in a psychiatric hospital. Soon he meets Dolores Haze the 11 year old daughter of his new landlady and widow Mrs. Haze. Dolores his LOLITA – LO-LEE-TA.
“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.”
So what is it what makes a book about a pedophile so fascinating? In an almost perfect way, Nabokov describes the pedophile Humbert Humbert, without judgment, without representing the sex offender as a bad person, and alone for this reason the story is so impressive. Here, it is the style which is so clearly manipulative and ironic. The plot is predictable, and Nabokov succeeds again and again to outline detailed possible actions and then allow them to collapse into themselves. We feel the love of Humbert towards his Lolita – without him never acknowledging the GIRL Dolores – and we quickly recognize the depths such illness brings with it. One is constantly torn between disgust and comprehension, between pity and hatred.
On top of that Humbert is a smart storyteller, who often tries to manipulate the reader with incredible questionable arguments; trying to justify his acts and desires. The further the story moves along, the more he loses the outlook on reality and becomes more and more victim to paranoia. We do not just see Humbert’s obsessive and insatiable lust for the young Lolita, but we also see what life with him does to her, how she cries at night, how she learns to manipulate him to achieve her own ends, how she grows to hate him more and more.
“She considered me as if grasping all at once the incredible -- and somehow tedious, confusing and unnecessary -- fact that the distant, elegant, slender, forty-year-old valetudinarian in velvet coat sitting beside her had known and adored every pore and follicle of her pubescent body. In her washed-out gray eyes, strangely spectacled, our poor romance was for a moment reflected, pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull party, like a rainy picnic to which only the dullest bores had come, like a humdrum exercise, like a bit of dry mud caking her childhood.”
We are shown a story of decadence and decline, the beautiful ugliness of corruption presented with a narrator who manages to persuade us to sympathize with him from time to time, even so that he is a ruthless and despicable villain. Nabokov’s use of language and translation of a difficult topic into literature – well, absolutely amazing!
I was very surprised by what unfolded as I read the book. Certainly it involves a pedophile and his experience with young Delores Haze, whom he tenderly calls, Lolita. Absent is the graphic sex I had expected and present is some of the most beautiful writing I have ever had the joy of reading. Nabokov had a gift for language that was stunning to behold. I had only read one other Nabokov novel, the very light-hearted Pnin, which actually was a good springboard for getting into this meatier read.
Of course, the idea of a story about a pedophile is gruesome, but somehow in Nabokov’s hands, the beauty of the language overcomes the disgust of the storyline. You certainly feel sorry for Delores and yearn for her to escape from Humbert Humbert, as they traverse the country in their one year journey (August 1947-August 1948). He was such a complicated character though, that I’m not sure I ever actually despised him, although I disagreed with him on many levels. But the pictures Nabokov drew as the story progressed were just so beautiful and memorable that it’s very difficult to think of not liking the book because of its lewd reputation. It’s so much more than that. Picture this:
“The new and beautiful post office I had just emerged from stood between a dormant movie house and a conspiracy of poplars. The time was 9:00 a.m. mountain time. The street was Main Street. I paced its blue side peering at the opposite one :charming it into beauty, was one of those fragile young summer mornings with flashes of glass here and there and a general air of faltering and almost fainting at the prospect of an intolerably torrid noon.” Page 224
Passages like this are evident throughout the book. Nabokov paints the picture for you to see and all you can say is, “Beautiful.” Highly recommended.
Nabokov's forward has the good doctor John Ray jnr warning us that the novel; "Lolita" should make all of us; parents, social workers and educators have greater vigilance in bringing up the younger generation, which may lead us to read this novel as some sort of scare story about the dangers of paedophiles, but I think this would be a mistake. For example a strict interpretation of paedophilia; is sex with pre-pubescent girls, but Lolita was not pre-pubescent and already sexually experienced before being raped by Humbert Humbert. Legally of course paedophilia is defined as sex between a person under 16 with a person over 18, but we all know that the law is an ass, as this would place a good few of us into the category of paedophiles. I do not mean to imply that Lolita is anything other than a victim, but she is primarily the victim of a psychopath, as are many other characters that come into a more than passing contact with the monster: Humbert Humbert.
By telling Humbert Humbert's story in the first person Nabokov must convince the reader that he is party to the thoughts and actions of an extremely dangerous man, a man that is an intelligent sexual predator. This gives the author the opportunity to write some genuinely erotic prose, which is one of the reasons why this literary novel is so popular. He tells us in sensuous language of Humbert Humbert's first love affair with Annabel, which sparks his desire for other young girls and he leads the reader on, with Humbert Humberts protracted seduction of Lolita and while the reader may be seduced by the prose he should bear in mind that what Humbert Humbert is planning is date rape. Humbert Humbert cannot hide the fact that his gross sexual appetite is both painful and nauseous to Lolita and although he tries to convince us that she is a bit of a slut, it should be obvious to the reader that this is not the case.
Humbert Humbert's sophistication, his academic background and his "European" education allows Nabokov to engage in literary games and witticisms, which abound throughout. He also gets to paint a convincing portrait of his travels across America, using literary references, theatre, poetry and song. The main agenda for all this, is a demonstration of Humbert Humbert's superiority over most/all of the characters he meets; he sneers at them, he laughs at them, he satirises them and he uses them.
Much of the writing is of the highest quality and if the book is not finally convincing, then it could be on further reading. The Grand Guignol finale feels like it should not belong, but Nabokov has been leading us up to it for some time. Humbert Humbert's final journey with Lolita is a portrait of a man losing his mind, he becomes paranoid and slips in and out of insanity and so the final bloodbath should not be such a surprise. I find Nabokov's use of comedy; not always appropriate, it is as if he allows himself one joke too many. This story is a tragedy and there should be no confusion about that.
Humbert Humbert is a monster. He commits one murder that we know about, he clearly would have murdered Lolita's mother had she not fortuitously been the victim of a road traffic accident. He planned to drug and rape Lolita and then raped her anyway when the drug was not wholly successful. He took every advantage of a weakened girl when she had a fever, he continually lied, used his position of authority and used physical violence to keep the young girl his sex slave. By letting Humbert Humbert tell the story Nabokov allows him to garner sympathy from the reader. He continually professes his love for Lolita, he justifies his actions because of his inability to control his sexual urges and finally because of his creeping insanity, But these are the confessions of a highly intelligent and manipulative psychopath and we should not be laughing with him and we certainly should not believe him; if we do then we are in danger of being duped in real life. Perhaps this is Nabokov's greatest achievement and a 4.5 star read for me.
One of the best things about reading is that you don't have to agree with a characters morals, or lack there of, in order to learn, grow, and enjoy a book. In this case, Humbert is more than immoral, he is dark, twisted, and quite obviously mentally ill. Which is why I allowed myself to love this book as much as I do. Nabokov quite obviously wasn't trying to pass Humbert off as someone who simply had a lifestyle preference, but instead puts the reader in the head of a seriously deranged predator.
As a long time child advocate, and someone who has worked in a field where I saw first hand the effects of sexual abuse, I have to say that I am amazed at Nabokov's ability to get it so right. He gets it so right in fact, that I was almost convinced that he might have been a pedophile himself, but that would be grossly unfair for me to make such an assumption, because honestly, he nailed writing the character of Lolita, the victim, and her behavior. Which is all very impressive for a book that was penned in a time when the cycle of sexual abuse was less discussed, and thus less known than it is even today.
You know what else I loved? The way that the author doesn't treat his reader like a ninny. He has this wonderful way of making suggestions and allowing the reader to understand via crafty writing.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a remarkable book that has the capability of making the reader see past preconceived notions and the fear of liking something that feels like maybe one shouldn't.
I suppose the most astonishing, and uncomfortable, single aspect of a generally astonishing and uncomfortable book is that for 350 pages it locates us squarely inside the mind, the emotions, the urges and the actions of what must surely be one of the most venal, vainglorious, pathetically evil characters in all of literature. Humbert Humbert is intelligent, educated, witty and eloquent, and as such his confession/memoir, delivered through the veil of his own justifications and excuses, is shockingly seductive. In the course of our time with him we find ourselves laughing at his jokes, agreeing with his assessments, recognising his dilemmas. When his true nature shines through - and this is a negative shine, as it were, chinks of purest black in the light, bright armour of his self-aggrandisement - the pure horror of it is so overwhelming that it is, paradoxically, easier to ignore than to focus on. We don't want to go there. We don't want to comprehend what those flashes of unvarnished truth tell us is really happening to Lolita. His endless expositions of undying love and amused observations on the idiosyncrasies of early adolescence are so much easier to bear. And because he is unable even at the end, when the horror he has wrought can finally no longer be concealed even from himself, to acknowledge that his Lolita was never more than an innocent victim, and he never less than the most guilty of predators, he remains, for me at least, irredeemable.
Because in some ways his greatest crime is this: Lolita is never a person to him, never an entity in her own right, never a being entitled to any rights. She exists only in relation to him. He defines her nature, implicitly, in terms of his own reactions to her. The notion that he might be, indeed should be, completely incidental is not one he can countenance. And the greatest tragedy of the book is that because he never challenges, never wants to challenge, his own duplicitous perception, he makes of it a reality. Lolita is, in the end, what he has made her, and no more. We are unable to know her except as he has known her. Her life is truncated by his understanding of it.
It is easy to see why Lolita is on virtually every best-book list since the middle of the 20th century. It deserves to be there. It's a book that should be read, and talked about, and thought about. Should it be enjoyed? Well yes, for its mastery if not its subject matter. Nabokov's achievement is superlative. The style and structure of the thing, the framing devices and concatenation of tales, the pearls of prose, the characterisations, the sheer thrust and power of the narrative, are literally breathtaking. Readers talk about being transported, and it is a book that is deeply moving in every sense. For a writer it is an awe-inspiring work, an intensely difficult story to pull off in the purely technical sense made to look easy by the sheer lyrical bravura of the author. There is much to learn here - and be intimidated by.
However, Nabokov's poetical language and beautiful writing hides a very ugly and controversial topic. 'Lolita' is about a middle-aged professor, Humbert Humbert, who falls in love and becomes obsessed with a girl, Dolores Haze, who is young enough to be his daughter. Their eventual love affair, which stems to abandonment and murder, is the reason why the novel has been banned in certain countries over the years.
I don’t think I need to reiterate the story. It’s extremely well-known. The characters, however, are positively unbelievable. The narrator, a man obsessed with the seductive charms of prepubescent females, Humbert Humbert, is a man I fully expected to loathe. And yet, despite his awful and despicable actions, I found myself pitying him more than anything. He’s delusional and very unreliable as far as narrators go. He twists the story he’s telling until not even the reader can discern what’s really going on, and he does it masterfully. On his rendition of his first time with little Dolores, he manipulates the words so well, it seems like it was all Lolita’s fault. You have to constantly remind yourself that her mother was recently killed and she has no one else to turn to. Threatened by Humbert with reform school, she’s not in a position to resist him. When reform school no longer scares her, he bribes her for sexual favors. When he masterfully manipulates Lolita, he manipulates the reader as well.
And yet, despite this, he feels remorse. He calls himself a monster more than once. At the end, he hears a group of children playing and mourns for Lolita’s lost childhood. When Lolita is stolen from him by another child predator who wants her in his child pornography video, Humbert loses it. He drinks and becomes paranoid, going from motel to motel in a wild goose chase, thinking he sees clues in the names of former patrons. I think he loved Lolita, but he was so obsessive, manipulating, controlling, and self-absorbed and she was too young that it broke both of them.
And the language! I’ve never seen anyone able to command the Enlgish language like this. It’s beautiful. I admit I had to look several words up in the dictionary every time I read this book. After reading this, I wonder if there is a word out there Nabokov didn’t know. If the subject material is too squicky for you, I would still recommend reading this just for the language.
This is a book to be savored slowly. Read it in 15-20 page increments to fully take in the language and it’s beauty. Reflect over what you’ve read to really digest the characters and the emotions. It took me about two months to get through this book, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I knew the basics of Lolita going in to the book, so I predicted a tough read. Since Nabokov tells the story from H.H.'s point of view, the reader spends all three hundred pages in the mind of a very twisted human being. That being said, the narrator is also extremely intelligent, and extremely manipulative. His first seduction of Lolita places the young girl as the instigator, and he discribes "Lo" as someone who knows exactly what she is doing. Early on in the novel, the reader gets some hints that H.H. is a very unreliable narrator, so I seriously doubted his version of events; at the same time, Lo certainly does not come off as the innocent victim, and at times I felt myself sympathizing with H.H. This caused me understandable horror - sympathizing with such a disturbed creature! So here, I understand the brilliance of Nabokov. To create such an awful person, but then to cause the reader to feel sorry for him, is a masterful feat indeed.
Nabokov's prose is gorgeous - thick, wordy, and full of double meanings. I would love to read more of his work, but maybe something a little less disturbing.
That said, parts of Lolita dragged horribly. The beginning was quite strong, as was the end portion, but the middle took all of my stamina to get through. After awhile, H.H.'s musing became too much to handle, and too much of the same thing over and over. To be honest, I'm glad I read this book, but I don't think I will ever read it again - and I am a big rereader.
So, despite the beautiful prose and my unsettling feelings about the narrator, the labourious middle section of Lolita knocks what would have been a four-star novel down to 3.5 stars.
As I began reading this book I fully understood why some people had asked that this book be banned. After all, it kind of reads like a how-to book on pedophilia. But when the subject came up at book club, I found myself defending the book, saying that if someone read this book and thought it condoned their own behavior or it "inspired" them to do something of this sort, well they were likely to have done it anyway. I said this because I saw the reactions of the others who had read this book and all of us, whether we thought the writing was beautiful or the story interesting, were disgusted with the main character and judged him accordingly. This book isn't going to turn anybody into a pedophile who doesn't already entertain such thoughts.
The book itself is beautifully written. In the first part when Humbert Humbert is falling in love with Lolita, I was quite taken by his descriptions of her ... until I remembered that he was talking about a 12-year-old girl. I also really enjoyed the French phrases sprinkled throughout the book. I felt like each one was a little French quiz for me, especially because he offers no translation like many books do today. His descriptions of living in France and going to the Mediterranean made me think of my own time there, which is always a fun thing.
Aside from all of that though the book is really interesting and it raises a lot of questions about love and family. It also shows the inner workings (albeit fictional) of a truly deranged person and how one is able to justify what he is doing despite all evidence that it is wrong. I also thought it was quite interesting - and fitting - that Humbert Humbert often befriended other sexual deviants. I think that is probably true of that type of person in the real world.
This was not an easy book to read because there are many historical and literary references throughout the text, along with the aforementioned untranslated French phrases (some Latin and German as well), so I highly recommend getting the annotated version. I didn't know there was an annotated version until I went to the book club meeting and now I feel like I need to read it all over again so I can get the inside jokes that some of the others understood better than I did.
"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."
Oh, Lolita. Is there anyone these days who doesn't know the general story? Middle-aged Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze. Thankfully, few literate people disagree with the statement that Lolita is a brilliant work of twentieth-century fiction. I find myself at a loss for words in reviewing this book, if only because I feel like so much has already been said. The language is beautiful and the story is riveting. The repulsion one feels for Humbert's taste is complicated by his deviously charming writing and Lolita's self-awareness. One might find an untrustworthy narrator to be a chore at times, but here, it is nothing short of fascinating.
Above all, what struck me with this reading of Lolita is just how masterful Nabokov's command of the English language really is... I found myself savoring every sentence and looking up the definitions of words of which I knew the meanings... not because I thought I was wrong or that he would be more precise, but that there were certain nuances to be gained. I spent time reflecting on certain details that would crop up (for instance, Humbert's obsessive cataloguing of Lolita's height and weight) or various academic interpretations (the question of this book representing the corruption of young America by old Europe or old Europe's downfall brought about by young America), but really, it's the language that I kept coming back to again and again. Here is a wordsmith, here is a man who knows how to turn a phrase. Breath-taking at every turn.
If you haven't read it yet, I shall not pressure you. There will come a time in your life when you finally feel compelled to pick this up and you'll understand the awesome power of Nabokov's language in painting such an fascinating story.
Nabokov's use of language is exquisite...just read a few passages...he puts most modern writers to shame as he uses just the right words to paint his very delicate and dangerous picture. He paints neither Humbert nor Lola as saints...nor should he. He develops the characters, shows their growth and their diminuition. In the end we are left with tragic figures whose lives were cast by the journey they took.
This is classic literature that should be read by more.
Now that I have read it I find myself in a bit of a pickle. By my rating scale, for me to give a book five stars I must believe it must pass the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ test. There should be no room for improvement. That’s not the case. I reached a point about midway through the book where I grew very tired of Humbert Humbert, the less-than-humble narrator, and his efforts to maintain control of his step-daughter Dolores, aka Lolita. Many will argue and I won’t disagree that Nabokov used this time to subtly and relentlessly build the case against Humbert. Humbert’s greatest crime, as revealed via subtle clues and references revealed from his own pen, is that he took a 12 year-old girl and stole from her not only her childhood but her entire life. While I did find it painful to read at times, I cannot deny that it was masterfully done.
Other arguments favoring a high rating include Nabokov’s skill at creating new English words when none exist that meet his needs. Some, such as the word ‘nymphet’ have jumped from his pen into the current lexicon. His mordant sense of humor also put him in a class above most authors. One wouldn’t expect to find humor in a book about pedophilia but a careful reading will reveal quite a bit. I particularly enjoyed a scene when he talked about the fate of his first wife after she left him.The couple had somehow got over to California and had been used there, for an excellent salary, in a year-long experiment conducted by a distinguished American ethnologist. The experiment dealt with human and racial reactions to a diet of bananas and dates in a constant position on all fours. My informant, a doctor, swore he had seen with his own eyes obese Valechka and her colonel, by then gray-haired and also quite corpulent, diligently crawling about the well-swept floors of a brightly lit set of rooms (fruit in one, water in another, mats in a third and so on) in the company of several other hired quadrupeds, selected from indigent and helpless groups. I tried to find the results of these tests in the Review of Anthropology; but they appear not to have been published yet.Another point in the book’s favor is his ability to portray complexity. Almost all of us see the subject of pedophilia in black and white. It’s not something to which we apply gradation. To those of us who see the world thusly, Nabokov asks ‘But what if you have two pedophiles? Is a victim better off with one of them than the other?’
Bottom line: This is not a very pleasant book to read but it is brilliant and I recommend it highly. It is more mystery than romance although, since it is told to us by a sexual predator, his passion for his victim is a big part of it. What I find most fascinating is Nabokov’s ability to tell a story using a deranged individual’s words. He simultaneously shows us how twisted his protagonist is and how he can obliviously view himself as something almost noble. There is one word that describes this skill that Nabokov has that many authors lack; ‘depth’.
FYI: On a 5-point scale I assign stars based on my assessment of what the book needs in the way of improvements:
*5 Stars – Nothing at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
*4 Stars – It could stand for a few tweaks here and there but it’s pretty good as it is.
*3 Stars – A solid C grade. Some serious rewriting would be needed in order for this book to be considered great or memorable.
*2 Stars – This book needs a lot of work. A good start would be to change the plot, the character development, the writing style and the ending.
*1 Star - The only thing that would improve this book is a good bonfire.
Statistically speaking, the ratings (at least on Goodreads) aren’t anomalous. About 14% of the reviews, as of the composition of this review, that have bothered to assign a star rating to the book gave it either one or two stars. What I find most interesting is the vast majority of them have damned it for one reason: the moral character of Humbert Humbert. I find this odd, since no one says “Crime and Punishment” is a horrible book because Raskolnikov is a murderer or because Oliver Twist is an amateur pickpocket. What it is about Humbert that sets people off toward such a reaction by judging the book by the actions of the protagonist instead of the quality of the writing itself? And, since everyone already knows what “Lolita” is all about, who picks this up knowing that they’re already going to assign it such a low rating?
If you’re interested in actually giving this novel the attention that it deserves and not just sanctimoniously trashing it to – what, I don’t know, convince us that you’re really, really not a fan of man-on-child sex? – I suggest some supplementary reading that will fill out Nabokov’s ideas of the novel. What I have in mind to this end is Nabokov’s collection called “Strong Opinions,” which I have also reviewed for this site. I especially recommend the first two-thirds of the book which contains all the interviews (the last third consists mostly of abstruse academic articles about chess and lepidoptery). In it, he clearly explains that he’s not interested in your or anyone else’s sense of moral propriety, “novels of ideas,” or social commentary parading as fiction. If you take Nabokov at his word, or most other modern novelists that have spoken about what they feel about writing fiction, just because someone writes about a character is not an endorsement of that character. If you are among the people who apparently can’t understand this and accuse Nabokov of writing about “a disgusting man using beautiful language,” heed what he has to say. Though my personal favorites are those readers – and I use that word loosely – who claim to be “disturbed” by the novel. Some of these low reviews really are great for comic relief.
My own opinion? I think that the novel’s subject also resulted in its canonical status. Without the Humbert-Lolita dynamic at its center, this novel would have been just another Nabokov novel (that is, stylistically complex and linguistically playful), but I don’t think that it would have the popular reputation that it does. I liked the wordplay and Nabokov’s obvious logophilia and playfulness, but other than that, it’s not something I’m jumping to read again. Then again, I’m of a school that isn’t reactionary when it comes to novels of ideas; in fact, I’m rather fond of the idea, and enjoy reading fiction of this kind. The point here is that, before criticizing fiction (or rather, much more shallowly and uselessly, criticizing its protagonist for his actions), you should get to know what the writer thinks about the job of fiction itself. This isn’t to say that you must agree with it. But it’ll certainly save you posting something embarrassing on Goodreads in the future.
Talk about a book that defies characterization! Is it literature? (Those gorgeous passages of prose, those pretentiously long passages of French!) Philosophy? (Those Sartre references, those reflections on love and fate!) Social commentary? (Those rhapsodic odes to small-town America!) Satire? (Those deliciously spiteful jabs directed at psychology & education; that preposterously pendantic forward!) Farce? (That hilariously absurd denoument in which he finally brings to ground his imagined nemesis!) Tragedy? (Humbert Humbert as Oedipus Redux?) An exploration of deviant psychology? Pornography? An extended Joycianesque jest? In truth, the novel is all those things at once, which – I suppose – is precisely what makes it so infuriating. You want to hate the thing, but it’s just so damned brilliant.
The basic story, as conceptualized by the great mass of people who have merely "heard of" the novel, is that of a pedophile who exploits a young girl. It may be that (whether the narrator is a true pedophile probably requires a clinical judgment), or it may be something else; but it is certainly not, in the words of "Vanity Fair" magazine, "the only convincing love story of our century." Hogwash: damnable, fatuous hogwash. It is indisputably the story of an erotic obsession, which is not without a degree of unrequited romantic devotion, and at times it is genuinely touching, but as a "love story" it makes Popeye and Olive Oyl look like Orpheus and Eurydice.
In reading or reviewing the book, one cannot deny the incandescence of Nabokov's writing. At his best, Nabokov can hardly be surpassed as a master of prose; even when not at his best, he is simply a genius. But not every creation of a genius is worthy of his or her talents, and everyone from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot undoubtedly filled many wastebaskets with frustrated, failed efforts before they hit their stride.
The basic truth of "Lolita," however, is that it is simply unnecessary, and certainly unworthy of five years of Nabokov's life. The protagonist of the novel, Humbert Humbert, is not a stereotypical child molester, lurking in the bushes: he is a genuine romantic, although his romanticism is pathological. "The world is filled with a number of things," and not all of them deserve artistic treatment. One of these is pedophilia (more specifically, hebephilia). Nabokov wrote numerous stories and poems that were genuinely romantic; this account of a middle aged man's deviant obsession is not among them, clever and sometimes touching as it may be.
Mention has been made of the magazine "Vanity Fair." It is appropriate that a journal with that title would contain such a glowing review. John Bunyan would instantly have recognized "Lolita" for what it is: just another vulgar bauble offered to the residents of Vanity Fair, as Pilgrim passed through that meretricious town. It is sickness and perversity celebrated by the masses of worldlings who grin and giggle at any shining trinket that tickles the flesh, instead of touching the deeper recesses of the heart. It is a great piece of writing. But it didn't need to be published, and once published, it shouldn't have been received as something that it is not.