May 15, 2008

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

As I’m sure most of you know, Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a self-confessed paedophile, and his obsession, and eventual involvement, with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze. Humbert tells his story in the first person – this fictional memoir opens with a preface in which we are told that he died in prison shortly after its completion. He explains that his sexual obsession with a particular kind of pubescent girls – which he calls "nymphets" – probably came about because of a non-consummated passion for a girl named Annabel when they were both young. Then he recounts how he came to meet Lolita, and to eventually marry her mother to remain close to the girl.

Yes, this story is an unsettling one. But the book is so beautiful. Its charm is not in the story, but in the telling. Nabakov’s prose is intoxicating, and his portrayal of longing, especially in the first part of the book, is one of the most striking ones I’ve ever seen – if you manage to detach yourself from the fact that the object of the narrator’s desire is a twelve-year-old girl, which is something I understand that not all readers will be willing or able to do.

(This reminds me of something Nick Hornby says in The Polysyllabic Spree, when writing about a thriller whose title and author I can’t remember: that since he became a father, he has trouble reading any kind of fiction in which children come to harm, because he can’t stop his imagination from projecting his own children in the shoes of the characters.)

But back to longing, and to the delicate precision with which this book describes it. The writing reminded me of Jeffrey Eugenides, who is not my favourite writer, but is the writer whose writing I like the most. I googled to check if he cites this book as an influence, and voila, yes he does. And I can see why. Like Middlesex, this book had me stopping at times to collect myself. It was that good.

And there's humour! Really, there is. Somehow I expected the book’s mood to be sombre, but it isn’t. Not in the least. I really have to thank Rhinoa for picking this for our mutual challenge, because who knows when I’d have picked it up otherwise. Not because of the topic, but because I imagined it to be completely different: heavy and tragic and dark and disturbing. Which it actually is, but in different ways than I imagined.

Reading this got me thinking about whether I need to like a book’s main character to enjoy it. A book with a main character that bores or annoys me throws me of. But there is, for me, an undeniable appeal to characters as unashamedly dislikeable as Humbert Humbert. He makes no excuses for himself, no plea for sympathy, and I think that this is one of the things that hold the book together. He doesn’t ask for understanding or forgiveness. He simply tells his story. Nothing more.

I will leave you with a quote by Amy Tan, which expresses my feelings about Lolita more eloquently than I could:
I often reread passages of "Lolita" for its exquisite language. To me, "Lolita" has no message, no purpose, other than to exist as a marvel of literary creation. It has wit, intelligence and style. It pointedly makes no attempt to serve a higher moral purpose, and previous attempts by critics to find one have proven ludicrous. The annotated edition is accompanied by a brilliant afterword by Nabokov that is a lucid reminder of the pure joy of writing, its interplay with life.
Other Blog Reviews:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Maggie Reads
Book Addiction
The Inside Cover
Just Add Books
Adventures in Reading
Dolce Bellezza
Booknotes by Lisa
Trish's Reading Nook
Melody's Reading Corner

(Let me know if you've also reviewed it and I'll add a link to your post)


  1. beautiful review. This one was already on the list of "books I must read one day" but you made it sound even more interesting and intriguing. I too would have thought it to be a heavy read, but I see that there's much more to it.

  2. Yes, yes, and yes -- Lolita is amazing. Good pick!

  3. It was surprisingly good. I found out what the fuss was all about. I haven't read anything like it since. Here's mine:

  4. thanks for the great review! I have never read this one, and I've never heard a convincing reason (until now) to pick it up. But you made it sound like a very interesting book.

  5. Wonderful review, Nymeth! I haven't read this yet, although it's on my wishlist. Looks like I've to get this book soon!!!

  6. Dude, she's 12? I've read 3/4 of this book, but I remember her being 15, which is still gross but less-gross. Oh, the things your brain will do to keep you from horror. Friggin 12!

    I made it 3/4 of the way through this book and then put it down without ever thinking about it again. I know I need to finish it eventually, because WHAT HAPPENS IN THE END! But it just wasn't the right time, you know?

  7. Great review Nymeth. I have wanted to read this one for quite some time, but I've always been a little wary of the subject matter (or what I know of it). I have a difficult time really really enjoying a book if I don't like the narrator or main character, but that seems to be such an integral part of this story--seeing into the mind of someone so different and well, whatever he is. :) Maybe I'll do this one of my classics challenge...

  8. I'm really up in the air about this one. It may be a beautiful book, but I find the subject matter just so distasteful. Maybe one of these days I will pick it up.

  9. I enjoyed Lolita, but I slanted my copy to the negative. Even with the unfavorable review, my PR department didn’t want to print it. My boss went to bat for me by explaining its classic status and how the college book club was currently discussing it.

  10. This book just made it on my radar a few days ago when I discovered my library chose it for its Banned Books Club. I'm totally stoked to be reading it now that you gave it such a good review too! :-)

  11. you know what nymeth you should just review difficult books! you really are very good at that. books that have knotty problems at their heart, that are difficult to review or difficult to express one's feelings over.

    its you calling.

    i've always been interested in this book but have also been worried for obvious reasons. i've wondered, how much is it worth reading and how much of its merit is because of its literary value and how much because of its novelty and it being taboo.

    you've aleviated my doubts and perfectly put in perspective why the book is worth reading, and addressing all the other stuff that goes with the book.


  12. great review, really. I think I was the only one left who didn't know what this book was about even though it was on my list. I'm intrigued.

    Have you by any chance read AM Homes' The end of Alice? I started it but couldn't continue, couldn't detach myself, and am still to meet someone who read the book!

  13. Like many others, the subject matter has put me off this book. However, because so many people have talked about the beauty of the language (loved that quote by Amy Tan!) maybe I'll make the move to order a copy.

    Great review.

  14. I'll be reading this as part of the Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge. I already had it on my tbr list simply because it has been banned and challenged so many times. Any time I'm told I can't or shouldn't do something, it just makes me want to do it that much more. That's why I think it's funny when groups try to ban something --it is simply free publicity for the book!

  15. I remember trying to read this back when I was in college, but couldn't. And now, I really don't think I could.

    But you know what...I agree with JP! I don't know how you do it, but you have this way of putting things so exquisitely into words. Not just the "easy" stuff, but the really, really tough stuff, too.

  16. Wondeful review as always. I'm planning to finally read this next month for 'My Year of Reading Dangerously'. Everyone says it's so beautifully written, and after your review, I'm actually quite looking forward to it.

  17. Alrighty! Well this one is going straight onto the wishlist. This is one that I always thought that I really had no interest in reading. The story just didn't appeal to me from what I knew of it, but you've opened my eyes to it a bit more and the writing just sounds fantastic. I sometimes have a hard time reading a book if I detest a main characters actions...but if the writing is good enough, then it can have the complete opposite effect like you mentioned and really be a good read. Sounds like this fits into the latter category.

  18. Valentina: Thank you :) There is a lot to it that I didn't expect at all! I hope you have a good experience with it.

    shereadsbooks: It really is :)

    Chris: Thanks for the link! I'll add it to the list. And great review, btw.

    Kim: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Melody: I can't wait to read your thoughts on it :)

    raych: She's twelve when they meet and first get involved, 15 when some other stuff happens, and 17 at the end of the book. And I know - that happens to me too sometimes.

    Trish: I really think that disliking the narrator is part of what makes this story work. It would be a great pick for the classics challenge! Speaking of which, I still need to make up my mind about my list.

    Stephanie: I understand, I really do. It's not a book that will work for everyone.

    Maggie: Thanks for the link. Wow, they didn't want to print it at all? It's not like pretending the book doesn't exist will make paedophiles disappear! I do understand not being able to enjoy the book because of the subject, though.

    Becca: I look forward to reading your thoughts on it!

    JP: You're much too kind, you really are. Thank you. And you know, I wondered that myself. But I suspected that if it was just the shock value it wouldn't be such an enduring classic, and that turned out to be the case. People who pick it up for that reason alone will actually be disappointed. There isn't a single graphic sex scene in the whole book.

    Joanna: I haven't, no. But I looked it up and the amazon synopsis said it was "horribly graphic"...I think that could make a world of difference. Lolita is remarkably delicate and subtle.

    Jenclair: If you do decide to give it a try I'd love to hear your thoughts. And yes, I thought it was a great quote :)

    Lisa: It really is. People don't learn :P

    Debi: Like I was telling Stephanie, I really understand. And like I was telling JP, you spoil me with your kindness :P

    Tanabata: I can't wait to see what you think of it :)

    Chris: I didn't think I had any interest in reading it either...I'm very glad Rhinoa picked it, though. I know it sounds weird to say that a book works exactly because of how shamelessly horrible its main character is, but such is the case with this one.

  19. You did a wonderful job in expressing exactly why this book is considered a classic - while the story is disturbing, the prose is incredibly beautiful.

  20. Oh goodness, I'm with Raych on this one. Hahaha! I made it more than halfway through the book but but but couldn't make myself finish it. I mean, I know I could cheat and go over the last few pages and all but but but I just couldn't.

    But but but you made it sound like I'd definitely enjoy finishing the book altogether. Too bad my copy's now in China with a friend who borrowed it awhile back. Maybe when I get it back. Someday.

    Thing is, I've seen the movie version with Jeremy Irons in it as Humbert Humbert. I love Jeremy Irons. I know, out of topic.

  21. Yes!!! Perfectly put. I can't wait to re-read this book for the Year of Reading Dangerously. I loved it the first time through, and I'm sure the 2nd will just get better. And I read his novella, Pnin, a few months ago, and it's great too. Even more humor in that one.

  22. I have mixed feelings about reading this one. I want to on one hand, but on another, I'm worried I won't be able to handle it. From a literary perspective, I wish I had read it yesterday--from a personal one, I don't handle that particular subject matter well. I probably will read it. Eventually. Thank you for a wonderful review, Nymeth.

  23. What a beautiful review. I read Lolita sometime ago, but found it a bit disturbing. I couldn't decide if I liked it or not. But you're right, the writing is quite fascinating.

  24. Ken: Thank you :) And yes, it really is. Speaking of beautiful prose, have you read any Jeffrey Eugenides?

    Lightheaded: I saw that movie version too, actually, but so long ago that I barely remember a thing. But yeah, people have different limits and all, and I understand how this would be too much for some.

    Andi: Thanks, I will look for that novella - after this, I definitely want to read more Nabokov.

    Literary Feline: Do give it a try. I really do understand not being able to handle it, though.

    Alessandra: It definitely is a book that leaves you with mixed feelings.

  25. I am really glad you enjoyed this as much as I did. I was blown away by the writing as like you I was expecting something dark and twisted when in reality it is very different. I just finished reading Perfume by Patrick Suskind which I recommend if you haven't read it. It is again about a man who commits many crimes but doesn't appologise for them or ask forgiveness, but it is the writing that sets it apart.

  26. Rhinoa: I haven't read Perfume, no, but it's been recommended to me countless times over the years, so I really should get to it. If you were blown away by the writing in this book I am confident that you will also enjoy Middlesex. I hope I'm not wrong :P

  27. Sold! I'm headed over to paperbackswap to order myself a copy.

    BTW, I am LOVING the weekly geeks that makes people link to other reviews. LOVE IT.

  28. What a fabulous review! I especially loved how you say that the charm is in the telling and not the plot. That is what I thought was amazing about this novel, too. :-)

  29. Lisa, I love it too! It's great to be able to get different perspectives on a book so easily.

    Em: Thank you, I'm glad you liked my review :)

  30. I love reading books, but I do have a hard time with some...this one could be one. I am not sure as I haven't read it yet. I bought it a while back and I am planing on it (we all know how that goes...) and now it is in my TBR pile.

    That was a great review though, I am happy to hear that the language in the book is amazing, and the writing is worth the time. I was wondering what was so fascinating about it, so now I know.

    Happy OT travels!!! Great Review!

  31. I'm glad you inserted that quote from Amy Tan as I suspect I'm trying to read too much into it (that would be the teacher in me.:)
    What I enjoyed best about this work was the incredible writing, and I should just accept it for that. Wonderful, wonderful review. Which I'm going to link to on mine right now.

  32. Another of my all-time favorite books. Nabokov is a genius, and this is his most incredible work.

  33. Lolita is a classic by all means. Nabokov's language is beautiful and the story has a soul that compels the reader to empathise with the protagonist. The author has dealt with an unconventional and controversial subject with utmost dexterity. People who have a taste for great literature, especially from sexually conservative societies like India, must read this book.


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