Reading List: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

[This post definitely contains SPOILERS]

“Lolita, light of my life,
fire of my loins.
My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta”

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was the perfect choice for my reading list because it deals with a very unique point of view. It perfectly utilizes an unreliable narrator and deals with a guilt that eats the main character alive. I love it. And of course, it is a classic. People have been telling me to read this book for years and I don’t know what ever kept me from starting. I never had a problem with reading a book from a pedophile’s point of view. It’s fiction, and I have made peace with that. Although, after reading, I do see why some people should not read this book. It gets a bit more graphic than I was expecting.

There are parts of this book that completely blew me away, and parts that left me a little underwhelmed. When it comes to the narrative style, the writing itself, I am astounded. I am in love. I am captivated and moved. But narrative arc and story structure? I was a little let down.

First off, the narrative choices of this story were perfect. We have an adult male reflecting on his life in a story, a “memoir”, that he is writing to the court. So right away we know he has been charged of a crime and is on trial, and this is his plea for innocence, or at least his side of the story. But we aren’t sure for what–his admitted pedophilia? or something else? (Spoiler: it’s for murder, but not who you think!) Awesome. Thus, everything we are given is given through his interpretation, what he see, feels, and experiences. And Humbert Humbert is very clearly insane. It is an incredible way to tell this story because it creates a lens through which we view everything, resulting in the extremely uncomfortable and guilty feelings ones feels when reading this book.

At times, because Humbert justifies everything to us so well, finding reason and explanation for everything he does, we start to sympathize with him. But what is so amazing about Nabokov’s writing is that just when one starts to feel like a horrible person for sort of rooting for a pedophile, Humbert launches into a segment so depraved, so horrible and so unsympathetic that the reader realizes that this man is insane—he is a monster. One passage that really struck me was his monologue about why Lolita can never leave him—a perfect example of the psychological torture and brain washing that keeps Lolita with him for so long. Truly disgusting.  Truly amazing.

What is also really incredible is toward the end of the story, both the reader and Humbert realize that we never really get to know Lolita. The reader is kept at a distance from her by Humbert who only tells us what he knows, and he admits that he never really knew Lolita beyond what she was to him—an object of intense sexual desire. This is a really amazing moment in the story because you suddenly become aware of how manipulated you’ve been over the course of the book.  You also realize that this was about relationships all along, and the distinct lack of one between Humbert and Lolita. He makes it out to be such a dramatic love story, but in fact there is nothing between them. There is almost a father-daughter relationship, but even that is shot down when each time something bad happens to Lolita, Humbert is less worried about her safety and more concerned with getting to her to tell her not to blab.

I think the best parts of this book are the moments when the reader realizes just how insane Humbert Humbert really is after being won over to his side. These are the ravings of a mad man. But then, somehow, he pulls you right back in.

What is also very wonderful about this book is how beautifully Nabokov plays with the reader’s expectations. I admit, I honestly believed that this book would end with Humbert killing Lolita out of insanity and intense passion, greed, guilt, etc. But Nabokov does not do this. Instead, he totally calls the reader out on expecting Humbert to shoot Lolita at the perfect moment. He once again breaks the fourth wall (as he does many times in this book) and tells us straight away that it seems like a poetic thing to do, but at that moment never even crossed Humbert’s mind. He plays with these expectations, dashes them, and I guess takes a much more realistic route in the way Lolita’s life and Humbert’s insanity plays out.

What I found frustrating about this book was the structure. It is a “memoir” of a mad man, relaying his life beat by beat and that doesn’t always prove the best way to push the story forward. There were times where I was almost bored of the place they were sitting, staying, or er…that other thing they did all the time, though not on the page. This prolonged evaluation of every moment, every place, every action makes this book very dense–and though it frustrates me, I understand and appreciate it because we have to spend this much time with Humbert to really sympathize with him like we do.

I also wanted there to be some grand climax of sorts, some eruption of his madness. And in a way, there was (though not how I was hoping) when he goes off at the end to kill the man who helped Lolita escape from him. Now, I realize how perfectly this plays into the themes of the story, how empty this murder felt in the grand scheme of things.  By this time, we’ve already reconnected with a very pregnant and married (at 17!) Lolita, so everything after that feels unnecessary to the reader, but not to Humbert. I can appreciate this ending, with Humbert going to kill this man, Quilty, because in Humbert’s eyes this man stole her innocence.  It is thematically beautiful. Humbert and Quilty both defile Lolita in the same way, but to Humbert it was only okay when he did it because he loves Lolita, and Quilty clearly does not. But Humbert going after and killing Quilty is also very symbolic of him going after the part of himself that hurt Lolita, that stole her childhood. Although it frustrated me when I read it, even let me down a little, the more I think about it, the more I love, appreciate and am awed by it.

I really appreciate this book. I was greatly affected by it in many ways. I felt dirty, so very dirty, while I read it, but also in complete and utter awe of what it accomplishes. But I also felt very human because of how honest I had to be with myself about what I was reading, and how horrible it made me feel.

I would say this is a must read for anyone who appreciates a strong narrator and the sensitive handling of a very uncomfortable subject. But it’s probably a pass for anyone who can’t look past the content of a book and appreciate what phenomenal things are being done with it.

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