You know this kind of thing is very possible and happens on a daily basis. You read it in the news and see it on TV. It’s one of those issues that everyone knows about, but does not talk about. So Vladimir Nabokov must’ve been extremely brave when he published Lolita, which revolves around middle-aged Humbert Humbert and his sexual obsession with a twelve year-old girl. I must say that Nabokov handled the subject matter beautifully and disturbingly well.
In Lolita, Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged European man who lives in America. He has had an obsession with “nymphettes” (as he calls them) since his young years, but it intensifies when he meets Dolores Haze, a twelve year-old American girl, whom he calls Lolita, or Lo. She fills all his requirements for a “nymphette,” and he makes her his ultimate goal. How far will he go to satisfy this obsession? Will he ever truly posses his Lolita?
From the start of the novel, I knew this was going to be very different form any novel I’ve ever read. First of all, the novel acts like a big psychological account of a man who is a victim of his own past and actions. Getting into it was quite an experience, because Humbert Humbert is a very smooth talker, and for a few moments you couldn’t believe he did what he did. Apart from twelve year old girls, he’s got some exquisite taste in literature, art and psychological analyses.
The use of language is impeccable and frightening at the same time. He is definitely educated and very skilled in the art of persuasion. Sometimes I almost sympathise with Humbert and his urges he cannot control, which just goes to show how dangerous words can be. Yes, he may be educated and seem to care about his Lolita, but he is in fact a monster and a master of manipulation.
The language, how flowery it may be, does get too much. There are still some paragraphs that don’t make much sense to me. This doesn’t really affect the overall essence of the book, and the meaning still comes through clearly, it’s just difficult to get past some phrases. It’s not like much is happening, as the action is pretty slow at times, but this alienation through language (especially when he uses copious amounts of French) that just makes me want to punch him; which in retrospect is probably exactly what Nabokov wanted.
Some might also complain that, apart from the lack of action, there is no real meaning for the story. There is no real moral lesson to be learnt from this story, but according to Nabokov in the afterword that is exactly the point. Lolita is a novel of aesthetic. It’s more social commentary than anything else.
Humbert Humbert, through his words, actions and reactions construct this almost perfect world where he is able to completely psychoanalyse anybody around him. He shows us that he is in control of this world he inhabits; at least, he thinks he is. Slowly, but surely, throughout the narrative one gets the feeling that he is not exactly the trustworthy narrator that he makes out to be. His name should already be an indication of that, never mind his past. Initially one doesn’t take much note of the aliases he gives certain places and landmarks, but as his world eventually disintegrates, his ability to be subtle in his aliases disappear (at one point he calls one place he stays at “Insomnia Lodge”).
The end of the novel shows the complete decimation of his world and how his obsession took control of his life. Now that his quest is complete, he has nothing else. It wouldn’t even matter to him if he died. The power of obsession to destroy your life is immense and should not be underestimated; it only causes pain and destruction. There’s a lesson for you if you wanted it.
Bottom Line: Apart from the overbearing flowery and technical language use, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a psychoanalytical treat for the soul. What I like about it most is how it illustrates the devastating and frightening power of language.
4 Scandalous Apples and a helluva Road Trip