After seeing that a survey of NY Times book critics had named Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, as the best work of fiction of the past 100 years, and knowing that I had heard Nabokov mentioned in song and that a band I like called Clare Quilty was named after a character in the book, how could I resist? And that sort of sums up our narrator, Humbert Humbert, who is obsessed with young girls (whom he refers to as “nymphets”).
Nabokov is a good writer – that many critics can’t be wrong. However, the most striking thing about this novel is not Nabokov’s writing ability, but rather that the book was first published in 1955 in France and then in 1958 in the U.S. The central point of the story is Humbert Humbert’s fixation on young girls, and eventually on one in particular, Dolores Haze (whom he nicknames “Lolita”). While that concept may not seem particularly shocking today, I suspect it was as controversial as just about anything you could come up with during that era. What a brave, gutsy venture by Nabokov.
Without giving the details of the story away (as if there’s anyone other than me who hadn’t read this before), suffice it to say that the things our narrator does to get close to Lolita are astounding. And even more astounding is that as he rejiggers his entire life to be near her, the reader feels perversely sympathetic to him — he is our protagonist. Yet stepping back, objectively, he is a disgusting human being who should be entitled to no feelings from us other than disgust, hatred, and anger. And I imagine that is the beauty of the book and the reason the critics swoon over it — that Nabokov can essentially trick the reader into having feelings for this monster.
I honestly had a little bit of a struggle tracking the storyline here, knowing where our characters were and where they were going, but it didn’t really bother me. I was turning pages as fast as I could to see where things were going. And not — I repeat NOT — because I was excited to read some filthy pedophilic erotica, but rather because I was absolutely fascinated by this character (Humbert Humbert, not Lolita). And the interesting thing to me is that there isn’t any “filth” in this book. There’s conceptual filth, but not literal filth — there are no sex scenes per se, although conjugal relations are talked about — and so none of the words themselves are “dirty.” And as I said before, it’s amazing how wrapped up you can get in such offensive subject matter without being offended, because of Nabokov’s gift for telling the tale through the eyes of our narrator.
I personally wouldn’t call this the best work of fiction of the last 100 years, but hey — I’m not a qualified critic. I will say, though, that I feel a great sense of value and reward as I check the box on having read this one.
Update: When we posted this, we didn’t know that Lolita was published on this date in 1958 nor did we know that it was “first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in the first three weeks of publication.”