Lolita. A book infamous in popular culture for being a pornographic account of a paedophile and his obsession with the eponymous Lolita. It’s one of those books that one has to at least try reading within their lifetime, here prompted, yet again, by university reading lists. I’ll admit, I’ve been thinking about how to word this review throughout my reading, as it covers a subject that is, obviously, quite taboo in polite company and if my wording is even a little out then I imagine I will be attracting several angry comments; if in doing so I seem a bit overly polite or obvious about points then that’s the reason why and I apologise.
So, on to the review itself. The obvious place to begin would be the book’s unsavoury subject and the main perpetrator of it. Our narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a tricky protagonist to define for one main reason: he’s incredibly unsympathetic, due to the nature of what he does to Lolita and the kind of thoughts he has regarding young girls, but at the same time he is incredibly charming and an interesting voice to read. This odd balance between distaste and being charmed does make reading this uncomfortable; for instance, there may be several pages that paint a beautiful picture of a scene in painstaking detail, before he reminds the reader quite abruptly that underneath the educated, artistic exterior there is something very wrong with him. To be fair to the book, the actual hints of sexual acts and paedophilia are buried beneath numerous academic references to works by Joyce, Proust, Freud and many others, so only a scholar/someone who reads very widely or someone with a heavily footnoted copy (including myself) will actually understand most of what would count as “pornographic”; if you don’t have the qualities that would allow you to see the references for what they are, the book is surprisingly light in terms of pornographic content. If I’m discussing the theme of paedophilia, then I need to look at the subject of this obsessive lust, Humbert’s “nymphet” Lolita, otherwise known as Dolores Haze. This is a trickier character to get a grip on than Humbert, simply because all the information provided about Lolita is provided to the reader by Humbert who is undoubtedly an unreliable narrator in this respect. The main example of this is that she is predominantly described in a way that highlights whatever sexuality a twelve-year-old girl is likely to possess, even going so far as to heavily imply that Lolita was the seducer in the relationship; obviously this is an uncomfortable idea to associate with a pubescent girl, but at the same time is very similar to a common defence against rape, namely that the victim wanted or encouraged it. Other than the overt sexuality which is debatable, she seems to be your average pubescent girl who is unfortunate enough to have had her childhood abruptly ended by an adult who abused his position of care.
The other main thing that I have yet to talk about is the actual writing. It is fantastic. The descriptions are incredibly evocative, the literary references are all there for a reason and tighten the various different themes or motifs, and those motifs are threaded throughout the entire narrative. There were only two points that I personally found irritating, if only because they didn’t help with comprehension at all. The first thing was the insertion of various phrases in various European languages, mostly French; whatever language skills I picked up in high school and college are rather patchy, so if I hadn’t had the footnotes available in my edition of the book I would have really struggled. The second annoyance was that occasionally when foreign phrases are used in dialogue, they’re written phonetically in order to convey a poor accent, leading to instances where “voulez-vous boire?” is written as “woolly-woo-boo-are?”. If you could connect those two phrases together then good for you, but I imagine that the average reader is going to be as absolutely confused as I was when reading that.
A fantastically well-written account of an uncomfortable if interesting subject, I would recommend this highly. 4/5
Next review: The Same Sea As Every Summer by Esther Tusquets.