Lolita—Never have I wanted to get through to the end of a book so quickly. Written by Vladimir Nabokov and published in 1955, this novel is considered one of the greatest feats in English literature. I attempted to read it in my 20s but didn’t get far. A cynical, unreliable narrator, his incessant volubility and a dearth of dialogue, and the heavy, seemingly perilous themes—none of it suited my reading tastes. And I think it was for these same reasons I felt driven to finish the thing over just the past couple days—this beguiling, manipulative, exhausting literary masterwork.
It’s not so much the hebephilia, incest, violence and abuse that makes it a difficult read but the deep sadness of the—in several ways—sick narrator, Humbert Humbert. Needless to say, the hebephilia, incest, violence and abuse is what should shock the reader, perhaps even into a moral dilemma, as to whether or not to continue reading it all, and yet Nabokov, through that outwardly sophisticated and often humorous protagonist, charms us into seeing this story through to its tragic end, and even at times makes us feel somehow complicit in Humbert’s violations.
What a book. Reading it brought to mind Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, just a couple times, not so much the content or themes but the pace, and the experience of prose tripping over prose. But then with all the pleonasms, the obfuscation, the literary subterfuge! I’ve never read anything quite like Lolita.
It’s incredible that Nabokov, who grew up in Russia and learned French and English as second and third languages, wrote one of the greatest novels in English. And then later went on to translate it into Russian. Something else I found interesting, in the novel, was the less prominent theme of exile, which in Humbert’s case was self-exile and in Lolita’s forced exile. Nabokov emigrated to the U.S. and would’ve incorporated some of that into Humbert, who leaves Lolita no real choice but to accompany him for months on end, driving from state to state and hotel to hotel. Whatever morals they may have adhered to in their own societies no longer stick; they’re on the road and alienated, detached from morality—free as captives, each to the other, in their self-destruction that will eventually do just that, destroy them. It's when Humbert finally stops, his exile near its end and his hands bloody and his car abandoned in a cow pasture, that he/Nabokov gives us one of the most powerful pieces of the book, as Humbert stares down into a valley at a not too distant mining town:
Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic - one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord. ― Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita