“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
This book, you guys. This book. I have honestly never read anything quite like it in a lifetime of reading and I seriously doubt I’ll read anything like it ever again. Russian literature, man.
So I’m pretty sure that by now nearly everyone has a dim idea of what Lolita is about; the name has become so embedded in pop culture that it’s almost impossible not to. This is a novel with a protagonist who is unquestionably a paedophile, a character whose skill with language twists his story into a romance, whose narrative is built on a singular vision of events that unfold because this novel challenges the reader’s perception of events and Humbert Humbert needs you to believe him. As the reader we are the judge, the jury and the verdict and this is the foundation of Lolita: Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator.
The novel tells the tale of Humbert Humbert, a European who moves to America for a job, renting a room from a woman with a young daughter he becomes immediately infatuated with. Our narrator’s story is interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood; the romance he had with another girl as a child that he believes is the foundation for his attraction to ‘nymphets’ – young girls who possess an undefinable aura of sexuality that call to men. It is a story about how paedophiles groom their victims, how they isolate them from the world. It is a story in which the victim’s voice bleeds out from the cracks in Humbert Humbert’s narrative; as he romanticises the abuse he inflicts on her, he also describes the nights she spends sobbing.
The characters are brilliantly written. Humbert is a terrible, awful person who uses his education and social status to mask his depravity. He is so successful at blending in that no-one even comes close to guessing the true nature of his relationship with his charge except, notably, other paedophiles. Lolita, or Dolores (Dolly as a nickname) is a hard, broken girl who pretty much broke my heart. It is a deliberate technique in the writing that Humbert almost never refers to her by her real name, instead emphasising the sensuality he believes she exudes to seduce him over and over again.
This isn’t the kind of novel anyone could pick up and enjoy; the subject matter sits heavily on you for hours after reading. Lolita is however a book that should be read because it is so extraordinary.
A Twentieth Century Classic