BY SEAN CLARK
This book has been chosen as a Great Read.
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958
Best ebook deal: Public library
This won’t be a full review, as there is nothing to be said about this book that hasn’t already been said (in fact, you can read me gush about it in this post). However if you haven’t read Lolita, you should drop whatever you’re doing and go pick it up (or download it), then read it over the weekend. Nabokov’s writing, from the language and syntax, to plot development and pacing, characterization and thematic webs, is as masterful as can be.
Essentially about Humbert Humbert, a middle aged Parisian pedophile, as he searches for nymphets to replace his childhood crush and finds the ultimate incarnation of that ideal in the daughter of his New England landlady, Lolita tackles some big themes in very unconventional ways. These themes are deeply rooted in the id, yet as Humbert weaves his narrative web, the archetypical and clichéd ideas he tackles take on new, if sinister, light.
Humbert Humbert is easily the most complex character I’ve come across ever. For those who haven’t read the book, it’s easy to label him a creepy pedophile, cast him aside, and leave it at that. Indeed, many people I’ve talked to who haven’t read the book usually have some response such as, “Why would I want to read a book about a pederast?” If you’ve read the book, you know that’s a stupid question. For starters, the writing is so well done it’s almost perfect, and Humbert (and Nabokov) are downright enchanting, putting a spell over the reader just as Humbert ensnared his beloved. Read the opening paragraph, it’s as good a beginning as there can be:
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. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
Nabokov is wily though, and he knows this alone cannot carry a book (despite many efforts by very good writers, he is right), so halfway through, once Humbert has entranced you and just before the narrative line could potentially slacken, he changes gears and finishes the book quite differently. With a snap of his fingers he changes the setting, the pace, the mood. It’s brilliant, it’s entertaining, and you should read it. Then you should read it again.