Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book Review: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

Four stars out of Five.

Set in post-War United States, this story recounts the obsession of a European immigrant with adolescent girls, and Lolita in particular. Nabokov writes in the first person as the protagonist Humbert Humbert is awaiting trial for pederasty and murder. The account is a memoir of Humbert as he pursues the affection of Lolita the daughter of his landlady, taking the girl on a cross-country trip, engaging in illicit behavior and eventually the murder of her paramour.

I read this book because it’s on nearly every list of the best books of the 20th century and I had no idea what to expect.  In order to make a fair judgement since the topic is beyond controversial I purposely read no formal reviews of the book prior to starting. The book is almost beyond description.

On the one hand, the primary theme-- pedophilia-- is a contemptibly bad notion to incorporate as the primary topic of an entire novel, but Nabokov seems to have purposely chosen such a theme for the challenge of constructing a readable full-length novel on a tough subject. He succeeds in spades.

Nabokov exhibits his mastery of language, playing with words and phrases to entertain the reader, which is quite impressive given that Lolita is his first novel written in English, a language he learned as an adult.  Nabokov expounds on the difference between European continental lifestyle versus the United States middle-class style. Darkly comical, Humbert relates his opinion of the fatuity and lack of couth in America, all while engaging in the most vile acts imaginable.

Nabokov uses this novel as a vehicle to mock psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Humbert misleads psychiatrists and, just for fun, consciously confirms their biases toward unproven hypotheses about psychopathology. Another theme is the ease with which Humbert, a good-looking man of means, can easily skirt laws and conventions of behavior by virtue of his appearance.

Much of the book traces the travels of Humbert and Lolita across the United States by car, making this a road story of sorts. He describes the people and places from Connecticut through the Midwest and mountains and out to California.

Lolita, the novel, defies description. Nabokov seems to be attempting to make Humbert a sympathetic character but in the end Humbert becomes self-loathing, recognizing his flaws and the damage he has done to Lolita.

For the writing style and language this is among the best books written.   Recommended.


Hindi SMS said...

The first time when I heard about the book was when I was in school, but never had a chance to read it through, albeit in bits and pieces from the school library collection. Now after so many years reading and examining one of toughest novels like Lolita was quiet interesting. To be able to say that for the sake of love if one is wanting to demolishing one's own set of values, morals and the stated norms of love that one grew up feeling comfortable in is, strictly speaking, something of a no-no. Needless to say, it was no less than a struggle to deal with what the novel has to offer me. Above all else, Lolita is a deeply felt and a profound novel dealing with the controversial subject of illicit or illegal love: of a middle-aged literature professor Humbert Humbert obsessed with the 12-year-old lady by name Dolores Haze.

Naya Saal said...

Lolita is a classic by all means. Nabokov's language is beautiful and the story has a soul that compels the reader to empathise with the protagonist. The author has dealt with an unconventional and controversial subject with utmost dexterity. People who have a taste for great literature, especially from sexually conservative societies like India, must read this book.