Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

June 27, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

When a bestselling author recommends you a book (other than his/her own), you don’t question — you read.  That’s what happened to me with Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

The lecturer in my narrative writing class is a pretty successful author according to most measures (international bestseller, million dollar advance, etc) and so when he/she said he/she reads Lolita once a year (and every time he/she takes something new away from it), that got me very intrigued.  Just what is it about this controversial book that makes it so good?

I finished reading Lolita one early sleepless morning in Hyderabad (while travelling in India).  It’s hard for me to know where to begin with this book.  Yes, the protagonist and the narrator is, essentially, a pedophile, and he does succeed in getting up to plenty of unspeakable stuff in the book.  But at the same time, it is so innovative, so compelling, and so utterly hilarious that I couldn’t stop reading it and laughing.

Lolita is such a strange book in so many ways.  It’s a fake memoir that feels frighteningly authentic, with a foreword and an afterword (in my post -1956 edition, anyway), no less.  The narrator is hugely unreliable (we are completely at his mercy) and has a wicked sense of humour, but also an acute self-awareness of the monster that he is and the uncontrollable urge he possesses.  The young girl (or “nymphet”, as the narrator likes to call them) is an absolute tease that makes you almost sympathize with the pedophile.

Nabokov has a way with words.  His writing is relatively easy to read and has this compulsive flow to it.  He’s confident enough to throw in the occasional word that has me scrambling for the dictionary but it’s not a contrived use and I never find fault with the use of that word in its particular context.  What freaked me out most about this book was that Nabokov (who is Russian) wrote it in English.  How can someone write so brilliantly in a language that is not even his native tongue?

I enjoyed Lolita a lot.  Not only because it was so well written, but because it was so devilishly funny and the story itself packed a punch.  I must say I enjoyed the first half more than the second half because the narrator’s distinctive voice does begin to tire a little towards the end and especially in the final part when it becomes less funny and more serious and self-reflective.  The ending does tie up nicely and even gave me the chills, but it sure took its time getting there.

I don’t think I’ll read Lolita once a year (there’s too many other books I want to read) but I have no doubt I’ll go back to it at some stage later in life.  Of course, the book had difficulty getting published back in the 1950s and was criticised due to its subject matter, but it’s interesting to think how a book like this would be perceived had it been published now, when our awareness of all this “stuff” is more out in the open.

4.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: I have not see either film version, though I am very tempted now.]