Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov | Teen Ink

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

December 12, 2015
By TheBibliophile GOLD, La Canada, California
TheBibliophile GOLD, La Canada, California
12 articles 0 photos 3 comments

Favorite Quote:
"I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see that you are unarmed"- William Shakespeare

As a child, the experience of reading a brilliant book was a simple one- I would become enraptured by the book I was reading, torn between trying to extrapolate my reading process for as long as possible, and wanting to devour it all at once like it was a chocolate bar. The characters would become my friends, and I would feel content to inhabit the world of the book for as long as I could.

My experience reading “Lolita,” often hailed as the greatest novel in the English language, was so far removed from my childhood reading experiences that it doubled the poignancy of Nabokov’s novel. Let me start by saying that this novel was, without a doubt, brilliant. Nabokov’s mastery, one might even call it wizardry, of the English language, is incomparable. The narrative is more poetry than prose, and there is something exultant about Humbert Humbert, our “protagonist’s” voice. It was as bizarre as it was wonderful, like watching the writhing of some newly discovered exotic snake.

Beneath the layers of artistry, however, was the uncomfortable reality of the content. The novel, in case you were not aware, is presented as the memoirs of Humbert Humbert, a European literature professor in his late 30s, whose sexually unfulfilled childhood romance has left him obsessed with a certain class of pre-adolescent girls, referred to by the narrator, as “nymphets.”  When he encounters the 12-year-old Dolores Haze, whom he names “Lolita” in his head, his obsession turn solely to her, and, after becoming her stepfather, he begins a sexual relationship with her.

The novel’s opening line demonstrates the almost jarring clash between the poeticism of Humbert’s language and the horrific actions about which he speaks. “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.” The novel opens on this exuberant and impassioned declaration, and the energy only mounts from here.

I was enraptured, fascinated, delighted by the language, but at the same time, I felt deeply disturbed. The novel forced me to live inside the head of Humbert Humbert, the most unreliable of all unreliable narrators, and listen to accounts of his depravity. What disturbed me more than the acts themselves was the fact that listening to Humbert, I almost agreed with him. His voice lulled me into a trance and carried me on some kind of wave, it felt like listening to music. But then I would realise that he was talking about committing acts of grotesque paraphilia- incest, paedophilia, rape- and here I was sympathising with him.

Other times, his demeanour and obsessiveness would terrify me outright. One night, I had to put the book down and cry silently, because I was so tired of inhabiting the depraved recesses of Humbert’s mind. Then I went straight back to reading. Oh yes, Nabokov, who had used every tool in the shed to create as debauched and perverted novel as possible, had done so in a way that had me hooked.

Some of the most heartbreaking parts of the novel were the ones where Nabokov let the layers of heady language fall away, describing Lolita crying herself to sleep, or Humbert’s realisation of how completely he had ravaged a girl’s childhood. These moments felt like you had suddenly come up for air after a long period of submersion- they were sharp, incisive, painful, and suddenly the smokescreen of the “sexually provocative young girl” that “Lolita” has now come to mean, blew away and left you with what there really was- a madman and a child rape victim, each pathetic and desolate in his or her own way.

Humbert Humbert is never a character I will want as a friend, and I’ll admit, I cried a little more after finishing Lolita. My heart had broken into 3 pieces. One for Lo, who I felt so sad for, this poor child who has been glorified into some kind of “kink” icon. Another for Humbert, depraved paedophile, linguistic magician, who I could not help but pity. And a third piece for myself. I was exhausted by and afraid of the time I had been held hostage by Humbert’s mind, of the manipulations and mirages my mind had subjected itself to, and I felt like I had survived a shipwreck.

That’s never how I felt when I finished an Enid Blyton or a Horrible Histories or any other staple childhood favourite. I suppose that as I navigated this world of a child’s loss of innocence in the most extreme and awful sense, I finally came to terms with my own- a far lesser, much more natural loss of innocence, but a palpable loss nonetheless.

This is a novel you have to read. Nabokov is an indisputable genius, whose love-letter to the English language cannot fail to thrill you, alarm you, disgust you, enthrall you. I won’t say you’ll enjoy this novel- I certainly did not enjoy it- but it will be unlike any other reading experience you have ever had, and although it’s dangerous, I recommend everyone try it at least once.

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