Culling The Classics: Lolita

Fans of "Culling The Classics"—yes, all seven of you—may recall the trouble I got into the last time I reviewed a Russian work, when two lovely commenters from the Motherland lambasted me for not sufficiently appreciating the bulk of their literature. I did love Anna Karenina, though, so I thought perhaps I would give the Ruskies another go. Ready your molotov cocktails...

The Book

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (Olympia Press, 1955)

The Numbers

If you can't even stand to think about a middle-aged man having sex with a 12 year old...don't even bother.

Though frequently among the most banned books in many countries, considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century; inspired the NYT best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran, as well as two major motion pictures, one by celebrated director Stanley Kubrick; Goodreads rating of 3.85; #4 (board) and #34 (readers) on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list.

The Spoiler-Free Skinny

It's your classic story of guy meets girl, guy marries girl's mother, girl's mother dies, guy takes girl on cross-country sexual escapade. Oh, and he's pushing 40, while she's only 12. Did I mention that? Yeah, it's kind of an important detail.

You'll Love It

The Russians! So flowery, so detailed, so willing to tackle extremely sensitive subjects without blushing. Lolita was actually written in English and then translated later into Russian, so these are the exact sensitive flowery details that Nabokov was going for.

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.

That's the opening of Chapter 1; it only gets more flowery, more detailed, more sensitive from there. Oh, and more depraved. Wait, this was supposed to be what you would like about this book...?

Umm, well, the Russians! Some people like this stuff apparently.

You'll Loathe It*

Let me be absolutely clear about two things: 1) my dislike for this book did not stem specifically from the whole hebephilia aspect (see note below), but 2) that doesn't make me a pervert or anything. To be fair, there isn't really much explicit sex in the book, just TONS of implied terribleness. If you can't even stand to think about a middle-aged man having sex with a 12 year old, though, don't even bother. You also might not be a fan of the diary conceit; the foreword lets readers know right off the bat that the narrator, Humbert Humbert, died in prison while awaiting trial. You also also might not be able to take seriously any book whose narrator is called "Humbert Humbert."

Read It Or Leave It?

This book is fucked up. Am I allowed to use "fucked up" on LitReactor? I hope so, because this book is fucked up. It's a tough call on the "Read It Or Leave It?" though, because there's certainly some good and some bad here. Again, if you can't stand 300+ pages of a creepy old guy being madly in love with a pre-teen, then go no further. However, if that doesn't put you off, you might not have trouble connecting with a book whose narrator is so innocently vile. HH mostly doesn't see himself as a criminal, but as the victim of an insatiable love and lust towards his "nymphet," as he calls Lolita. It's his love for her, after all, that compels him to drug her with the aim of raping her in her sleep!

I was still firmly resolved to pursue my policy of sparing her purity by operating only in the stealth of night, only upon a completely anesthetized little nude.

Oh, well in that case...

Obviously Lolita has a tremendously unique style and point of view, which is almost certainly why so many people love it. HH may be a terrible human being, but he's foremost an interesting human being, at times an unreliable narrator pleading his case to both a fictional jury and the reader. It's only due to a matter of taste that I didn't very much enjoy the book; it's a tremendous success of a first-person tale of immorality and regret. Lolita is almost certainly the precursor to all of Chuck Palahniuk's work, as well as many other writers whose goal is to shock their audience (though very few have Nabokov's deft hand at prose). There is a poetic eroticism to the book's first half, and a too-familiar despondency to the second half. It's up to you whether you consider that appealing.

Final Verdict

I honestly think that Lolita is skippable (or at least watch the Kubrick film if you're just interested in the story, though that version changed much), but I wouldn't blame die-hard lit readers who want to check this one out for themselves. I would say give the first five chapters, only about 20 pages, a chance. By then you'll know if you find Humbert Humbert interesting, annoying, detestable, relatable, or all of the above.

(*Note: Personally, I find the manner in which this story is told—namely that an older white gentleman not only scoops up a young girl and carries her away, but also removes all agency from her life and strips all her thought and emotion from his narrative—to be more despicable than a fictional affair with a "nymphet." To me, this book is tyrannical and misogynistic, and Lolita is nothing more than an object for the male gaze. Of course, that's a bit deeper than I usually go with my CTC reviews. I'm sure there are arguments out there that would contend that Nabokov's presentation of the villainous Humbert Humbert is ironic. Still, if that's true, then I don't think the man's an especially good ironist.)

Part Number:
Brian McGackin

Column by Brian McGackin

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines February 25, 2014 - 12:58pm

Nabokov's deft hand at prose...

Read Lolita for this reason alone. Lolita should be mandatory reading for all writers, and since this is a site for writers, I can say that. There is absolutely nothing like reading Lolita for the first time--I was conflicted and swept up immediately. 

.'s picture
. February 25, 2014 - 1:06pm

Only a writer with the skill that Nabokov posseses could have wrote this book tastefully. Have it on your book shelf. 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing February 25, 2014 - 2:25pm

LOLITA is one of my favorite books in the world. The first half is hilarious, the second heartbreaking. The Kubrick film is fun, but it ain't the novel at all. That said, Peter Sellers is the perfect Quilty.

This is a novel for language lovers.


Shannon Barber's picture
Shannon Barber from Seattle is reading Paradoxia: A Predators Diary by Lydia Lunch February 25, 2014 - 4:05pm

I love Lolita. Nabokov used language so masterfully that for me as a reader he rendered the grossness of the narrator to something I notice as a reader but I'm not hung up on it. There is a section in the beginning of the book that is just so gorgeous I get chills when I read it.

I love a lot of Nabokov's other work as well but to me Lolita just is the absolute masterwork of language. I really wish I could read it in the original language but the translation done by his son is amazing.

Brian McGackin's picture
Brian McGackin from NJ/LA is reading Between the World and Me February 25, 2014 - 5:28pm

Shannon, lots of people think that Lolita is a translation, but Nabokov actually wrote it in English first and then translated it into Russian himself later. However, one of the books that Dmitri Nabokov translated of his father's was The Enchanter, a precursor to Lolita that Vladimir wrote in 1939, which is probably why there is confusion about the book's original language. Dmitri didn't translate The Enchanter until the 1980s, though, and it was never published anywhere before then.

Shannon Barber's picture
Shannon Barber from Seattle is reading Paradoxia: A Predators Diary by Lydia Lunch February 25, 2014 - 6:20pm

Really? I had no idea. All my editions say translation. Thank you for telling me that it makes me feel better that I can't speak or read Russian. I'm going to check out two editions I have to see what they say about that and why they differ. 

Kristin McCandless's picture
Kristin McCandless from Berkeley February 25, 2014 - 7:42pm

I've yet to find a book that beats Lolita. An old lady yelled at me on a plane once when she saw me reading it. She hadn't read it of course, and was simply so disgusted by the story line that she had built up this huge hate for Nabokov and his work. I find this type of reader (?) is where most of the criticism comes from.

But I think those who see literature as an art form would have a difficult time knocking a book with such elegant prose, complex word play, and overall beauty. This is not a speed read for shallow entertainment. It takes effort to pick up on Nabokov's marvelously crafted intricacies, and the fact that I will endlessly read and reread such a horrifying narrator's words is proof enough that Lolita is a masterpiece.

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines February 27, 2014 - 9:31am

 I find this type of reader (?) is where most of the criticism comes from.