Columns > Published on February 25th, 2014

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.)

About the author

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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