Awe and exhilaration—along with heartbreak and mordant wit—abound in Lolita, Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America. Most of all, it is a meditation on love—love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul,” Humbert Humbert begins as he relates his memoirs. Those lines will forever be burned into my memory. The sickness, the debauchery, and yet… How can I find him even remotely likeable? Yet I did and do, to some extent.
He’s the classic example of the unreliable narrator in all his repulsive glory. The character Nabokov has fooled many into sympathizing with for over fifty years. How fascinating it was to read from his perspective, yet try to piece together what’s truly happening with Lolita and her mental state! Even ignoring the beauty of Nabokov’s writing, just delving into the mind of our perverse main character, while an utterly sickening experience, is absolutely fascinating from a psychological perspective. How he legitimizes his behavior, how he characterizes the people and places around him… It gives us so much insight into Humbert Humbert himself. And while we all do realize that ultimately he is a disgusting pedophile who took advantage of his situation for his physical needs, we are pleaded with to try and understand him. And so many of us fall for it.
In fact, I can’t seem to completely demonize him, and it makes my skin crawl realizing it.
Maybe it was Nabokov’s absolutely stunning writing that helps. I highlighted so many passages just to be able to reread them later to truly appreciate his weaving of the English language. And English isn’t even his native tongue! It may have been, too, the childhood drawbacks to my own travels across the United States. But ultimately, it had to be his twinges of remorse that come late in the novel, the realizations of the harm he inflicted. From that, I can’t see him as a complete sociopath.
I suppose one can understand from my above statements that I felt the novel deserves its status in the TIME Top 100. There are a few points on which forced me to dock half a star, however.
I realize I can interpret some of the meaning from context clues, but the interspersed French used throughout the novel began to frustrate me as someone who neither understands nor can even pronounce the language. I wonder if it would have added anything at all to the story for me to be fluent? Additionally, I felt Nabokov in some places went a little farther than I liked in describing the places they traveled to. I recall one chapter early in the second part of the novel that lingered for what seemed like forever on many different travel destinations and the trivial events that occurred at each. Wonderful prose can only sustain me so long in such affairs; I felt as if I had to trudge through a few parts that followed that sort of vein, which did bother me some.
A side note to end this review: I did follow along with an eBook while listening to the audiobook narrated by Jeremy Irons. Irons does an absolutely FANTASTIC job with this narration. I don’t think reading the book would have been nearly the same experience without his voice guiding the way. (Nor would have taken me nearly as long, but I digress.)