I first started reading at the age of 21. Some might say a late bloomer, others a video-game addicted youth.
Whatever the reasons, moving to Canada was a fresh start for me, and I wanted to use that opportunity to develop some new, preferably good, habits; thus reading.
For my flight, I took along Animal Farm by George Orwell, but for an 8-hour flight, it didn’t last long.
Upon arriving in my hostel, I asked a few people there what I should read next and where I could find them.
This led me on an adventure to Toronto’s infamous BMV bookstores. These are second-hand bookstores that have taken over the city, and put Borders out of business, although that’s mostly their own fault.
Anyway, we aren’t here to talk economics.
When I went in, there was a display showing some of the most controversial books ever written. In prime position was Lolita.
I thought to myself, I’ve only read one book to this point, so ‘how controversial can a book really be?’
I consumed the whole thing in just two days. Not bad for someone who never reads.
But it wasn’t my grit and determination that got me through – it was author Vladimir Nabokov and his excellent writing.
How can a book so provocative be so romantic?
That’s where the introduction of the unreliable narrator, Humbert Humbert comes in.
Lolita focuses on a middle-aged professor known as ‘Humbert Humbert’, who takes his obsession with 12-year-old Dolores Haze to sickening heights.
After becoming her step-father, he then becomes sexually involved with her, thus creating her pet name ‘Lolita’.
Written in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov first introduced Lolita into the world, via the English language. He later translated it to Russian himself in 1967.
Despite the controversial nature surrounding this book, Lolita is often considered to be a classic, often ending up on many notable Top-Ten lists.
Lolita is a word that has become synonymous in modern culture as being an underage sex-mad girl; however, if you look below the surface, Nabokov doesn’t paint Dolores in this way.
Dolores as Lolita
Often referred to as skinny, pale, and unladylike, due to her vulgar language, Humbert is not attracted to her because of her looks, but because he sees her as a nymphet.
It’s the contradictions of her age and her outward womanly persona that draw him in.
As Humbert Humbert is a paedophile, he doesn’t see her rebellious outbursts and general teenage behaviour for what they are, but as a sign of provocation on his part.
As the novel passes, Lolita begins to age dramatically, which would be expected if she spent all of her time with an older man.
In the beginning, she’s a schoolgirl who has little sexual experience, but some non-the-less.
Humbert’s presence brings her forward into a fully sexual woman despite her meagre age of 12.
By the end she’s completely worn out with the perils of womanhood; the expectations put upon her by her man, including labour.
She only exists only as an object of desire and fascination for Humbert, and never as a complex human being with her own needs.
That’s not to say that Nabokov doesn’t write her as such, but as the book is written from Humbert Humbert’s perspective, everything is warped through his tinted glasses.
The most significant point to this book is not the dirty deeds that take place, but the way in which it’s communicated.
Nabokov has an exceptionally provocative nature, but he also knows how to put a stranglehold on the reader and coerce you, against your will, onto the side of Humbert.
Without realising, you become his immediate accomplice in his devious actions, including statutory rape and murder.
Never allowed to leave his side, the book becomes suffocating but equally difficult to put down.
The prose is both poetic and beautiful, creating a sharp contrast between the descriptions and the despicable actions taking place.
Don’t get this book wrong though.
When cited as being notorious for its content, very little is written about the sexual relationship that takes place. Nabokov instead uses the crafty technique of hinting towards the situations and allowing your own mind to fill in the gaps.
One of the main themes running through Lolita is the notion that language is king.
If you have a firm grasp on it, you’ll often come out on top.
As mentioned above, not only is Lolita beautifully written, but it also makes a case for language as being an active device in our everyday lives, which when you think about it is true.
We use it to communicate with others on a daily basis.
It’s what helps us survive in this world, build relationships, but also start wars.
Humbert uses language to charm the reader into liking him, persuading at every opportunity, and confusing you with flowery metaphors.
This style blends well with the unreliable narrator who is merely trying to hide the fact that we both know his sexual relationship with an underage girl is wrong.
Taking Lolita out of normal society alienates her from her peers, making her more vulnerable to Humbert’s ways.
This isolation also serves as a platform for manipulation as Lolita has little control over her life; after all, she’s going with her step-father from hotel to hotel not knowing where they’ll be next.
Making friends and interacting with the people around her becomes more and more unrealistic, and she possesses no way to ever break free.
Lolita is one of the best books that I’ve ever read! Seriously.
Despite its dark themes and questionable characters, it’s exceptionally well presented, offering up plenty to think about. The language is gentle and poetic, the characters are developed making them credible given the circumstances, and the novel is difficult to put down.
If you haven’t read Lolita yet, then do so immediately. It’s a worthy addition to anyone’s bookshelf.
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