Lolita ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. He became an American citizen in 1945 and died in 1977. His 1956 novel, Lolita, was a huge success and has earned the lofty number-four position on the Modern Library’s List of the Hundred Greatest Books in English of the Twentieth Century. Some critics consider Lolita the greatest American novel of the twentieth century.
In the language of the 1950s, Lolita was “frank,” “daring,” and even “shocking.” Some even went so far as to label it “pornographic” or “obscene.” What’s all the fuss about, you may ask? The character Lolita (real name Delores Haze) in the novel is an American “nymphet.” She’s twelve years old and is, to put it mildly, sexually precocious, unlike any twelve-year-old ever seen before. She has had sexual experiences with both male and female partners alike.
Well, there wouldn’t be any story in Lolita without the main character in the book, Humbert Humbert. He is a forty-year-old English academic, transplanted to America, who, since his earliest days, has had an intense interest, and attraction to, prepubescent girls of nine to twelve years of age. He is narrating the novel in his first-person voice.
Humbert marries an obstreperous widow named Charlotte Haze. He doesn’t care for Charlotte very much and, in fact, can hardly stand her, but she just happens to be the mother of a stunningly seductive (Humbert thinks) daughter, the eponymous little girl nicknamed Lolita. If you were anybody other than Humbert, you might see Lolita as an uncouth, bratty pre-teen without any attractive or appealing qualities at all, but then, nobody sees her as Humbert sees her. He takes advantage of every opportunity to be near Lolita, hold her in his arms, or come into close contact with her.
He makes the fatal mistake of writing in his diary of his intense passion for Lolita. His wife (Lolita’s mother) finds his diary in its hiding place and reads it. Finally she knows the truth! Distraught, she runs from the house and is struck by a car and killed. Humbert is now Lolita’s “guardian” and may engage with her sexually any time his heart desires, and his heart desires often.
With Mama Charlotte out of the way, these two highly unusual people (forty-year-old Humbert and twelve-year-old Lolita) embark on a year-long road trip, traveling around the U.S. Humbert knows he is a reprehensible man for taking sexual advantage of Lolita. (Though a willing participant, she is still a minor.) Lolita could go to the police at any time and blow the whistle on Humbert, but she knows that, without him, she would be an orphan. This cannot end well.
Some people will still undoubtedly find the subject matter of Lolita distasteful, but it is a book that must be read and experienced for the joy that Vladimir Nabokov seems to take in writing it. He is a master stylist of the English language. He has a penchant for unusual or rarely used words, such as: undinist, logomancy, valetudinarian, lithophanic, caravansary, and selenian. They are all legitimate words but words you might not find anyplace else.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp