Well, it’s a classic, much discussed, much admired, but I’ll add my two pennies. Wonderful writing; stellar stylistically, each paragraph a work of art. Is this really Nabokov’s second language? you wonder, and he throws in a lot of saucy French just for fun, taking the prose to ever new heights. In terms of style, Lolita is off the charts. The prose is poetic – fluid and original. Page after page, wow, wow, wow. Martin Amis doesn’t list Vladimir Nabokov as a top influence, but Lolita reads like an Amis novel, with less gallow’s humour and more fluidity. The story itself, however, is pretty bloody twisted. The protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is a child molester. I like novels with anti-heroes, ones where you find yourself cheering on or empathising with an ethically bereft protagonist even though you know you shouldn’t. But HH is a whole other type of anti-hero. He’s an enlightened, refined, and eloquent pedophile, and as impressive as his French his, he’s a criminal and admits he should be given 35 years for rape. Lolita’s nightly sobbing is eminently disturbing.
And not much happens in the novel. After Humbert Humbert attains his prize, the novel becomes fictional travel literature (better than most real travel literature!) before switching back to drama (guy loses girl is replaced by child abuser loses victim). There’s a decent ending, but a bit of a cliché one (as Nabokov practically admits), and that’s it – plus a word from the author explaining how everything you’ve probably thought about the novel is meritless; he didn’t mean it like that. He bedevils in the telling, and then bedevils in the explanation. Nabokov plays with you, and you let him because he’s such a good writer, but you cringe, or should, at his honeyed poetry’s horror.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World