I seem to have a lot of preconceived notions about the books we’re reading on this list that then turn out to be false, and Lolita is no exception. My first recollection of this book comes a verse in the Police song Don’t Stand so Close to Me, “It’s no use/He sees her/He starts to shake and cough/Just like the old man in/That book by Nabokov.”
So when I first picked it the book I thought, “Cool, that book by Nabokov”. I thought the plot would be similar to the song, an older man (yet youngish, hot English teacher like Sting) pursuing a consensual, yet forbidden love affair with a younger girl. I envisioned the girl to be around 16 or 17.
However, once again the book is much darker than I expected. Humbert Humbert is much older than I anticipated, and the object of his affection, Lolita, is only twelve! However, the book is written in such a way that I was pulled immediately into Humbert’s thought process and was sympathetic towards his character at first. He’s so well spoken and presents his case so emphatically that I constantly had to remind myself that his infatuation was wrong.
As the book progresses, though, I had no problem reminding myself of this. Humbert and Lolita’s initial flirtations become something else entirely (SPOILER ALERT) when he marries her mother for the purpose of getting closer to Lolita. Then, when he and Lolita begin their travels, he essentially keeps her as a sex slave. The book at this point is wholly disturbing.
His constant descriptions of her beauty and their “lovemaking” sessions are thrown into the harsh light of reality when he talks about her face shining with tears and her sobs in the night, reminding the reader that she is an unwilling participant. I could only read two chapters at a time during this portion and it was like reading the cases of Elizabeth Smart or Jaycee Dugard, from the captors’ point of view.
With all that said, Nabokov is a master storyteller and I can definitely see how this book is high on the list. Half the time I get so drawn into the narrative I forget I’m even reading a book.