I found it really hard to rate this book. When I look at the relatively few books to which I have given five stars, this one doesn’t quite fit. I don’t love the characters and I don’t love the plot. As I listened to the audiobook - quite wonderfully narrated by Jeremy Irons - I often felt visceral disgust and horror. However, the work has wormed its way into my consciousness and I have a feeling it will be there for some time to come. The fact that it’s not a book to read and then forget but rather a book which will remain with me means that five stars is appropriate, notwithstanding how angry it made me feel.
What can I write about Lolita which hasn’t been written a million times before? There is probably nothing, but I can at least try to convey how and why the work made me react so strongly. First, from a literary point of view, it is a tour de force. The language is sublime: poetic and rhythmic, full of alliteration, puns and other wordplay – both in English and in French - all conveyed with biting irony and wit. The descriptive language is beautiful: Nabokov uses metaphor and simile to convey meaning in a way which is extraordinary, all the more so because English was not his first language. The literary allusions with which the narrative is peppered also add appeal to the work, if for no other reason than it’s fun to play "spot the allusion".
Secondly, Nabokov’s creation of Humbert is masterly. I loathe him: he made me angry and he made me feel physically sick. However, at the same time his wit made me laugh. Humbert is the ultimate unreliable narrator. I completely reject most of what he says, particularly about himself and even more so about Dolores*. That Humbert lies is clear from the narrative. That he lies to the reader is hard to deny. Humbert uses every trick in the book to create sympathy for himself and part of Nabokov’s genius is that some readers will fall for his tricks. Even readers like me who desperately want to see Humbert get his comeuppance will be moved by the poignancy of his final encounter with Dolores. Thirdly, even though she is only seen from Humbert’s distorted perspective, Dolores Haze is a memorable character. Nabokov’s writing allowed me to see beyond Humbert’s vision of her to the abused, knowing, resilient and brave child that she is. My heart ached for Dolores - the victim of a vain, egotistical and ultimately doomed monster.
This was not a pleasant or easy experience and I’m not sure that I could bring myself to go through it again. However, after avoiding the book for years because of its subject matter, I’m glad to have finally tackled it. I can't say that I "love" this book, but it’s an amazing literary achievement and on that basis alone I have to give it five stars.
* I will not call Dolores Haze “Lolita”. Referring to Dolores as “Lolita” is part of Humbert’s process of objectifying and diminishing her. For most of the time Humbert associates with her, Dolores is not a person - a person whose name signficantly means “sorrows” – but a collection of characteristics which spark his sexual desire. I am (just) prepared to accept that when Humbert encounters her again he finally sees her as a real person and realises the enormity of his crime against her. However, that part of me which distrusts Humbert still suspects that this is a ploy to obtain sympathy from the reader.