New Things: read ‘lolita’

Each year on my birthday I make a list of new things I want to try.  Some of them are easy, some are hard, some are shockingly mundane.  You can read about past adventures here 

I like to think of myself as a Serious Reader.  I did my undergrad in English Literature, I’m part of a book club, and, well, my love for books is such that I dressed my cat in literature-inspired costumes and made a calendar out of those photos.
And yet.  It’s been a looooong time since I’ve read something ‘challenging.’  My taste in books runs towards funny, self-deprecating memoirs and essays (Anne Lamott, David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Cheryl Strayed). And while these writer are warm and funny and big-hearted and occasionally thought-provoking they rarely use words I need to look up.  They rarely present a moral quandary that I wrestle with. 

“Oh, Bill!  You and your hijinks!  Don’t invite your crazy friend from high school to go hiking with you!  What self-respecting hiker brings canned food?!” Chucklechucklechuckle.

But Lolita?  That business is challenging. And shockingly – quite funny.

If you didn’t know, Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze. Humbert is a French literary scholar who is handsome, a bit emotionally fragile, and a pedophile.  Dolores (nicknamed Lolita) is the flirty, precocious 12-year-old daughter of Humbert’s single-mother landlord.

Humbert falls in love with Lolita and marries her mother who is hit by a car and killed while Lolita is at summer camp. Humbert picks Lolita up from camp and after she discovers her mother is dead, Lolita initiates a sexual interaction with Humbert.

The two have a sort of father/daughter/lover relationship that lasts for a few years before Lolita runs away with another middle-aged man.

I won’t ruin the ending for you because you really, really should read it.

Why is Lolita challenging?

I found myself empathizing with a pedofile. Humbert really, truly loves Lolita and when she rebuffs him he’s crushed.  And who among us hasn’t experienced that?

It brings up so, so many questions. Where’s the line between love and obsession? What does it mean to be a family?  Is it possible for a 12-year-old girl to sexually consent?  What is the real root of pedophilia?

Also? Nabokov’s writing is dense and interesting and clever.  His turns of phrase are laugh-out-loud funny and Humbert’s self-awareness is hugely disarming.

Some of my favorite passages:

“I sat with arms folded, one hip on the window sill, dying of hate and boredom.”
“I think I had better describe her right away to get it over with.”
“Just slap her hard if she interferes with your scholarly meditations. How I love this garden [no exclamation point in her tone]. Isn’t it divine in the sun [no question mark either].”
” … while fat Avis sidled up to her papa, Lolita gently beamed at a fruit knife that she fingered on the edge of the table, whereon she leaned, many miles away from me. Suddenly, as Avis clung to her father’s neck and ear while, with a casual arm, the man enveloped his lumpy and large offspring, I saw Lolita’s smile lose all its light and become a frozen little shadow of itself, and the fruit knife slipped off the table and struck her with its silver handle a freak blow on the ankle which made her gasp, and crouch head forward, and then jumping on one leg, her face awful with the preparatory grimace which children hold till the tears gush, she was gone – to be followed at once and consoled in the kitchen by Avis who had such a wonderful fat pink dad and a small chubby brother, and a brand-new baby sister, and a home, and two grinning dogs, and Lolita had nothing.”
“His nurse, a skeleton thin, faded girl with the tragic eyes of unsuccessful blondes, rushed after me so as to be able to slam the door in my wake.”
“Readers will surely recall at this point the obligatory scenes of westerns from their childhood. Our tussle, however, lacked the ox-stunning fisticuffs, the flying furniture. He and I were two large dummies, stuffed with dirty cotton and rags. It was a silent, soft, formless, tussle on the part of two literati, one of whom was utterly disorganized by a drug while the other was handicapped by a heart condition and too much gin.”
Have you read Lolita?  What did you think?  What other classics live up to their reputation?

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  1. Amy Elizabeth

    Lolita is beautiful. The opening passage makes my heart stop it's so wonderfully written – and in his second language, what is that about?

    I feel like it needs to be read with the idea of the unreliable narrator in mind though – whilst it seems like Lolita is flirty and seems to initiate sexual contact with him (at least at first), I wonder how much is his wishful imagination justifying his later actions (i.e. drugging her, lying to her, keeping her on the run with him).

    It's a complicated story, it feels like there is no right answer even though in real life you would straight up condemn him – when you hear him speak the lines seem to blur despite your best intentions!

  2. Sarah Lynn Knowles

    one of my favorite books of all time, mainly for the reasons you mentioned!

    • Miranda Reiter

      Same here Sarah! My book club read this one and the reviews were mostly negative, but not for me. You know I've found good writing when the author can make you feel empathy for a character like Humbert Humbert. Can I even go further by saying that I felt sadness when the couple didn't live happily ever after? It's some of the best writing I've ever read. Love it!

  3. Christy Ashley

    Lolita has been on my list for quite awhile. I picked up 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' when it was on the NY Times Best Seller but stopped reading it a few chapters in after realizing that I needed to read Lolita first to truly enjoy the book! While I haven't read it, I recommend that yet! I read War & Peace and Anna Karenina in 2012 and loved them both, so I think Nabokov and Dostoevsky are next on my list of great Russian writers!

  4. Sarah M

    I haven't read it, mostly because I thought the content would be too much for me (The Lovely Bones gave me nightmares, seriously), but your review make me want to try it out.
    Also, two of my all time favorites are David Sedaris and Anne Lamott. I read "Wild" in 2012, and found out she is coming to my local library on her book tour in February. It's already on my calendar!
    Sarah M

  5. Rekha Monger

    OMG, what a coincidence. I was just compiling my 2014 reading challenge where I've Lolita in top priority and here I already get a review. I'm darn reading it right away. 🙂

    Thank you so much for the review, the book seems incredible.

  6. mimsiesky

    I read Lolita a few years ago. I honestly found nothing redeeming about it. Yes, Nobokov is a good writer…but I just couldn't get into the story. I wanted to quit reading fairly early on, but made myself finish it because LOLITA! and hoped that it would get better… but I just really couldn't like it. :-

  7. Allie

    I tend to gravitate towards the same kind of books as you (funny, self-deprecating nonfiction), but I consider Lolita one of my favorite books of all time. Nabokov's writing is so beautiful that I found myself slack-jawed at the way this man used words. Lolita left me equally mesmerized and squicked out, which surprisingly enough, is an excellent feelings combo.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! That's a perfect way to phrase it!

  8. thecollegenovelista

    So glad you read this one! Also check out Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Thought-provoking, gripping, and deliciously dramatic.

  9. NZ Muse

    I feel much the same way about Lolita.

    Pride and Prejudice is possibly my favourite classic of all.

  10. Brittany @ Pro-Soup Propaganda

    "Lolita" is one of my favorite books! Nabokov's writing is simply beautiful. I went to his apartment in Russia several years ago. They turned it into a museum. It is filled with his collections of butterflies and it is everything you think the writer of that book would have.

  11. Marge

    Lolita is terrible! It is nothing more than a well-written apology for pedophilia and frankly, I am very surprised that you enjoyed it. There is nothing "flirty" about Lolita's behavior, as she is a TWELVE YEAR OLD. From the original New York Times review by Orville Prescott: "To describe such a perversion with the pervert's enthusiasm without being disgusting is impossible. If Mr. Nabokov tried to do so he failed." There are no redeeming lessons about "love," unless we so destroy the definition of love to include a man's intentional sexual manipulation of a child or the masturbatory fantasies of a delusional writer. Ick ick ick.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Hi Marge,
      You're certainly entitled to your opinions about literature and your opinions about people who like said literature. I do think, however, that if we limited ourselves to book that never touched on morally dubious topics or just straight-up-bad stuff, we'd omit about 90% of the critically acclaimed, award-winning books out there. Also: the bible 🙂

      I think it's really important to occasionally read/watch/encounter/discuss the darker sides of life. Pretending something doesn't happen or that there aren't grey areas in life benefits no one.

    • Vanessa @ Mixed Martial Arts and Crafts

      But isn't Lolita a symbol anyway? It's not *really* about hebephilia (Love of teens. Pedophilia is love of kids under ten years old.) but more about a weak willed man letting his emotions get away from him. There's been some good arguments made that Lolia never really existed, Dolores was real but the relationship was what Humbert imagined it to be.

      Or you can read the novel as standing in for the corruption of Russia by totalitarians, though Nabokov said he hated allegory.

      And yet another way of looking at this: it isn't about the corruption of an innocent child but how manipulated a weak man can be.

      I skimmed Lolita for my English Lit major, I need to go back and really read it. I think it's also dangerous to link an author's work with his or her personal feelings. To say that Lolita proves that Nabokov was a pedophile/hebephile is a dangerous and sweeping generalization.

    • Jamie

      "And yet another way of looking at this: it isn't about the corruption of an innocent child but how manipulated a weak man can be."

      I think this is a great point. I never found Dolores to be particularly manipulative, but what I DID find was that Humbert's own emotions and thoughts were very manipulative. It's been argued among both lit scholars and psychologists that the human mind can trick itself into believing something is real.

      Humbert may well have imagined his relationship with Dolores (I see Lolita as a symbol, not a person), and that would dovetail quite neatly with the idea of society and his ow mind manipulating his emotions. Not consciously, of course, but society does frown on hebephilic relationships and this, in conjunction with Humbert's desperate obsession, might have pushed his mind into tricking itself, into believing he had a relationship with Lolita (Dolores was just a mirror; it was Lolita he wanted all along, a girl who never really existed).

    • Anonymous

      Marge here.

      Nabokov himself said that Lolita was intended to have no moral purpose. Obviously, we may not believe him, but he did write the book. While I do think it is important to read books about dark topics, I do not think that Lolita should be included in a list of greatest books, or should be allowed to 'pass' on its subject because of vivid writing or perceived moral complexities. I came off as a little harsh in my first comment, just because I was surprised that there was no pushback about this book, which is, obviously, pretty disturbing (whether or not it is intended to be that way.) I do find it odd that people enjoy reading a book that so details the grooming and rape of a 12-year-old in a way that does not allow that 12-year-old to speak, nor to experience real retributive justice. There are plenty of other great books that have more to say about love, or romantic/erotic human experience. This one does not speak to those things. And to excuse Humbert Humbert's interest in Dolores as "hebephilia" is reeeeeally twisting in circles to try to excuse the man himself (who is a murderer, after all).

      I think part of the problem of Lolita is that it is impossible to come even close to a consensus interpretation of it: so it remains as it is, a story with an unreliable narrator who regales the audience with his justifications for raping, essentially, a child. I think that its inclusion on great-books lists is largely based on momentum, and people's attempts to interpret the book beyond what is written. Nabokov is a gifted writer, but this book is no love story.

      I'd recommend something by Willa Cather, if you continue to read more 'literary' works.

    • Marge

      And I apologize for my previous tone, I'd wager that this post was a bit of a trigger for some people. It's always good to read to stretch our brains and boundaries!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      No worries – this is a place for discussion, right? 🙂

  12. Gem Wilder

    I loved the language of Lolita. I've just read Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries which sent me to the dictionary a couple of times. A classic that I loved and is one of my all time favourites is John Steinbeck's East of Eden.

  13. Maria L

    Yes! I read Lolita in high school and I was amazed that I could enjoy a book so much and still be intensely challenged by it. It stayed with me so long afterwards: the language, the characters, the imagery, the FEELINGS. I only realized afterward, when I was writing a brief essay about it for a class, that I had indeed fallen prey to Humbert's charm and wit. Love or not, Humbert's relationship with & feelings for Lolita are inappropriate for her age (in my opinion) and yet he is such a likable character you forget that this man might be pretty damn creepy/off-putting in real life. I think I like it because it makes you think, consider multiple viewpoints and is presented in such a beautiful way. Like, for real, I've never seen anyone handle language the way Nabokov does, and English is like, his 4th language.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! I think it become particularly creepy during the roadtrip when it's obvious that he's essentially kidnapped her and holding her captive. And yet you find yourself thinking "Why is she so whiny and hard to please?!" His writing is amaaaaazing.

  14. KW

    This is a great post. I too loved Lolita, mostly for its language, but was pretty frustrated with myself for actually liking the narrater. It's one of my favorite books regardless.

    As for classics that live up to their reputation, Grapes of Wrath blew me away. I always thought a story about the Great Depression would depress me, but it was such an uplifting book. John Steinbeck is the shit.

  15. Becky Bedbug

    I love Lolita! At first, I also thought that Humbert was truly in love with Lolita, but after reading some reviews, I came across a really interesting hypothesis:

    Humbert is writing his tale to defend himself and rid himself of any wrongdoing. He appears to be a very charming, likeable man who was totally seduced and manipulated by this young girl. But could it be that he is actually manipulating us? Perhaps all is not as it seems. Perhaps he did after all coerce Lolita into a dominating relationship and does a fine job of convincing us that she was the instigator.

    It certainly made me think!

  16. kate gabrielle

    Oh, I love Nabokov!! I like Lolita but my favorite is Invitation to a Beheading. I stopped reading for a while as a teenager and that book helped me fall back in love with reading again 🙂 I highly recommend it! Also I don't know how you feel about watching movies based on books but I love the 1962 version of Lolita.

  17. Anonymous

    I am reading Lolita right now, but I read Invitation to a Beheading this summer as my first introduction to Nabokov. If you enjoyed Lolita, I definitely recommend reading that. Also, if you like Russian literature, have you ever read The Master and Margarita? It's full of satire and so, so good. It's probably one of my favorite books of all time.

  18. Emily

    (psst. it's "pedophile", not pedofile.)

  19. Anonymous

    I love this book it reminds me of in cold blood by truman capote because you empathise with the last person you should ever empathise with. I think he wants to convince himself what he has done was fine to do so because he "loved" her. I think its possible for a writer to come up with a grotesque topic without having to believe that topic is ok.

  20. Scout

    I’ve been reading Reading Lolita in Tehran. The author there has some very interesting points on the story. I loved the writing style of Lolita, but didn’t like how much I felt for HH. However, after Reading Lolita In Tehran, i want to read it again, only this time with a new perspective.
    She talks a lot about how HH emotionally abuses Lolita and how she had nowhere else to go. She also points out the times Dolores is miserable and wishes to leave. Also, the story is told from HH’s perspective, and part of his rationalization is saying that Lolita was a vixen and a flirt. Also, consider his love of her stems from a childhood lover that he never got to have sex with, so his frustration over that has turned into an obsession with little girls until he can overcome what he missed with Annabell Leigh.

    • Caitlyn

      Never read Lolita (although I think I’ll have to now), but his childhood love was named Annabell Leigh? What a funny reference to Edgar Allen Poe!

  21. Nícia Cruz

    reading lolita brought many mixed and strange feelings, because i actually liked the pedophile and could understand him, but hated and despised lolita. i saw her as a little brat, too sexually developed for her own age and, well, wary. and society tells me that i should have felt the other way around. how could i connect with a pedophile and think bad about a little girl that was, supposedly, abused? there must be something wrong with me, i thought.

    but your questions are great ones. and yes, it really seemed that he loved her, and that it was her in the position of control. lolita seemed mature enough to know what she was doing, she also has a manipulative personality and always got what she wanted. so, maybe, just maybe, someone at twelve years can consent a sexual relationship. but do 12 years old know what love and sex means? i would have to read real stories about that.

    thank you so much about this review, now i don’t feel that bad. 😉

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