Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is a dark and daring story of
obsessive love and transgression. Humbert Humbert's lust for his
pubescent step-daughter, Lolita, shocked readers when it was first
published in the 1950s; yet the novel was also celebrated for its
beautifully lyrical writing. Almost fifty years after its first
publication, Lolita remains a powerful tale of perversion and
love gone wrong.
About The Author
Born in St. Petersburg in 1899, Vladimir Nabokov was the eldest son of an aristocratic and culturally educated family. Russian, French and English were spoken in the Nabokov household and as a child, Nabokov read authors such as Poe, Melville and Flaubert. Following the Bolshevik revolution, the Nabokovs moved to London before settling in Berlin. Nabokov stayed in England to study at Trinity College Cambridge where he completed his studies. He was married to his wife Vera in 1925. In the first twenty years of writing, Nabokov's writings were in Russian and it was not until later that his works were translated; many by his son Dimitri . In 1940 he moved with his wife and son to America where he lectured at Wellesley College from 1941 to 1948 before filling the post of professor of Russian literature at Cornell until 1959. His first novel written in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight written in 1941. Nabokov is arguably most famous for his 1955 novel Lolita. As well as writing novels, Nabokov wrote works of non-fiction; notably on Nikolai Gogol (1944) and Eugene Onegin (1964).
In an interview with Alfred Appel, Nabokov stated that 'the writer's art is his real passport and not his nationality' and that he was 'an American writer who has once been a Russian.' This reflects Nabokov as a writer of great linguistic flexibility and suggests that the early influence of foreign literature perpetuated throughout his life, giving him the tools to portray ideas in different languages. The ideas are the speakers in his work, not the language. This ability to disorganise space is also reflected in Nabokov's own compositional style where he purports in his early years as a writer to have constructed paragraphs in his mind to be re-written later and, later on in his career, to write sections on note cards to be later re-arranged and re-written; the final work appearing as a sequence of mental spaces materialised on paper.
Writers such as Martin Amis and Brian Boyd have positioned Nabokov as one of the greatest writers of the century. Amis has commented that 'to read him in full flight is to experience stimulation that is at once intellectual, imaginative and aesthetic, the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer.'
'Vladimir Nabokov was a literary genius' David Lodge, Guardian
'Even first time readers cannot fail to appreciate Nobokov's marvellous and distinctive way with words' David Lodge, Guardian
Lolita is a book which both gains and suffers from a reputation for
It suffers because many people purchase the book for the wrong reasons. They buy it for the smut. The truth is, there is no smut.
But Lolita gains, too. How so? Works of great literary merit are seldom best sellers – they seldom make it onto the shelf of the average reader. Without its bad reputation, its reputation for wickedness, Lolita would not have gained access to the very people Nabokov intended to stimulate - the great suburban mass.
Of course, many of these readers having searched desperately for the dirty bits to no avail, abandon the attempt. But some are persuaded by the prose, and it is sublime prose, to read on and on.
This audience could not have been reached without the court cases, the press, the banning, the tut-tutting and the general hysteria caused by the book’s plot. At the time, 1955, the Sunday Express editor damned it, calling it “the filthiest book I have ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography.” No wonder it sold well.
But that was in the 1950s, no one would find it offensive now – surely? Penguin Books recently published Lolita in their Popular Penguin range. You know the ones – the retro, orange covered Penguins you find in bookshops and on display in Australia Post Shops. Well, Australia Post had to remove Lolita from the displays, because of customer complaints.
What were they complaining about? Nothing real. Those who have not read Lolita know that Lolita is a book about a grown man having sex with a child. That is enough to damn it. Such logic would have us banning all crime novels, all war novels… and, well, to be on the safe side – all novels. (Really!? Do all novels promote and sanction the acts depicted within them?)
Yes, Lolita is about a grown man’s infatuation with a young girl. But it isn’t a Dummies guide to hebephilia. Lolita is about the damage this infatuation causes. But it is also about unequal relations of every kind and the damage these cause. It is about youth and age. It is about mind and body. About thought and action. It is about the relationship between the new world and the old – Europe and the USA.
When I read Lolita, it is about the relationship between knowledge and ignorance or, put differently, experience and innocence.
I’m not going to deceive you, Lolita is a difficult book. It is many layered, and it is complex. One reading will not do it justice, and you become aware of this as you read it. Nabokov seems to be alerting us to our intellectual deficiencies, pointing out the enormous gaps in our knowledge. He wants us to go off to read, to learn, to become a reader worthy of his book and the questions it raises.
As I said, it is a complex book. It is also an interesting book, a rewarding book. And, for more reasons than the obvious, Lolita is a challenging and disturbing book. It examines many of the preconceptions that uphold the framework of our lives, finds them wanting and asks us to establish better ones. Something we have still yet to do. Which is why, ironically, Lolita can still cause a stir in the local Post Office.
Series: Popular Penguins
Number Of Pages: 336
Published: 1st September 2008
Dimensions (cm): 18.1 x 11.4
Weight (kg): 18.1