Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (A review by John Purcell)

by |May 11, 2010

Lolita is a book which both gains and suffers from a reputation for being immoral.

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.


To coincide with the publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s 60th anniversary, a special limited edition of nine classic novels has been produced, all designed by the award-winning advertising agency Fallon with special endpapers commissioned from ground-breaking artists. The endpapers of Lolita have been created by Louisa Scarlet Gray.

Others in this series include:  A Suitable Boy, One Day in the Life of Ivan DenisovichSophie’s World, The Color Purple, The Reader, The Siege of Krishnapur, The World According to Garp and The Shadow of the Wind

Other Editions of Lolita Available at Booktopia:

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

Follow John: Twitter Website


  • May 11, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Fabulous blog- you summed it up beautifully. I read Lolita last year, partly because it was one from the canon I’d never read and thought I should, but also partly because, yeah, I’d heard there may be smut. A male friend and fellow book-lover piqued my curiosity by describing reading it a uni and the librray copy continually falling open to certain crumpled pages… having read it, I have to wonder if he actually had read it himself, because there are no scenes at all, and what sex that takes place is coercive, haunted and so terribly, terribly sad.
    Lolita is a sad book, but an amazing one. While reading it I was well aware- as you say- that I would need to read it again, probably a number of times, to fully take in all Nabokov was trying to say. As yet though, I can’t. It upset me too much- the ending still makes me shudder. Gorgeous writing though and, yes- a book that should be read. Just not for the sex.

    • May 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm

      You are very good and kind Dr Ladd, and your own experience of Lolita is interesting. You are right, it is a sad book.

      The story of the fellow at uni is funny. The more one reads the classics the better able one is to discover the frauds among us who claim to have but have not read the classics themselves.

      Thank you again.

  • May 11, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    This is one of my favourite books and the whole Australia Post drama makes my blood boil. I suppose it’s alright though, because people who truly appreciate Nabokov’s heartbreakingly beautiful style of prose, will still read this.

    (And yes, while smut wasn’t the reason I read it initially, it was the reason the book even came to my attention as a literary classic.)

    As for me, I’m due another re-read, thanks for the reminder 🙂

    • May 11, 2010 at 1:00 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Elena.

      I like ‘heartbreakingly beautiful’ because it cuts both ways – the intentional, getting at the reader’s heart – and the unintentional, breaking the hearts of fellow writers and aspirational writers who must recognise that such sweet perfection is beyond them.

  • Chris T

    May 13, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I now want to read this book. Twice. Thanks for a beautiful and titillating introduction.

  • May 15, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    For me the genius of Lolita is how it tests the reader’s loyalties. Humbert is manipulative and cruel, but his style is also seductive and beguiling. One has to keep reminding oneself what a monster he is.

  • Lorenz

    December 3, 2010 at 4:26 am

    I’ve noticed some differences between the book itself and the audiobook read by Jeremy Irons.

    Here are some examples:

    1. In the book it says:

    the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks–of an enchanted island
    haunted by THOSE nymphets of mine

    while Jeremy Irons read:

    the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks–of an enchanted island
    haunted by THESE nymphets of mine

    2. From the book:

    while, ON EITHER SIDE of her, there crouched a brun adolescent whom her russet
    beauty and the quicksilver in the baby folds of her stomach WERE sure to
    cause to se tordre

    Irons read:

    while, on THE OTHER SIDE of her, there crouched a brun adolescent whom her russet
    beauty and the quicksilver in the baby folds of her stomach WAS sure to
    cause to se tordre

    Also in Chapter 28 Part I Paragraph 1 Nabokov mispelled the word IMPRISONED and wrote EMPRISONED. (The word is also mispelled in SOME of the copies being sold at

    Now my point is maybe Lolita is not a perfect novel after all (grammar-wise).

    • December 3, 2010 at 9:04 am

      This is astonishing. I have taken it off the list of ‘must read books’ and now anxiously await your novel, which should easily better Nabokov’s flawed efforts, to fill the void left by its omission.

  • Cathy A

    June 15, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    I read this for the first time a couple of years ago – purely because I thought perhaps I should. Its not a difficult book to read but as a mother I found it very uncomfortable. Its one of those books that Im glad I read, but I will never read it again.

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