Until I started in a writing program, I thought that literature could only be considered “classic” if it was written before 1940. But in my very first semester of the writing program, I was assigned a novel by Vladimir Nabokov that was written in 1955—and it rocked my world. There was no doubt that it was written in the tradition of classic literature (writing that speaks to something greater than itself), and that many people would argue that it is a classic in its own right. Having read it and studied it quite a bit, I must say that I would have to agree with them. So let me introduce you to That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for April 2010: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
The novel follows Humbert Humbert, the intellectual and charming man with an affinity for young girls. Ever since his first love died at a young age, Humbert has been obsessed with the idea of courting young girls; although he ages and matures, the objects of his desire stay frozen at the age in which his love died. We assume that he never really did anything but look at the girls that catch his eye…until he meets the feisty twelve-year-old Lolita who reminds him intensely of his first love.
Humbert first meets Lolita when he moves in to her mother’s home as a boarder. He is instantly enamored with her, but instead her mother Charlotte falls in love with him. Charlotte forces Humbert to either marry her or move. He is so taken with Lolita that he begrudgingly agrees to marry Charlotte, as it will keep him closer to her daughter. Not soon after the wedding, Charlotte finds and reads Humbert’s diary, which reveals to her his lust for Lolita. And even though Charlotte is not all that fond of her daughter, she is appalled by her husband’s true character. In an attempt to obtain help, she flees the house but is struck by a car in the street and is killed. That leaves Humbert as Lolita’s sole guardian. The two embark on a one-year cross-country journey that brings them to head-to-head with Humbert’s unquenchable lust, Lolita’s manipulative ways, and the eerily omnipresence of a man named Quilty.
There are a lot of layers in Lolita, beginning with the narrator Humbert Humbert. He is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. He speaks both in English and French (having been born in France), so unless you are reading from the annotated version of Lolita you have no idea what he is actually saying half of the time. (NOTE: While I read the annotated Lolita and enjoyed the English translations of Humbert’s narrative, I want to stress that Nabokov intentionally wrote half in English and half in French, so that we only understand a portion of what Humbert has to say.)
The fact that we, as readers, don’t understand everything Humbert says is a brilliant move on Nabokov’s part. It depicts Humbert as clearly intellectual to be bilingual, but it also shows him to be arrogant, that he is purposefully exhibiting his superior knowledge. He is unreliable because we are not privy to everything he has to say, as well as because he is a crazed man, obsessed with Lolita. His exaggerated speech and perceptions of reality–including his opinion of Lolita, his lust for her, and even himself–is in direct conflict with how we see Humbert: a pedophile. But because of Humbert’s wit and ease, we start to see him as a charming man…with a despicable obsession.
The whole novel is written as a court document for Humbert’s trial. He narrates his own story of how he came to be associated with Lolita, and he fills his telling with word play, sexual innuendos, and French idioms. Nabokov, through Humbert, somehow manipulates us as readers to juggle our contempt for Humbert with a growing interest in the relationship between him and Lolita, actually getting anxious and excited for the moment when they first consummate his unrequited love. Meanwhile, Nabokov is leaving a trail of clues surrounding the mysterious Quilty, culminating in a showdown between the two men who seek out Lolita’s companionship.
Lolita is indeed one of the more scandalous books I’ve ever read, certainly one of the most scandalous classics. But it is witty and charming, just like Humbert, and Nabokov sucks you into this world that you could never conceive of, and leaves you remarkably breathless by the end.