The Anatomy of an Obsession

In the world of literature, there is a rare group of published text that has stunned many a reader and a literary pundit. They are outlandish. They are ostentatious. They are controversial. But more importantly, they are out-of-the box, coaxing readers into reassessing their environment and the paradigm. In the vaunted halls of literary greats, Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita sits on a lofty chair. Despite its highly sensitive subject, it is one of the most popular literary titles and is part of several best books lists.

Lolita’s is fame emanates from Nabokov’s handling of a controversial and critical subject. It recounts the life of Humbert Humbert, a literature professor. While spending his childhood in the French Riviera, he fell in love with his friend Annabel Leigh. Their budding love story was cut abruptly by Annabel’s premature death from typhus. This unfulfilled passion resulted to a sexual obsession for a specific type of girl whom he fondly refers to as “nymphets”.

He managed to escape the outbreak of the Second World War, relocating to New York. During the  search for a new home in a quaint New England town, he met the widow Charlotte Haze. Charlotte was accepting tenants but Humbert was initially planning to decline her offer. The change in his demeanor was influenced by his encounter with Charlotte’s young daughter, Dolores Haze. This chance encounter is singly the pivotal moment in Humbert’s life for in Dolores – also called as Lolita, Lo, Dolly, and Lola – he found the perfect representation of a nymphet.

“All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do so.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

The novel was written in the form of a memoir, prefaced with a fictitious foreword written by John Ray Jr., an editor of psychology books. The memoir was written and narrated through the point-of-view of Humbert. Humbert Humbert, who died in jail while waiting for his murder trial, is not the real identity of the writer. It is a mere pseudonym used by John Ray Jr. to “mask” the identity of the writer. The interesting structure made the narrative look like a nonfiction rather than a work of fiction.

In the world of literature, Lolita stands out for being the epitome and the outright definition of an “erotic novel”. The novel’s first half is rife with erotic motifs. Humbert’s ruminations on his nymphet Lolita resonated all throughout the narrative. The frenzy of the pervasive erotic nature of the novel, especially in the first half of the story, belie the novel’s subtler and deeper ruminations and facets. Readers frequently associate Lolita’s with its sexual nature, overlooking the several layers wrapped around the central theme. In popular culture, Lolita is also represented for anything connected to lust, and pedophilia.

As the narrative progresses, its layers slowly peel. One of its seminal layers is its psychological dimensions, which is also one of its loftier accomplishments. In Humbert, Nabokov fleshed out the prototype of a sexual predator. Their psychological profile – from their development to how they thrive – were carefully sketched and portrayed by Nabokov. The story underscored that sexual predators come in different forms. To the public, Humbert projects himself as a literary teacher, the last type of person one would suspect as a pedophile. The facade is not a projection of the processes that take place within a man’s mind.

Humbert and Lolita’s story was set on a vivid landscape. Their unusual relationship and story was juxtaposed into a painting of quotidian American life. Putting into words his observations, Nabokov’s sharp but carefully measured strokes captured the zeitgeist of American culture and society. Humbert and Loita’s trip across the American continent is one of the novel’s main themes, depicting Nabokov’s ideas of America. Nabokov’s prowess for describing made the American countryside come alive – the dusty roads, the flashy motel lights, the relative tranquility of side road gas stations.

“We all have such fateful objects — it may be a recurrent landscape in one case, a number in another — carefully chosen by the gods to attract events of specific significance for us: here shall John always stumble; there shall Jane’s heart always break.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

One of the most interesting facets of the narrative is the central character, Humbert who singularly carried the weight of the story. Despite being an unreliable narrator, he was crafted by Nabokov with deftness and acuity. In the world of literature, he is one of the select few who top bills interesting character studies. He was greatly disturbed, cognizant of his innate weakness for your girls but continuously justifying his horrible actions. Self-aware, he is a complex character who is both unapologetic and disgusted by his crimes.

His unfulfilled passion as a young man inevitably left a gaping hole in his person. This eventually turned him into an unreliable author of his own life. He let himself be trapped in the past. Lost within himself, he hopelessly yearns for a meaning in his lonely existence. This desperation makes Humbert a child trapped in a man’s body. He doesn’t endeavor to move past his puerility. Nabokov, however, didn’t craft him to be a subject of for pity. Humbert, after all, is a lousy excuse of a man.

The presence of the titular Lolita was barely felt in the narrative. Humbert’s singular narrative muted her and there was very little information to build a more solid picture of her as a character. Dolores Haze is a mere sexual object for Humbert, the perfect epitome of his “nymphet” idea. He accounts for it as love and justifies his actions as results of this love. But what he feels is not love. His projection of a nymphet is nothing but an erotic vision which led him to a search for girls who closely resemble this vision. He obsesses with this idea but his interest in girls extend insofar as they embody his vision of a nymphet.

Undoubtedly, Lolita’s content is vile and abominable. The shamefully outrageous sexual and erotic nature can be very pervasive; the rising succession of sexual scenes can easily discomfit any reader. But once the reader recovers from the shock, if ever they do, what surfaces is a literary masterpiece that flourishes in its astounding and beautiful prose. Nabokov has deft hands which intricately crafted a rich tapestry that, on the surface is filled with sexual tension, but on its core is rife with subtle satire. Nabokov painted a stark dichotomy between the story’s background and the foreground. These ironies that were prevalent in the story gave the narrative a different complexion.

“We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Lolita is neither an easy read nor a blossoming love story. What Nabokov has written is a deeply disturbing yet, ironically, brilliant narrative. The outrageous subject made for an interesting moral conflict, an interesting subject of discussion, although not openly for it is highly sensitive. Even though it is whispered in hushed tones, the novel’s very subject discomfits the readers and the mere spectators. Nabokov made his readers tether at the edge of their seats, coaxing them to live in Humbert’s mind for 300 pages, arousing a bevy of emotions which range from horror to outright disgust. It takes skill to do that.

Despite the topic being taboo, both in its time and in the contemporary, Nabokov’s powerful narrative, rife with vivid descriptions, wonderful language, wit, and dark humor, offers the readers a unique reading experience. Breaching well beyond the boundaries of storytelling, Lolita is a powerful novel that simply refuses to conform to the norm. The abstract of horror, beauty, obsession, creative prose melds in a distinct and masterfully crafted reading experience.

Ratings:

92%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is wrapped in a shroud of intrigue that I can’t keep my mind off of it. Without reading it or any substantial book reviews, I’ve discerned that the story deals with pedophilia, with something that is so controversial that merited its being banned in some circles. With this in mind and the hype around it, I was raring to read the book. And what an experience it was. Its honesty, and its psychological depth, make it a rarity in the vast world of fiction. It was not an easy read but it was thought-provoking nonetheless.

Book Specs

Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: June 1997
Number of Pages: 309
Genre: Psychological Fiction, Erotic Literature

Synopsis

Awe and exhilaration – along with heartbreak and mordant wit – abound in Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Most of all, it is a meditation on love – love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

About the Author

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 22 1899 in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire. Nabokov grew up in Saint Petersburg and at the country estate Vyra near  Siverskaya, south of the city. Nabokov grew up a tri-lingual, fluent in English, Russian and French, learning to read and write in English first before learning to do so in Russian. 

The Nabokov family’s history of emigration begun in 1919, shortly after the withdrawal of the German Army in November 1918 and the defeat of the White Army in early 1919. They first settled in England where Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College of the University of Cambridge, studying zoology, and Slavic and Romance languages. He graduated with first-class honors in 1922 before moving to Berlin where his family immigrated to in 1920. Between 1922 and 1940, he lived in Germany and France.

Nabokov’s literary career already begun even before the left Russia. He had published two collections of verse, Poems (1916) and Two Paths (1918). He continued writing poetry in Cambridge, then in Germany and France. In 1925, however, he settled upon prose as his main genre. His first novel, Mashenka (Mary) first appeared in 1926. Two years later, his second novel, King, Queen, Knave first appeared. He would write and publish more novels and novellas  before he and his family migrated for the last time, to the United States in May 1940 to flee from the advancing German troops.

In 1941, he joined the faculty of Wellesley College as a resident lecturer in comparative literature. During the same year, he published his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). None of his earlier works, however, matched the massive commercial and critical success of Lolita (1955). It was also the most popular, and most controversial, of his literary ensemble. Apart from novels and poetry collections, Nabokov also wrote short story collections and dramas.

The financial success of Lolita enabled Nabokov return to Europe to devote himself entirely to writing. In October 1, 1961, he and his wife Vera moved to Montreux, Switzerland, where he passed away on July 2, 1977.