Nabokov astounds me. Here we have a man who writes in his second language, English, with more skill, precision and feeling than native speakers. This is a genuinely beautiful novel and worthy of the praise and controversy it has garnered in its 50 years of life.
I got a lot of strange looks when I explained to classmates here that I was reading this book for fun. Those that knew what it was about raised their eyebrows. Those that didn’t let their mouths hang open after I explained the plot. “Middle-aged man falls in love with a 12-year-old girl, marries her mother, the mother dies, he has lots of sex with the girl, ends unhappily for all.” Because, really, who allows their pleasure reading to be novels about pedophiles?
But that’s the incredible thing about Nabokov. He manages, by some unbelievable sleight of hand, to make a pedophile a sympathetic (even if not thoroughly likable) protagonist. You have to read it to receive that quality alone. It’s often very hard to read. But it’s a remarkable book.
Two quotations to illustrate my admiration for Nabokov’s skill. First, Humbert Humbert’s defense of men like him, who cannot resist “nymphets” (young girls):
We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill.
And this, one of the last paragraphs in the novel:
Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost inarticulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.
READ IF: You are hungry for a shocking, stylistically satisfying book that will make you thoroughly uncomfortable. (Sorry about the fonts. I can’t get them to change back…)