Content warning: mentions of pedophilia and rape. Please read with care!
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, published 62 years ago today in the United States, continues to be a wonder of the novel form and is adored by readers and critics alike. But why is a story about a pedophilic rapist (let’s not mince words- that’s what narrator Humbert Humbert is) so popular? With a topic such as that, one would expect it to be banned and disliked! Well, today we’re gonna dive into the history of this mesmerizing book and talk about why it is that Lolita deserves to be one of the greats.
Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov held a decades-long career as a trilingual writer of novels, poetry, essays, and critical works. He became renowned for his stylistic novels which featured complex plots, clever word play, daring metaphors, and masterfully written prose. He wrote nineteen novels in both English and Russian as well as numerous collections of short stories and poetry, with Lolita being his most recognizable and, arguably, his best.
Lolita was written over the course of five years, coming to completion on December 6, 1953. He was unable, at first, to secure an American publisher who was willing to publish such a “taboo theme,” as Nabokov describes it himself in an afterword written in 1956. Lolita faced difficulties in getting published throughout Europe, with both the UK and France banning it at first. It wasn’t until August 18, 1958 that the novel was published in the U.S. by G.P. Putnam’s Sons and went on to sell 100,000 copies in the first three weeks.
The novel follows European academic Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, sexually exploitative relationship with the twelve year old Dolores Haze, whom he has endearingly christened “Lolita.” The novel takes place over the matter of years, and delves into Humbert’s thoughts and feelings, ranging from glee over having “seduced” Dolores to fear over “losing” her.
Those five years that it took to bring this book to fruition were well worth it, for Lolita has been hailed as a masterpiece of fiction. To see for yourself, check out the very first chapter that opens the story of the depraved Humbert Humbert:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Lolita is an excellent example of a book that pushes you to question your own relationship with literature. When reading it, I occasionally had to remind myself that Humbert is, undeniably, an evil person committing an evil thing. The eloquence and brilliance with which Humbert narrates the story makes you want to sympathize with him and allow yourself to be wrapped up in the “love” that he is feeling. Nabokov’s ability to have you, the reader, be so enamored by such a bad person demonstrates the full power of literature to open a reader up to feelings and experiences that the reader might never have felt or experienced.
With such an unreliable narrator as Humbert, who is not above bending the truth and painting himself in the best possible light, Lolita is an endlessly engaging novel that invites numerous interpretations and readings. Nabokov personally felt that a reader should reread novels frequently, and Lolita is the type of novel you will want to read again and again.