Gosh, what a novel.

(I’d seen the 1998 film version a couple of times but had not previously read the book. Now I have, and it is fair to say that – from memory – the film is on the whole very faithful to the novel, despite the inevitability of certain details being missed out or changed.)

The anti-hero, the ridiculously named Humbert Humbert, is a middle-aged academic, a divorcee who grew up and was educated in Europe before travelling to America following an inheritance that required him to become slightly involved in a family perfume business. He is also a paedophile, specifically he desires a certain type of girl, aged between nine and fourteen, which he calls a nymphet. We are given to understand that this predeliction is bound up in, and may or may not be a result of, his first, teenaged passion for a girl called Annabel who tragically died before their mutual desire could be properly consummated.

When Humbert discovers the eponymous Lolita (called by her family and friends Dolores, Dolly, Lo, Lola – it is only Humbert who calls her Lolita), he is instantly smitten. He moves into her home, first as a lodger and then as husband to her widowed mother, Charlotte Haze. When Charlotte dies unexpectedly, Humbert takes off with his new prize – a 12-year-old nymphet step-daughter – for a non-stop year-long tour across America.

Attracted by his devilish charm, good looks and sophistication Dolores Haze is already half-smitten with Humbert, in a girl-meets-movie-star kind of way, and so her seduction is accomplished with remarkable ease. What is more difficult for Humbert is to keep his Lolita where he wants her, and he uses a mixture of adoration, charm, bribery, authority, trickery and threats to do it. As you can imagine, in time the latter techniques overtake and supersede the former.

The climax of the story – how he loses her, how he finds her again, what he does next… show the disintegration and disastrous outcome of the (for him) blissful paradise world that he constructed out of the compassionless subjugation of this orphan, this Dolly. The novel shows the pathetic, yet monstrous, position in which a man puts himself when he seduces and enslaves a girl who is dependent on him. It is an analysis of the perspective of this particular paedophile*, of his pleasures and pains, the torture and havoc that he himself goes through as well as his wilfull heedlessness of the pain, torture and havoc that he inflicts on a helpless child. Towards the end, there is a suggestion that he begins to grasp what he has done to her – but no suggestion that her suffering is as valid as his own, no suggestion that he seriously regrets the pleasure he had at her, very dear, expense.

[*Let’s not suggest that all paedophiles are like Humbert. I don’t happen to know any (I hope), but I strongly suspect that many, perhaps most, paedophiles are somewhat different from, and somewhat less endearing in their cruelty than, the jovial Humbert.]

This portrait of a monster is everything that the hideously awful, nauseating American Psycho might have been reaching for but failed even to approach. Lolita is powerful, absorbing, shocking, touching, humourous, gentle, horrendous, moving, complex and, importantly, very readable.

Here is an Amazon link.
I’d already got a copy, waiting to be read.

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