This is a novel which should be approached and dealt with very, very carefully indeed. What Nabokov has done here remains as liable to detonate and rip the world apart now as it did when it was first published nearly 50 years ago.
In particular because child sexual abuse is more in the headlines that it ever has been, Lolita is a novel that is likely to divide popular opinion. In much the same way as Imre Kertesz’ Fateless does, it forces the reader to face the dilemma of what you do when something so repugnant is depicted so skilfully. With such sensitivity to the protagonists in the writing, you can’t help but sympathise with them while at the same time having to constantly wrestle back to the forefront of your mind the reality of what is laid before you.
Lolita is a well-known story of a man’s affair with a 12-year-old girl and the escapades they go to in order to maintain the secrecy of their relationship. It is astonishingly well written. Nabokov is one of the best writers of prose I think I’ve ever read. Of that there is no doubt, and I am very much looking forward to reading more of his novels. But it’s the fact that it’s so well written that brings about the dilemma that I’ve mentioned and the novel is pure genius for this construction.
The novel is also genius for the fact that it is just as (if not more) relevant for us today as it was on publication. Back when this was written, it wasn’t only paedophilia that was taboo. Homosexuality was also very much something people would hide from the authorities. Today, one of these has now become perfectly acceptable to popular culture in the United States, the setting of Nabokov’s novel, while he other is still regarded as a criminal offence.
One might argue that homosexuality and paedophilia differ in that the former occurs, at least in society’s accepted form, between consenting adults whereas the latter does not. But Nabokov also challenges this assumption. How reliable a narrator Humbert Humbert really is we will never know. But, according to him, it is he that is seduced by Lolita, not the other way around. Does this then justify it? At what age are we able to make choices about what we do with our bodies? Homosexuality in the UK used to be a criminal offence and was then legalised for consenting adults over 21… then 18… and now 16 years of age. How did this reduction happen? Have we evolved to become more mature sexually at a younger age or is this simply based on society’s view of what is acceptable or not? How can sex at 15 years 11 months of age be a crime when, a month later, it is a right?
So, will 2065 see a US society that accepts a 42 year old marrying a 12 year old? Maybe it will. And if you find this repugnant, what do you think will prevent it? Why will your grandchildren not find your current ‘prudish’ and ‘bigoted’ views about paedophilia derisory and so, oh, Old Testament? When society makes its moral rules simply through democratic opinion, all you need is a majority for it to be acceptable. When Lolita was published, it was unthinkable to many that a 16 year old boy could ever legally have sex with another and yet we live in such a time. What is unthinkable to us now will almost certainly be permissible in the future. History has taught us that and the novel as an art form has been its voice.
This has not only made my Hall of Fame (the first since Growth of the Soil over two years ago), but it has equalled the highest ever rating that I’ve ever given a book tying with Cry, the Beloved Country at 95%. That is quite an achievement, but definitely a deserved one.
Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style
Read more about how I come up with my ratings