It’s not often we see novels you can call erotic and classic in the same sentence. However, the controversial novel “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov is just that. Critics consider his work as one of the best novels of the 20th century, and yet it is as taboo as anything you’d ever read. Therefore, our article aims to explain why it’s so good, and why you should consider adding it to your bookshelf.
Born in 1899, Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian writer, poet, and translator. He came from a wealthy and prominent family — Nabokov’s grandfather was a Minister of Justice, while his father was a lawyer and politician. On the other hand, his mother was the heiress of a wealthy mine owner.
Growing up in such an upper-class family meant that Vladimir learned Russian, French, and English early. His passion for literature was evident from an early age too. However, he and his family members fled to Western Europe once the Russian Revolution began. Nabokov studied at Cambridge University, focusing on Slavic and Romance languages, as well as zoology.
Later on, he moved to Berlin, writing nine novels while living there. His German years were all over the place. The murder of his father, the rest of his family moving to Prague, his marriage, and the birth of his son, weren’t enough for him to settle. All of this led him to seek refuge somewhere else. This time, he moved to France, but with World War II starting shortly after that, he continued to the United States.
Seeing how he was an entomologist (zoology), Nabokov pursued his lepidoptery. And while searching for butterflies for his collection on a trip across America, he wrote his seminal novel “Lolita.” After some years of critical and commercial success, he returned to Europe, where he eventually died in 1977. Besides “Lolita,” some of his most famous works are “Pale Fire,” “Pnin,” and “The Gift.”
What Was the Novel About?
The controversial novel begins with a foreword by John Ray, a fictional character. He talks about receiving a manuscript by a recently deceased middle-aged convict, Humbert Humbert (H. H.). Continuing to describe the story, he says that it’s disgusting while also beautifully written. It tells a tale of an adult man falling in love and obsessing over a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze.
H. H.’s Manuscript
In his manuscript, H. H. talks about being in love with his first love, another 12-year-old, Annabel Leigh. Unfortunately, before they could consume their relationship, she dies from typhus. This misfortune leads him to obsess about young girls who are sexually aware and calls them nymphets. His search for a girl that reminds him of Annabel leads him to New England, where he marries a widow woman, Charlotte Haze.
Our deranged protagonist begins to groom Dolores, referring to her as “Lolita, light of my life and the fire of my loins.” Subsequently, one day, his new wife stumbles upon his diary. Shocked at what she read, she storms out of the house only to be killed by a passing car. While this is happening, Lolita is at a summer camp where H. H. comes and picks her up. From there, the two of them begin to travel across the United States.
While driving, he begins to suspect that someone’s following them. Soon after, Lolita gets sick, and he leaves her at a local hospital. Once he comes back for her, the nurse tells him that she left with her uncle. Stunned by this, Humbert begins to unsuccessfully search for her. One day, he receives a letter from Dolores that tells him she ran off with Clare Quilty, but that they’re no longer together.
He goes after her, but she refuses to come back. But before he goes, he leaves her some money she’s desperate for and ventures off to kill Quilty. Once he shoots him, he’s arrested and put into jail, where he writes his manuscript. While waiting for the sentence, Humbert’s heart fails him once he hears about Lolita passing away due to childbirth complications.
What Was the Controversy About?
It’s easy to understand why there was such a controversy surrounding “Lolita.” Nabokov’s novel talks about a relationship between an adult and a 12-year-old girl. Not only is hebephilia a criminal and sick act, but the way he wrote about it is troubling yet fascinating. The thing is, Nabokov makes you feel sympathetic for the protagonist until you realize what he’s doing.
It’s a subversive piece of work, turning morals and societal conventions upside down. Moreover, there’s no need to tell you how good the book is. Namely, Stanley Kubrick directed its film adaptation, which by default means it’s a masterpiece. Either way, there’s no doubt it belongs on everyone’s bookshelf since it’s an outstanding piece of literature.