Book Review: Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

I read this book 2 to 3 years ago, found it recently as I was packing my cupboard, and embarked on reading it again.

Nabokov is Russian but he published his first novel in English, and his mastery of his second language is nothing short of amazing. Some trivial background on why I was interested in the book: In the mid-90s, Natalie Portman starred in Leon/The Professional. I was excited cos I had watched Nikita, was really into assasins and considered killing a very glamourous occupation (pls bear in mind that I was about 14 haha). Anyway, I read reviews of Leon, and Natalie’s character was often referred to as Lolita-like. Being a curious teen, I started wondering who exactly Lolita was. The book wasn’t easy to find- at least not in those times when there were no major bookstores. I tried asking around, couldn’t get it, forgot about it, and then voila! found it in Kino a couple of years back.

The book’s main character is Humbert, a dashing college professor with a painful secret- he is a paedophile. He is obsessed with girl-children, nymphets he calls them, but does not have the guts to do anything, until he meets the love of his life, Lolita. She is described in loving detail, but is basically just a 12-year-old kid. To cut a long story short, he marries the girl’s mother. When the mother dies in a freak accident, he takes over as Lolita’s guardian- no prizes for guessing what he eventually does to her.

The book is hard to read. I had to use a dictionary and er wikipedia to help me, cos’ ever so often, French phrases would pop out, and the language, while beautiful, is complex. Just a wee bit of carelessness, just skip a couple of seemingly mundane details,  and I guarantee you would be lost at the very end.

Looking into Humbert’s mind is extremely disconcerting. He’s clearly sick and cruel in the way he uses threats to frighten the pubescent girl into staying with him. Yet, he is also very lucid, very intelligent, and in his final act, shows perhaps more capacity to love than cold Lolita. The book is a joy to read precisely because of Nabokov’s ability to weave such rich and three-dimensional characters. Even Lolita is not a clueless victim- the precocious child is almost heartless and understands the power of her sexuality.

The book is a terrific read if you have the time- think a good week on a beach, slowly savouring its content. Otherwise, it will make a fantastic literature textbook. Just not a good leisurely choice.

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