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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

November 17, 2017


Lolita is a masterful and unsettling novel. It’s ranked #4 on the Modern Library’s list of greatest novels of the 20th Century. In Slate, Stephen Metcalf makes the point that unlike other novels deemed too scandalous for their time but tame to the modern reader, Lolita will never be anything but disturbing. It’s the story of a professor, Humbert Humbert, who has an affair with his twelve-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita.

The subject matter may be what made Lolita infamous, but what makes it brilliant is the challenge Nabokov sets up for himself. He creates a character who is revealed to us in the first pages as a criminal pervert, and then he tries to win us back with charm, intelligence, sophistication, wit and self-deprecating humor, all dressed up in beautiful language.

Lolita is a book about seduction, but not the seduction of man and girl. We, the “dear reader,” are the targets of the seduction. Humbert addresses us directly often in his long-winded attempt to earn our empathy. And in the moments when we find ourselves seeing Humbert’s humanity, enjoying his jokes or admiring the writing, we are jerked back in revulsion when we remember Humbert’s true nature. But in those moments, we, the reader, become the target of our own revulsion.

It is a good trick. It would be campy or ham-fisted to try it with, say, a cannibalistic serial killer as the protagonist. A pedophile is a greater, audacious challenge—a high wire. A high wire upon which Nabokov strolls, twirls and flips, winking at us all the while.

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