Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov, Alfred A Knopf, 1958, 327 pp
In 2004, I was slogging through the opening pages of Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, feeling hopelessly adrift and factually, bored. I wasn't all that sophisticated a reader seven years ago but I was trying like mad to become one. As a way to get through Nafisi's book, vaguely suspecting that I could learn a few things, I devised the plan to read all four books discussed and then return to the memoir. It was a wise decision which led me to read books I might otherwise still not have read: The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Daisy Miller and of course Lolita. Oddly enough, none of these books turned out to be favorites of mine, but I got an education in literature that I somehow did not get in my Princeton, NJ college prep high school track, nor in two years of college literature classes.
For my readers here who have not read Reading Lolita in Tehran, it is a somewhat dry but none the less fascinating account of a group of Iranian women who met secretly to read forbidden literature in the repressive days under the Ayatollah. They approached these books with the aim of understanding the oppression they were under and to breathe the fresh air of freedom from Western literature.
For my readers who have not read Lolita (and I don't necessarily recommend that you do, but more about that later), Humboldt is a perverted middle-aged European man living in America. He has a thing for pre-pubescent girls. Lolita is twelve when the story opens. H H has married Lolita's mother with the main purpose of getting to Lolita. When the mother dies, Humboldt seduces Lolita. He then keeps her secretly captive as his sex slave, using fear and bribery.
They travel around the United States for a year, giving Nabokov an opportunity to make mockery of cheap motels, tourist attractions, and middle class Americans. It is deadly satire at its best. Lolita finally escapes H H, but unlike other books about preyed upon teenage girls, the reader does not get Lolita's inner world except as perceived by Humboldt.
So I could see how the theme of the book is about suppressor and suppressed, how that extrapolates to totalitarian regimes and authoritarian systems, one of Nabokov's concerns. I could appreciate the excellent writing, the satire, even the excruciatingly drawn out seduction of Lolita for how well it was excruciatingly drawn out. But bottom line, I found it a creepy, eerie book. If you are female and were ever subject to inappropriate advances (or worse) from an older man, just be warned that you will experience uncomfortable hours while reading Lolita. If you are male and have ever contemplated or indulged in such behavior, you should be forced to read it. If you are male or female and have teenage daughters, just go on reading the news but don't read Lolita until they make it safely to adulthood.
You can read all about the rocky early years of Nabokov's book on the internet but when the first American edition was published by Knopf in 1958 it became an instant bestseller and ended the year as the #3 top selling novel. If you think I am weirdly prudish or have entirely missed the point of Lolita, you can let me have it in the comments. For now, that's my story and I am sticking to it.