Vladimir Nabokov was a prolific author in his time, writing novels such as Pale Fire and Bend Sinister, but his most famous and most controversial is, undeniably, Lolita. It is not only Nabokov’s most notorious and enduring work, it is one of the best-selling novels of the 20th century and an icon of popular culture.
Humbert Humbert, the protagonist and narrator of Lolita, finds himself drawn to pre-pubescent girls, “nymphets” as he calls them. He becomes infatuated with the 12-year-old Dolores Haze, his landlady’s daughter, and constructs an elaborate plan to seduce her. With the death of Lolita’s mother, they set out on a journey across the U.S, embarking upon a destructive relationship.
Lolita has incited controversy since its publication in 1955 and continues to do so even now. Only last week, the Nabokov Museum – now a museum dedicated to his life and works – in St Petersburg, Nabokov’s childhood home, was broken into and vandalised. A window was smashed and the word ‘paedophile’ was spray painted on the walls. Last October, a one man stage show based on Lolita, scheduled to premiere in St Petersburg, was cancelled when the theatre director began to receive threatening notes. The production eventually went ahead in December, but the organiser of the show was beaten by three unidentified attackers.
These are just the latest in a long series of attacks against this iconic work and the man who created it. Upon its publication, Lolita was banned in many countries including France, Belgium and Argentina. John Gordon, editor of the Sunday Express, called it “sheer unrestrained pornography”.
Why has Lolita endured and why does it continue to incite such consternation? The subject matter is undeniably controversial; particularly now, at a time when society is more preoccupied than ever with child abuse and more aware than ever of its consequences. But to state that Lolita is simply about pedophilia is too simplistic. It is the story of an obsessive love and its tragic consequences, the destruction of a young girl’s childhood.
It is due to Nabokov’s diabolical wit and, as he himself described it, his “love affair with the English language” that Lolita manages to be more than its simply disturbing narrative.
Thanks to Nabokov’s superb style, Humbert, a character who should be hateful, is complex and almost pitiful. He is at once grotesque, funny and utterly tragic. We learn that he does feel some remorse; at one point he hears children playing outside and recoils at the idea that he has robbed Lolita of her childhood.
Lolita is not a moral tale, as Nabokov himself pointed out many times. He makes no attempt to force the reader to empathize or identify with any of the characters, feeling instead that the structure and language of a novel were far more important. It’s thanks to this, and to Nabokov’s seductive prose, that more than 60 years later, Lolita remains as dark, as sharp, and as disturbingly beautiful as ever.