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April 19, 2010 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

Lo-lee-ta. This astonishing book by Vladimir Nabokov is a sumptuous and brilliantly nuanced love note to the beauty of the English language and the madness of passion. Paedophilic passion, that is. Set in the early fifties against a vivid American backdrop, we’re introduced to Humbert Humbert, a forty-something professor who looks back on his life and tries in equal measure to validate, and condemn, his curious perversion. His vice of choice? Little girls aged nine to 14. He calls them nymphets, and the bulk of his story is devoted to the biggest nymphet of them all—Lolita. Lolita is the 12-year-old daughter of the widow who owns the boarding house in which Humbert is living. She comes armed with red lipstick, long legs, and a lascivious soda-pop vocabulary that lets you know she’s down for anything.

Enamoured with Humbert’s European gentility and classic good looks, mother and daughter compete for his affection, until mummy dearest issues him with an ultimatum: marry her or leave forever. Humbert picks the former. Fate intervenes when the new Mrs Humbert dies in a freak car accident, leaving orphaned Lolita in the eager, sweaty hands of our eloquent paedophile, and this is where the real story begins. Humbert drags his ambivalent ‘daughter’ along on the mother of all road trips—a sleep-your-way-around-America affair, during which Nabokov’s genius shines in portraying Humbert as a sainted sinner. He is as likeable as he is loathsome, loving Lolita with all of his unworthy heart but knowing that he is condemning her to a half-existence. Humbert’s prose is the literary equivalent of eating liquored chocolate: refined and glorious. He is the most unreliable of narrators, but thanks to Nabokov’s superb characterisation, we find ourselves willing to overlook that particular fact, and reserve our judgement of the doomed Humbert and his corrupted Lolita.

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