What a book! Such great, fine writing. And English isn't even his first language! In the author's note at the back of my edition (more on this in a second) VN apologizes, saying, "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses - the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions - which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way."
I find it infinitely interesting that the punning, and nicknaming, and playful experimentation with language is coming from someone who is not native to English (and so perhaps bored with routine constructions, etc) - like Joseph Conrad, one of the greats of English Lit, whose English wasn't even his second language.
So, let's get the reputation out of the way right off - the book is about a grown man, Humbert Humbert, sleeping with a 12 year old girl, Dolores Haze, or Lo, or Lolita. The book is also cited every single time a teacher crosses the line and gets with a student, especially if the teacher is a man.
Told as some kind of police statement, or a rationale for crimes committed, the book follows the adventures of Humbert as he explains the circumstances leading up to his meeting with Lolita, and her consequent two year long kidnap-and-rape roadtrip.
Humbert has the misfortune of renting a room in Lo's mom's house. Right from their first meeting Humbert feels an attraction for Lolita. She reminds him of his first child-lover, Valeria. And it seems Humbert has an eye for detail, and he pores over Lolita's body, in detail, over and over.
When Lolita is sent to camp her mother leaves a note explaining for Humbert and asking him to leave. Not able to break away from Lolita, Humbert decides he will marry the mother and then keep Lolita as a side project. Unfortunately the mother unit discovers Humberts journals and tries to kick him out of the house. On her way to mail some hastily written letters describing Humbert's perversions, Mrs Haze is run over by a car and killed (an echo of the Great Gatsby?).
Now Lolita is all Humbert's! How exultant he is! He can barely keep his composure. He rushes through the funeral and races to the camp to pick up Lolita, his Lolita. And for the next two years he keeps Lolita his prisoner and sex pet.
At first, in their very first physical encounter in the house as she is leaving for camp, Lolita makes the first move. She runs into the house and kisses him full on the lips. But even this has been built and stoked by Humbert by way of little "innocent" kisses and pets.
Then, when they are finally alone in the hotel room, Humbert drugs her in order to take advantage of her as she sleeps. But the pills are not strong enough and as he lays next to her, pretending to be asleep, she crawls over to him and jumps his bones. He is astonished.
Sometimes it was difficult for me to remember that she is 12-14 years old as the story progresses. He speaks of her in adult terms, and in our newspapers (and our webpages of "barely legal" porn) the term Lolita has come to mean young, but almost old enough.
But always before US is her childishness; she wants to ride her bike with her friends; she wants to go to dances and get sodas and hang out with her friends from the school play. But jealous Humbert won't have it and keeps her captive. He even apportions her allowance based on sexual favors and promises of loyalty! When he comes for her more than once in the night she says, "oh no!" but yet he persists.
The book, Humbert's road trip sex adventure, was published just a year after On the Road. I'm sure the Grown Ups thought the country was headed off a cliff.
Eventually Humbert and Lolita separate. And for good. She runs off with another child molester, this one a movie producer, and eventually she gets married. Humbert goes insane. When he comes out of it he tracks down Lolita and finds her a pregnant 17-year old. He gives her all of his money, and her mother's money, and asks her one more time to run away with him.
When she declines, he moves on with his mission to kill the guy who took his Lolita away from him. And this is what he iwnds up in jail for - this is the crime that compels him to write the story which is the book. All throughout he addresses us readers as members of the jury - as if we are to judge him. Are we to pass judgement on his actions, or decide a sentence?
I read an annotated copy and I think I would have missed out on a lot if I hadn't had the notes to accompany me on the journey. And not just for elaboration of the hundreds of puns in the book. More for the references that Nabokov is making on purpose:
1. the Haze house is 342. The hotel room where Lo and Humbert get together is 342. When he goes searching for Quilty after Lo is gone, he stops at 342 places.)
2. There's a lot of james Joyce in there, some of it direct and obvious (at one point HH actually uses the phrase "portrait of the artist as a young" (and I think he says pervert, but I can't find the quote now). Nabokov was one of Joyce's groupies (Nabokov considers Ulysses a masterpiece and Finnegan's Wake a piece of garbage. But more of that later.)
3. Quilty is there in the whole book. In my book's Notes he has his first reference on page 4. Clare Quilty's mistress is Vivian Darkbloom, an anagram of..wait for it...Vladimir Nabokov.
4. Edgar Allan Poe references galore (including Annabell Lee/Lo-lee-ta explanations and correlations).
There's tons more but we'll start there...