Literary Devotional: Lolita

I think today’s Literary Devotional is perfect for Banned Books Week, more of which I will discuss later.  Til then, enjoy.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) was among the most brilliant and controversial novels of the twentieth century.  The novel’s notoriety initially overshadowed its literary merit, but as the din subsided, readers and critics realized that Lolita broke new ground not only by virtue of its content but also with its narrative voice and technique.

Born in 1899 in Russia, Nabokov was educated in England, where he started a writing career.  After publishing several novels, he moved to the United States to become a professor.  Along the way, he developed a stylized, self-consciously intellectual voice that readers tended either to love or hate.

Lolita portrays the tortured sexual obsession of a middle-aged professor, Humbert Humbert, for a twelve-year-old girl.  Originally from Paris, Humbert moves to the United States and takes a room at a widow’s house after seeing her young daughter, Dolores, sunbathing in the garden.  He goes so far as to marry the widow in order to stay close to Dolores, or “Lolita,” but the widow soon dies.  Although Humbert and Lolita indeed consummate their relationship, the capricious girl loses interest.  Eventually Humbert realizes that, for once, his lust has actually transformed into real love; Lolita, however, rejects his advances.

As a narrator, Humbert is skillful and expressive yet delusional and wholly unreliable, twisting the facts with graceful, poetic language that disguises the truly disturbing nature of his obsession with young girls.  By his account, it is Lolita who seduces him, and his preoccupation with “nymphets” is merely a byproduct of his tragic childhood romance.  Humbert’s famous opening lines set the novel’s playful but unsettling tone:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.  Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo. Lee. Ta.

Upon finishing Lolita in 1955, Nabokov could not find a willing publisher in the United States; the work was published in France, where critics found it either brilliant or utterly obscene.  The novel was widely banned and did not appear in the United States until 1958, when it became a bestseller.  Today, it is a prized as a perceptive literary investigation of sexuality and repression, as well as a prime example of the unreliable narration that was a hallmark of postmodern literature.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale


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