When Vladimir Nabokov decided to write “Lolita,” he certainly didn’t make things easy on himself when he chose to make a sex offender his (anti)hero. (I wish there was a less clinical-sounding word, but pedophile doesn’t seem quite right, either.) With most novels that I read, I try to include a small plot and character synopsis, but I think that I can safely forego that here, and instead talk a bit about what I’d like most like to focus on: the reactions the novel often gets, and Nabokov’s idea of the novel as expressed in several interviews he gave.
Statistically speaking, the ratings (at least on Goodreads) aren’t anomalous. About 14% of the reviews, as of the composition of this review, that have bothered to assign a star rating to the book gave it either one or two stars. What I find most interesting is the vast majority of them have damned it for one reason: the moral character of Humbert Humbert. I find this odd, since no one says “Crime and Punishment” is a horrible book because Raskolnikov is a murderer or because Oliver Twist is an amateur pickpocket. What it is about Humbert that sets people off toward such a reaction by judging the book by the actions of the protagonist instead of the quality of the writing itself? And, since everyone already knows what “Lolita” is all about, who picks this up knowing that they’re already going to assign it such a low rating?
If you’re interested in actually giving this novel the attention that it deserves and not just sanctimoniously trashing it to – what, I don’t know, convince us that you’re really, really not a fan of man-on-child sex? – I suggest some supplementary reading that will fill out Nabokov’s ideas of the novel. What I have in mind to this end is Nabokov’s collection called “Strong Opinions,” which I have also reviewed for this site. I especially recommend the first two-thirds of the book which contains all the interviews (the last third consists mostly of abstruse academic articles about chess and lepidoptery). In it, he clearly explains that he’s not interested in your or anyone else’s sense of moral propriety, “novels of ideas,” or social commentary parading as fiction. If you take Nabokov at his word, or most other modern novelists that have spoken about what they feel about writing fiction, just because someone writes about a character is not an endorsement of that character. If you are among the people who apparently can’t understand this and accuse Nabokov of writing about “a disgusting man using beautiful language,” heed what he has to say. Though my personal favorites are those readers – and I use that word loosely – who claim to be “disturbed” by the novel. Some of these low reviews really are great for comic relief.
My own opinion? I think that the novel’s subject also resulted in its canonical status. Without the Humbert-Lolita dynamic at its center, this novel would have been just another Nabokov novel (that is, stylistically complex and linguistically playful), but I don’t think that it would have the popular reputation that it does. I liked the wordplay and Nabokov’s obvious logophilia and playfulness, but other than that, it’s not something I’m jumping to read again. Then again, I’m of a school that isn’t reactionary when it comes to novels of ideas; in fact, I’m rather fond of the idea, and enjoy reading fiction of this kind. The point here is that, before criticizing fiction (or rather, much more shallowly and uselessly, criticizing its protagonist for his actions), you should get to know what the writer thinks about the job of fiction itself. This isn’t to say that you must agree with it. But it’ll certainly save you posting something embarrassing on Goodreads in the future.