Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
Vladimir Nabokov is a terrific writer. Too bad he’s a lousy novelist. Take Lolita, for instance, which tells the story of a middle-aged man engaged in an obsessive sexual affair with a prepubescent girl. The novel is a classic of modern literature. It is, in fact, number 4 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels of the 20th century. It does more than just stand on its own as a celebrated piece of writing; Lolita also inhabits the cultural consciousness, giving us a name for a female archetype we choose to see in American society: the young seductress who mercilessly ruins a man’s life. That the archetype has slightly misinterpreted the book’s character is by now irrelevant. (The movie released in 1962, which, significantly, cast Lolita as a somewhat older and more consciously intentioned young woman, is probably responsible as well.)
The power of the novel is in Nabokov’s charismatic portrayal of Humbert Humbert, the afore-mentioned obsessed pedophile. Humbert is a charming narcissist, formed, robed, and lit from all angles by Nabokov’s engrossing, dizzying prose. The writing is so gorgeous you are drawn into Humbert’s worldview even if you are revolted by his actions. Even if you are revolted by the author’s attitude—because this writer’s skill with language creates such a convincing world it is hard to avoid thinking that he and his character have core qualities in common.
The first trouble with Lolita is that is an erotic novel taken as literature. (I won’t say “masquerading as”—maybe Mr. Nabokov never meant it to be anything more than titillating.) It was written and published at a time when its sex scenes, if not its theme, were shocking. It is one of those novels that shifted perceptions of what could be considered acceptable in a book you read openly on the train. Nevertheless, you can imagine the edges of certain pages becoming soft and dirty from repeated thumbing. Read from the perspective of the current Twitter era, it starts to read more like a porno, with a plot built to get from one throbbing panting scene to the next.
The second trouble with the novel is the character of Lolita. Where Humbert is a lovingly crafted human being of full character, story, family, inner thoughts, and idiosyncratic morality, poor Lolita is nothing but a light sketch of a girl, who is abandoned by her creator, then sketched again, and once more abandoned, and so on through her miserable slice of the plot until it becomes clear that she is not a character at all but merely a series of misogynist stereotypes, none of them bearing much resemblance to the one who came before, the one coincidentally bearing her same name. Lolita never rings true, except as she reminds you in one of her incarnations of some type of female whom you distain.
The third trouble, of course, is the theme. Humbert exploits the girl Dolores, turning her into “Lolita” and making her culpable for her own fate as well as for his. He grooms her, coerces her, rapes her, all with her complicity, like a good child molester. Feminism and children’s rights, not to mention the recent public trials of a variety of supposedly trustworthy child mentors, post-date the writing of this novel and it is impossible now to read it without these lenses. What were the attitudes toward exploitation of children in Nabokov’s heyday? Presumably much more lenient, as even later Woody Allen’s character in one of his movies casually rattles off “minor pedophilia” in a list of wholly unrelated misdemeanors, as if it were on a par with shoplifting an LP. On the other hand, there is Death in Venice, another story of a middle-aged man pining after an inappropriate love object written an entire generation or more earlier, the difference being that that novel is about age and youth, it is about romance and regret, it is about beauty; Lolita is about sex.
A great novelist reveals the humanity of all his characters, even if that isn’t his primary intent. Lolita has engendered one memorable character in Humbert Humbert and one unfortunate repository of our societal illness in the girl Lolita. Nabokov is an artist, no doubt, but one who frustrates our expectations by choosing sensationalism over substance. Obviously, the Modern Library disagrees with me. Go read the book for yourselves.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also an editorial assistant for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.