"She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita."
Alone, heartbroken, and at death's door, Monsieur Humbert Humbert opens his confessions with a passionate reflection on his lost love, Lolita. She is the "light of my life, fire of my loins," he says. With just one sentence, the reader already feels poor Humbert's longing. Romantic, right?
It turns out that Humbert Humbert is a pedophile. Psychologically scarred by the unconsummated love of his youth, he travels through adulthood repressing a dark desire for pubescent "nymphets". Middle-aged Humbert resolves to leave Europe and its memories of young prostitutes and a failed marriage behind in order to forge a new life in the New England area. There are psychological breakdowns and other minute misadventures, but he eventually finds himself in the 1960s suburban home of Charlotte Haze and there falls instantly in love/lust with her daughter, Dolores (a.k.a. Dolly, a.k.a. Lo, a.k.a. Lolita).
Humbert is oppressed by an attraction unlike which he has ever experienced. Furthermore, this illicit and hopeless love is threatened by Charlotte Haze's affection for him and her apparent disdain for Lolita. What is he to do? Luckily, Humbert doesn't have to think too much. A strange twist of events puts Lolita in his custody and sends them on a long journey. However, both Humbert and Lolita realize that they will never be able to outrun the shadows of the past or the shame within themselves.
Despite what some might consider too controversial, uncomfortable, or morally questionable a subject, Lolita is quite simply a masterpiece. Many analyses have condemned Vladimir Nabokov for what might appear to be the romanticization of pedophilia, but I would politely disagree. In fact, what is so incredible about Lolita is that despite the overwhelming poetic prose and biased narrative style of Humbert Humbert, the reader can still hear Nabokov's voice through the novel's subtleties. (Yes, there is something subtle to be found in a pedophile's last confessions. One just has to be perceptive enough to realize it.) I believe that hidden voice does offer some words of disapproval concealed within the abundant use of figurative language; words that the reader is charged with revealing for his or herself. If not denunciation (which I'll admit is quite arguable), Nabokov does make very clear the consequences of Humbert and Lolita's relationship and the effect it has on them and the world through which they travel.
Regardless of how one interprets the verbose, enigmatic, and sensuous language of Lolita, the beauty of Nabokov's delivery and his way with words is beyond dispute. The novel is worth a read for that alone, if not for anything else. I would not, however, recommend it to anyone unable to dig beneath the surface of the text. Even though the language is gorgeous, what's underneath is what Nabokov really wants the audience to appreciate.