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Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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English isn’t English when it’s written by Vladimir Nabokov. Reading Lolita is like learning a new language; one that’s precise, aloof, and full of trickery and playfulness.

If you read the novel with dictionary in hand, and look up every word you haven’t yet met (several a page for me), you’ll be amazed at the perfect choice of word and immaculate sentence construction. There’s so much meat in Lolita‘s telling that I finally understand why some authors compose and others write. Imagine reading a sentence in which the key adjective has three meanings that all apply equally well to a noun — itself one that seldom exists outside the pages of dictionaries — in a way that packs three sentences into one.

If you fed a page of Lolita to a bird, the bird would explode.

In high school, my teachers taught me never to use a big word where a small word would do (“it’s pretentious”, “it makes you harder to understand”, “it slows down the reader”). Lolita illuminates that advice; never use a big word where a small word would do because a small word will never do where a big word does. When Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert uses an obscure, scientific, foreign, or rare English word, he does so because that is exactly what he means.

Synonym is a lie.

My trouble with reading Lolita was that I didn’t know how to approach Nabokov’s new language. I tried to approach it with my brain, but lost its beauty, rhythm, sound; I tried to approach it with my ear, but lost its depth.

New languages require a new way of reading.

Postscript: Fading

It’s been a few weeks since I finished Lolita, and the visceral impact it had on me is fading. The novel’s narrative hasn’t burned itself into my memory, and while I enjoyed the characters, I don’t know them like I know my favourite fictitious friends—HH, CH, and Lo only came over for coffee; they didn’t stay for dinner.

And I wonder how much of that is due to Humbert Humbert’s narration. Typically, the first-person point of view acts as a bridge between reader and narrator, but, in Lolita, it has a distancing effect. Is it because in most first-person narratives, the narrator isn’t as smart and word-savvy as Humbert, or as in-control? In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, for example, I felt more and more pulled into the narrator’s world and mind as I gleaned aspects of her character that she had revealed by accident, because of her lack of control over the telling of her own story. Humbert Humbert doesn’t give himself away in that way. Everything I saw and learned he wanted me to see and learn.

If a book is a dialogue, I was bested by Humbert. He read me, but I couldn’t read him. As a result, I left Lolita knowing more about myself than about H.

Postscript: Writing

I also finished Lolita with a revitalized understanding of the English language, which, I think, is more important than any story or group of characters. Pop-wisdom states that reading makes better writing, but some novels truly live up to the platitude. Writing’s obviously wickedly subjective, but I don’t think anyone can read Lolita and not become a better writer. After all, can you read a book about butterflies or chess and not learn something about butterflies or chess?

To para-paraphrase another famous saying: to read Lolita is to learn to fish.

The great Soviet filmmakers learned to make films by re-editing D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in hundreds of new ways; they didn’t care about the film’s characters or plot as much as about its construction — the language in which it was written, and to which they would soon add their own syntax. Reading Lolita has been a similar education for me. As V. N. said:

How we learn to imagine and express things is a riddle with premises impossible to express and a solution impossible to imagine.

Form and style can be as entertaining, fun, stimulating and enlightening as content. Formalist tendencies, Stalin and Dan Brown be damned!


Although it set off a controversy that still lingers, Vanity Fair was right to famously declare Lolita as:

The only convincing love story of our century.

They simply got the lovers wrong. Humbert Humbert isn’t in love with Lolita; he’s head-over-heels, gaga, drooling-at-the-mouth over nubile words, pure writing, and unblemished, innocent language. Can you handle all the wild, perverse and kinky things he’ll do to them? I hope so.

Lolita is a book for fellow grammaphiles.

Rating: 4.0 / 4.0

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About Pacze Moj

  • Good points, good review. Although I hope that, way back when, I had soaked up some form and style from Nabokov, I definitely know his writing comprised one of the best vocabulary-builders I ever had–surpassing many writers whose first language was English.

  • “If you fed a page of Lolita to a bird, the bird would explode.”

    I absolutely love that line. You’ve firmed up my desire to re-read “Lolita” with this review. Good job, dude.

  • I’m a huge Nabokov fan, huge…What has always impressed me about Lolita is that Nabokov had only learned English in the five years before he wrote it. Makes me feel like a dolt when I can’t construct as decent sentence after 26 years of native speech.

  • Rodney Welch

    The above comment is quite incorrect. Nabokov grew up in a trilingual (Russian, French, English) household, and was educated at Trinity College in Cambridge. A good 14 years before Lolita he wrote his first novel in English (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.) This was the same year he started lecturing — in English — at Wellesley College.

  • I just finished reading Lolita thismorning, read it from about midnight till 3:30am, went to sleep, then carried on reading it when I woke up thismorning. The endings I think is really sad, but it’s had impact on me, I can’t point out what it is, but I think it proves Nabokov to be a genius and the book is a masterpeice.
    I love this reveiw, including the part about the bird!
    Great novel and brilliant love story.

  • Matthew

    You are so right about the language in Lolita – it’s mesmeric. I whole-heartedly second your first points about the value of wrting that doesn’t settle for good enough, but which stretches the reader and asks them to work a little harder to enjoy the language used.