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. 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. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

And so begins one of the most infamous, brilliant, unnerving, beautiful, haunting, troubling, and poetic pieces of writing in the English language.

Nabakov was undoubtedly one of the pre-eminent stylists in world literature in the twentieth century, and here he is at the height of his powers. And just in case anyone may think I am using these phrases lightly here, I will be even more explicit: the quality of writing in this novel is truly astonishing throughout. I do not know that anything else I have ever read can quite match it.

It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.

However, the subject in Lolita is perhaps the most taboo of all subjects: the relationship between a grown man and a per-pubescent girl. What could be more shocking? What more abhorrent? Why would anyone want to write such a tale? Why would anyone want to read such a book?

And this is precisely the rub. Substance and style may well be two very different things, but here they are held in such compelling tension by Nabokov throughout that you are compelled to read on. That is the challenges that the author sets for us: can we suspend moral judgement in favour of aesthetic appreciation?

Now at this point, I should certainly point out that whilst the story is about a troubled man and his very unhealthy relationship with a young girl, the text is not gratuitous or obscene.  The novel is really an intellectual examination into the nature of desire and the complex relations and power struggles that affect most couples. I tend to shy away from overly controversial texts, but after reading so many fine authors recommend this book (it was Graham Greene who first brought it to wider attention), I thought I would try it and I am pleased I did.

I really could write so much about this novel, but all I am going to say here is this: read it.

Lay aside any preconceptions you may have and read it now. You may not necessarily feel comfortable with the premise, but this is a truly astonishing work of literature.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

And presently I was driving through the drizzle of the dying day, with the windshield wipers in full action but unable to cope with my tears.