by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov said that there are only three kinds of themes unpublishable in America: stories about succeeding at miscegenation, stories about successful atheists, and what Lolita is about (also, certainly, a success story). Readers out there know what the infamous Lolita is about, yes? Nabokov has written it so eloquently that attempts by Classic Bitch—or, hilariously, ANY critic—to paraphrase in a review what Lolita is about can really only end in plainspoken descriptions that read like child pornography. This is one of Nabokov's traps (or maybe "Trapp," for those of you who have read the book recently). For example, I'll bet you didn't you know that you can use a child who squirms on your lap to masturbate against, or what it's like to get a handjob from a child in school while watching other children, or how exquisite it is to fuck a child with a fever because her vagina feels hot to the touch around your penis. See? Now Nabokov WROTE none of that. At least not in English. He'll lapse into Latin or French in those moments, or simply imply gorgeously. There's not a single dirty word between these covers, but all of those things—and much much more—are all in this book! And isn't that the draw? That shadow-side (that's the umber, Humbert), the unknowable, the anticipated, the unreliable, the fantasized, the imagined.

In addition to obfuscation that serves to beautify, Nabokov is also master of parsing his details. So while it would be enough for the sake of forwarding the plot to understand that a grown man had had sex with an adolescent girl, readers only will ever ultimately learn the finer points of what happened IF they continue reading (for Nabokov knows people quit). He's done it roughly here, tenderly there; he's done it three times in a row here, had a quickie there; he's maybe ripped her once, etc. Humbert Humbert is painted with such pathos though! He even believes—as do many real-life pedophiles—preposterously, that the child seduces HIM. Although children have no agency and can't give consent, the times the girl DOESN'T conceptualize it as rape, might you believe she's enjoying it? Guess what: One is fully halfway through the book before Humbert reveals an incredibly key detail: Lolita cries afterward; every single time.

So...if you're horrified...I have to return to the fact that this is an antagonist depicted with skillful pathos. I'm sorry, but Nabokov has made me love Humbert Humbert. This is, of course, the tallest of orders, and it's executed solely through language. If you want to hate child molesters, don't read Lolita. (A nice cinematic counterpart might be the pedophile in Todd Solondz's 1998 film Happiness.)

Provocatively, Humbert Humbert is at once the keenest observer of other characters and at once supremely uninterested in them. (After all, he has his prize, so beyond obsessively describing Lolita he's only ever focused on what or whom might threaten.) This tension or duality comes off as totally effective comedy. Nabokov can depict a lot—in English words so fitting & onomatopoetic it's a wonder we native speakers have never thought of them—about another character's genitalia, for example, as descried though swim trunks. If it's a sexual, sensual, or corporal detail about a person, Humbert's on it! But when expected to keep up on characters' NAMES, he falls agonizingly short! So an across-the-street neighbor is "Old Miss Opposite." The mother of his prey? "Big Haze." And that Russian cabdriver? Why, he's, simply: "Taxovitch." Of course. Every character—aside from the titular one & her predator—is laughably one dimensional. It's an incredibly skewed narrative. Readers inhabit the singular debauched world—right there along with them!—of the only two people who exist. The sobriquets come about from the narrator's sheer disinterest in other people...other than his cynosure. There is only, ever, Lolita; the first and last word of the book.

Lolita, true to Nabokov's form, is also a book full of wordplay, puzzles, mystery, adumbration, literary references, anagrams, & delicious portmanteaux (it might even make me appreciate Pale Fire a little more). And just as J.D. Salinger adored midcentury New York City on the pages of The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita is a loving portrait of roadtripping through midcentury America, with all the acutely realized details available only to a guy like Nabokov. (For instance, I'll bet you've never considered that there are only three basic subtypes of motorcourt manager: ex-con, retired teacher, or failed businessman. Right??) Lolita is both comedy and tragedy. Perhaps...even most of is a profound love story and a tale of revenge. (If you've kidnapped someone, pray tell to what authority do you turn when your quarry herself is stolen from you?) This is an intensely felt book. It's certainly not for everyone. But for Classic Bitch, it is a book I didn't want to end.