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Why 'Lolita' Remains Shocking, And A Favorite

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Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This week, All Things Considered is talking with authors about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.

Asking a fiction writer to recommend his favorite book is a little like asking a father to pick his favorite child, like asking an adulterer to name his favorite lover. The writer will hem and haw, the father will equivocate, the adulterer will say he loves them all the same, just in different ways. Of course, we're lying. We all have a favorite: She stood "four foot ten in one sock." "She was Lola in slacks. She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning." But in our arms she will always be Lolita.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's immaculate and disturbing masterpiece, is the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert and his tragic love affair with his 12-year-old, bubble-gum popping stepdaughter Dolores "Lolita" Haze. It's a post-war road novel, the odyssey of a venerable European man and a prepubescent American girl bouncing across the United States, trying to outrun the past and find a future that doesn't exist. The prose is by turns passionate and playful, while the narrative is simultaneously lyrical and unsettling and erotic and violent — did I mention that, in addition to being a child molester, Humbert is also a murderer? It's a kind of inverted detective story: You immediately know someone's been killed, but have to wait to find out who. The book, which can be viewed as an allegory for Europe's relationship with America, offers a depiction of love that is as patently original as it is brutally shocking.

More shocking, though, is the reaction the author somehow manages to elicit from his readers: empathy. Readers always read, I think, out of a tremendous curiosity about other human beings, we're looking for another soul on the page, and that's what Nabokov has so fearlessly, so complexly, so gorgeously given us. In a lesser writer's hands, we could easily dismiss Mr. Humbert as a monster, but Nabokov denies us that all-too comfortable option. Even if we would never condone his vain and deadly infatuation, we understand it. We're complicit in his sins, and our complicity is seductive and terrifying. "Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury... look at this tangle of thorns."

To be sure, this novel isn't for the faint of heart, but neither should prospective readers retreat to any kind of moral high ground. Nabokov, in fact, threads an unexpected and affirming emotional serenity through his portrait of obsession. His enigmatic narrator leaves us in spellbound rapture. Because for all of its linguistic pyrotechnics — as Humbert confesses, "you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style" — and for all its controversial subject matter, Lolita is one of the most beautiful love stories you'll ever read. It may be one of the only love stories you'll ever read. This is the most thrilling and beautiful and most deeply disturbing aspect of the novel — and it's what most persuasively recommends the book — that in addition to finding Humbert's soul on the page, we also find, like it or not, a little of our own.

NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bret Anthony Johnston
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