"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."
If books have to be about something, Lolita is about a middle-aged man raping a little girl. But I don't think that books have to be about something; Humbert Humbert's abuse of his "nymphette" is merely the convenient setting, not the subject, of Nabakov's delightful wallowing in in words.
Lolita is a novel told in pictures and the images span from faded highway postcards to twisted Rockwellian dreams to Daliesque vistas of a strange continent littered with sideshow freaks and smoking starlets. Lolita is the debauchery of a love story, of a western, of a travel journal, of all the little worlds that Humbert derides his gum-smacking darling for adoring.
The language of the novel is exultantly slimy, slithering playfully over puns and pronunciation to dabble with plosives and sibilants in an echo chamber of joy, relentlessly (and brilliantly) drawing the reader down a rabbit hole to observe and be entangled by the neurotic struggles of humble, horrible, Humbert. Action is detached - removing by language the reader from the actors acting. Lust is pervasive, maintained and swollen page by page by prose. The mood of the book is a constant feeling of repulsive indulgence and the anxiety of exposure - the feeling of using a whore in a parking lot under hazy afternoon sunlight. The words cling and stick and suck to the reader, rambling through thoughts hours after the covers are closed. It's delicious.
In 1956 Nabakov said that "an American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel. The substitution of 'English language' for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant formula more correct." Nabakov's affair is torrid and lovely. The film it seems to leave on your fingers fades, but not quickly, and snippets of his language will drift to you at the most inconvenient times for months after you've finished with it.
This is one of those books in the modern canon that some people seem to think is clever - they read it to have read it and to be seen reading it. Those people are bullshit. You should read this book because it will give you a total hardon for words. It's not an easy read. You won't get through it quickly. Some parts of the story are profoundly distasteful. The horrific narrator is not wholly unsympathetic and when you realize that you hate yourself a little bit. But it's all worthwhile for the words - Nabakov is Fred Astaire and you're a startled Ginger Rogers with every page you turn in this book and the dance is dizzying and wonderful.
Nabakov, Vladimir. Lolita. Random House. New York: New York. 1997. (Originally published 1955.)