Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Penguin Books)

There are some people who say that Vladimir Nabokov is the greatest novelist of all time, above Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Proust.

For my money, those three overshadow him, along with quite a few others, but he is nevertheless one of the great stylists of the modern novel.

When Lolita was published in 1956 it caused as great a storm of controversy as did the publication and subsequent trial that D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was subjected to in the 1920s.

It’s not hard to see why.

Lolita is a 12-year-old nymph who flirts and toys with the emotions and desires of a man a good 40 years older than her.

A novel like this wouldn’t stand a chance of getting published in the super-sensitive moral climate that prevails in society today. And with the sexual predators and child-porn brokers who relentlessly prowl the internet that is a very good thing.

The man in question is Humbert Humbert, an itinerant who finds lodging with a middle-aged woman who is the mother of Lolita.

Humbert Humbert (why did Nabokov give him such a ridiculous name?) becomes infatuated with Lolita almost as soon as he lays eyes on her.

His intentions towards her are both sexual and tender but it is the perverse magic that Nabokov weaves that saves Lolita from being a purely pornographic novel.

It contains no sex scenes as such and the prose is pristine and as clean-cut as crystal. It is Nabokov’s genius that has made this book a classic of unrequited love. It is a master work of sensuality and artistry.

The sheer beauty of the writing overcomes any charges of paedophilia thanks to Nabokov’s breath-taking brilliance.

He is one of the most eloquent writers to have ever put pen to paper. And it must have taken some real courage to write the book in the first place, and then withstand the storm of protest that broke out in America over its publication.

To complicate matters, Lolita’s mother falls for Humbert Humbert and as her attentions become more and more cloying the greater does the poor man’s longing to possess Lolita intensify.

Obviously the situation cannot last. Humbert Humbert gets desperate to possess Lolita more fully and that results in increasingly tense and dangerous manoeuvres.

I wouldn’t want to give the suspenseful outcome of the novel away to interested readers, suffice it to say that the relationship is doomed.

Vladimir Nabokov was born in Russia and then moved to America with his family in 1940. He went on to become a professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University and one of the most famous English novelists of his time.

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