Impossible to rate as it's an awful subject, but very well written. The skill of the book (and what makes it most disturbing for me), is that it isn't a clear-cut story of innocent child and predatory adult (which is not to excuse Humbert's actions).
Since writing this review, I've discovered that Nabokov was a synaesthete
. If I (re)read him, I'll have to bear that in mind. See: http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2012/02/06/inside-the-mind-of-a-synaesthete/ .
This book raises many intriguing and troubling questions, balanced out by beautiful writing. Some see it as a love story, but I see no love - not even self love. The subject is appalling, but it’s not explicit, which has the disturbing effect of making the reader complicit in Humbert’s fantasies and later, his actions.
It is written as the supposedly honest confession of a paedophile, with overtones of necrophilia (initially he intends to drug her to rape her) and incest (when he is Lolita’s (step)father and even fantasises about her bearing him a child to replace her in his sexual affections). It mixes psychological self-analysis, wry humour, literary flourishes and endless excuses and justifications, though at other times he relishes his debauchery. Mostly he writes in a detached way, especially early on, occasionally slipping into the third person for himself.
Although it’s meant to be “true”, I couldn’t see why Lolita stuck with Humbert once the initial excitement had worn off, even allowing for the fact she enjoyed manipulating him for gifts and money (her lose morals, he said) and there was no one obvious for her to turn to. Nor was there any explanation as to why she was so sexually precocious (it seems to predate her fling at summer camp), which is odd, as it could have provided further justification for Humbert. Also, the bit where the headmistress of Beardsley School tells Humbert that she is “morbidly uninterested in sexual matters” was bizarrely implausible.
Humbert gives plenty reasons why he should not feel guilty (“nymphets” are demoniac; it’s a natural urge; other societies allow such relationships; if she was drugged she’d never know; it’s not as bad as murder; he’s generous and indulgent), but Nabokov muddies it further by the fact that Lolita is not a virgin and actually takes the initiative in their first sexual encounter and at least one subsequent one, even though she doesn’t appear to enjoy it. That's enough justification for Humbert (hopefully not Nabakov), and leaves the reader unsettled and unconvinced.
The second half of the book is more muddled and, at times manic, reflecting Humbert’s own decline. After all the dreadful things he does, his final downfall is a literal but relatively trivial crossing of the line: a gloriously ironic way to end such a troubling novel.
Would such a book be published today, now society is more paranoid about paedophiles? Zoe Heller wrote Notes on a Scandal (called [b:What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal A Novel|13258|What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal |Zoë Heller|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1317792264s/13258.jpg|18650] in the US), but that was an older woman with a teenage boy. What does the writing of such a book say about Nabokov and, more troublingly, what does the reading of it say about me?
(My review of Notes on a Scandal is here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/43469719.)