This is the fictional autobiography of one Humbert Humbert, written in his jail cell near the end of his life. He is very erudite and quite engaging despite being unhealthily obsessed with young girls. He falls in love with the title character (his landlady’s young daughter) and ends up taking her on an extended road trip across the USA. They purport to be father and daughter but are actually lovers. At the beginning Lolita seems reasonably willing to go along with everything, but Humbert gradually reveals how controlling he is and how unhappy Lolita really is. He slowly loses his grip and eventually loses Lolita, and commits the crime that finally lands him in jail. The writing throughout is clever, inventive and endlessly rewarding to read, despite the bleak and tawdry subject matter.
There is a bit of a developing mystery during the story, but that was destroyed for me because I made the mistake of reading The Annotated Lolita rather than the original. The annotations are by Alfred Appel Jr, whose approach is summed up by the phrase “manic pedantry”. I’d say most of the annotations are either boringly obvious or worthlessly irrelevant, yet there are still many unclear phrases and references that go un-annotated. The low point is when Appel reports his own daughter’s views on a particular passage. It’s really not adding anything to the book.
The annotated edition was so disappointing I had to go back and listen to Patricia Lockwood’s fantastic London Review of Books interview. Lockwood wrote an interesting piece on Nabokov for the LRB called Eat butterflies with me?. She also recorded an interview podcast, which is wonderful: ‘Little girl, ya neck stinks. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh’. It’s engaging, informative and hilarious, unlike Appel’s annotations.