Celebrating the Freedom to Read in Banned Books Week – “Lolita” review

Banned Books Week is a time to celebrate the banned books of the world. According to the Banned Books Week website, this is what Banned Books Week is all about:

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

What a brilliant idea. Joining in with the festivities, I scanned through a list of banned tomes. I eventually plumbed for one that has been described as controversial, a masterpiece, as a classic and as one that has polarized opinions. It’s Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955.


Poet and pervert, Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed by twelve-year-old Lolita and seeks to possess her, first carnally and then artistically, out of love, ‘to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets’. Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? Or is he all of these? Humbert Humbert’s seduction is one of many dimensions in Nabokov’s dizzying masterpiece, which is suffused with a savage humour and rich, elaborate verbal textures.

Martin Amis, Observer 

Written in America in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Lolita was rejected by several publishers before finally reaching print in 1955 across the pond in France. When considering the subject matter and the time that it was written, this is perhaps understandable. I suspect it would suffer a similar reaction today.

Along with the controversial themes within this story, there is a streak of comedy, which necessitates the prefix of ‘dark’.  There are several comical scenes and interactions woven into the book’s disturbing events. This is all tied in with Humbert’s personality. Child molesting and severe manipulation aside, Humbert is quite the wit. I get the feeling that had our protagonist been of a less sordid persuasion, he would have endeared himself very well to the reader. But, just as his relationship with Lolita, his relationship with the reader is one of lulling them into a false sense of security before revealing his true colours, by which time it is too late. (Cue horrific evil laugh emanating from Humbert. Horrible, creepy man.)

Humbert has been interpreted as an “unreliable narrator” by most readers but I’m not sure that he deserves this accolade. True, he is the sole narrator; he is on trial for murder; he has interfered quite heavily with a child and he has manipulated those around him all his life.  All of these things do not inspire confidence. There is no precedence for his reliability but this is a man who is sitting in prison, looking back over his life, trying to make sense of it. Who could be a more reliable narrator of his own life than Humbert himself? Even through his descriptions of past events, the reader can easily determine the tone and the implications of his actions on those around him. So in terms of narrating, despite his (many) faults, Humbert is as reliable a chap as any in my view.

I think what makes this book even more chilling is Nabokov’s flamboyant use of language. Once you get past the fact that you’re witnessing the ugly inner workings of a paedophile’s brain, you realise that the language is contrastingly quite beautiful. For me, this realization did not materialize until the second part. That first half was a real struggle, let me tell you. I even considered giving up. But no book has beaten me yet!

Plot wise, the first section drags a little. There doesn’t seem to be much going on apart from Humbert’s ogling of “nymphets” (prepubescent girls between the ages of 9 and 14. Yep. Pretty grim.) and a distinct wallowing in self-indulgence and narcissism. It is worth pushing through this, skim read here if you must, to get to the latter stages of the story. It doesn’t get any less disturbing but we do learn a lot more about Humbert’s state of mind as well as the fate of Lolita.

I’ve always been intrigued by books that are banned, especially those that are marginalized by specific cultural groups or countries, for example Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses being banned in India and the consequent drama around that. As horrific as that surely was for Rushdie, it does give him a certain attractive edge as a writer. Imagine writing something that creates such a strong impact. Amazing.

But why ban books? What are the parameters in which these books are judged?  Are we protecting people from certain themes? If so why is this, when we are exposed to them in real life and in the media anyway? And who gets to ban books and what is their angle? Is it political? Is it personal taste? Is it because their mum wouldn’t like it therefore no one should read it? Grow up people. We are all very capable of choosing what we would like to read. Stop this censoring madness. Banning something is not going to stop people wanting it.

Have you read Lolita or any other “banned books” recently? What did you think? Here’s a shortlist of banned books for you to peruse. (As if The Perks of Being a Wallflower is on there?!!)