‘Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze./ Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet./ Age: five thousand three hundred days./ Profession: none, or “starlet”.’ That sinister little jingle has been going round in my head ever since I first read Lolita in the early 80s. Back then I thought it was exciting and taboo-smashingly controversial – which it is – but over the years I’ve found it harder to go along with Humbert Humbert’s horribly seductive persuasions. And that, of course, is exactly what Nabokov was up to, pinpointing what was to become one of the biggest anxieties of our times, paedophilia. Lolita is without doubt one of the greatest masterpieces of C20th literature, and the only reason it’s not higher in this list is because I find it really gruelling to read these days, even though it does all the things I want novels to do. It’s funny, it’s got engaging, pacy narrative and an unmistakeable voice, that of HH himself – likeable, plausible, pitiful. Just typing about him makes me feel uneasy. I love all the Nabokov I’ve subsequently read, particularly the magnficient Despair, but Lolita towers over the lot of them. Footnote: I never knew until now that there had been an ‘acclaimed but failed’ musical Lolita, My Love by no less a team than Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry. What were they thinking?
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