ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
All week we've been featuring our summer reading series You Must Read This. We'll come back to it throughout the summer. Today Author Brett Anthony Johnston tells us about a book that was both reviled and adored when it was first published in 1955: Lolita.
Mr. BRETT ANTHONY JOHNSTON (Author): Asking a fiction writer to recommend his favorite book is a little like asking a father to pick his favorite child. Like asking an adulterer to name his favorite lover. The writer will hem and haw, the father will equivocate, the adulterer will say he loves them all the same, just in different ways.
Of course, we're lying. We all have a favorite.
Mr. JOHNSTONE: (Reading) She stood four foot ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning. But in our arms she will always be Lolita. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's immaculate and disturbing masterpiece, is the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert and his tragic love affair with his twelve-year-old bubblegum-popping stepdaughter Dolores Lolita Hayes.
It's a post-war road novel, the odyssey of a venerable European man and a prepubescent American girl bouncing across the United States, trying to outrun the past and find a future that doesn't exist. The prose is by turns passionate and playful, while the narrative is simultaneously lyrical and unsettling and erotic and violent. Did I mention that in addition to being a child molester, Humbert is also a murderer? It's a kind of inverted detective story. You immediately know someone's been killed, but have to wait to find out whom. The book, which can be viewed as an allegory for Europe's relationship with America, offers a depiction of love that is as patently original as it is brutally shocking. More shocking, though, is the reaction the author somehow manages to elicit from his readers: empathy. Readers always read, I think, out of a tremendous curiosity about other human beings. We're looking for another soul on the page, and that's what Nabokov has so fearlessly, so complexly, so gorgeously given us. In a lesser writer's hands we could easily dismiss Mr. Humbert as a monster, but Nabokov denies us that all too comfortable option. ..TEXT: Even if we would never condone his vain and deadly infatuation, we understand it. We're complicit in his sins, and our complicity is seductive and terrifying. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, look at this tangle of thorns. To be sure, this novel isn't for the faint of heart, but neither should prospective readers retreat to any kind of moral high ground. ..TEXT: Nabokov, in fact, threads an unexpected and affirming emotional serenity through his portrait of obsession. His enigmatic narrator leaves us in spellbound rapture. Because for all of its linguistic pyrotechnics, as Humbert confesses, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. And for all its controversial subject matter, Lolita is one of the most beautiful love stories you'll ever read.
It may be one of the only love stories you'll ever read. This is the most thrilling and beautiful and most deeply disturbing aspect of the novel - and it's what most persuasively recommends the book, that in addition to finding Humbert's soul on the page, we also find, like it or not, a little of our own. The gravity of his crimes cannot be overstated, but neither can the beauty of the book, and that is why you must read this. ..TEXT: SIEGEL: Brett Anthony Johnston is the author of a collection of stories: Corpus Christi. He also teaches writing at Harvard University. You Must Read This continues throughout the summer and at npr.org.