** spoiler alert **
Well, it both was and wasn't what I expected, but then, I'm not sure what I expected.
Humbert was a complete pervert, a narcissist, and far, far from being balanced in any way whatsoever. That was not a surprise.
What was a surprise was how well written it was. I know for a fact that I couldn't successfully write a story in the style Nabokov chose. It seems like making things incredibly difficult for oneself, to say the least, but he nails it. The way he uses language is utterly captivating. When you hear all the pop-culture references to Lolita, it's always about the fact that he's lusting over a twelve year old girl, and I previously assumed that it was this 'perversion' that had given Lolita the attention it got, especially when you consider that it was written in 1955 - not exactly the most permissive of ages - and the content of Lolita would be controversial were it published for the first time today. Yes, the topic and the tale itself are scandalous and shocking, but it's a very well crafted novel as well, which goes some way towards explaining how it managed to get reprinted after its initial 5,000 copy run, and how it was published in both the USA and Great Britain (although it was banned for two years in the latter).
I have to admit, one of the most tantalising things about the book was the fact that throughout it, I was continually searching for the grains of truth. Humbert's narrative includes so many contradictions that he's hardly a reliable, believable witness, and yet, his is the only version of events the reader gets to see. For example, one moment, he'll be describing himself as virtually irresistible, as handsome, youthful and able to get any woman he wants, and the next, he's describing his painful shyness, anxiety talking to females, and a nervous facial tic that emerges in times of stress. There's a lot of narcissism and fantasy involved in Humbert's tale, and if he lies so blatantly about himself, then the majority of his tale can hardly be relied upon. Now and then, though, something will be said, a comment will be made by him in an offhand fashion, or something will happen that he will attribute one meaning to, or no meaning at all, that will stand out as truth amid the falsehoods.
And then, there's the most interesting aspect of the tale, the part I was attempting to explain to Emma last night, that a quote on Wikipedia from a fellow in the 1950's put so much better than me.
One of the novel's early champions, Lionel Trilling, warned in 1958 of the moral difficulty in interpreting a book with so eloquent and so self-deceived a narrator: "we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents [...] we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting".
There is something deep within us, when we hear a story, that longs for a story to progress, for events to unfold, and subconsciously we urge the plot to move forward, the characters to act. A book like Lolita really makes you think as you read it, because at some point, you come to a realisation that despite loathing Humbert, his perversion and his actions, you are mentally urging him forward, so as to spur the story on, despite knowing only too well where such progression must lead.
I am well aware, having finished reading it, that I am still in a state of some confusion about the work as a whole. I know that a second or a third reading will sharpen the picture somewhat, but that will have to wait. Reading a novel once in .txt format in Notepad is enough for now, I think. *eyes cross* It's definitely in that class of films or books where there are subtle hints that you may or may pick up on, but only after watching or reading them again do you put all of the clues into context (Think: Fight Club, amongst other things).
But yes, well worth reading, if you have the time for it. I would not recommend it to people who have lived through the reality and after-effects of sexual abuse unless you have laid to rest the issues such a situation raises; particularly if such abuse was incestuous or had incestuous overtones. Even if you have laid them to rest, Lolita will not be a comfortable read, but if it were a comfortable read for anybody, it would not be the book it is, or it would probably say some things about your psyche that you might want to see somebody about, anyway.