I finally read this last December or so at the recommendation of a friend (who is much more widely read than I). I look forward to a second read at some point in the future. Below are my notes from the first read. They are extracted from a message to my friend, forgive the unpolished stream-of-consciousness. I hope to develop and refine these ideas more on the second read. I’m posting this for my own records, and anyone that it might resonate with. These notes will likely only make sense if you’ve read the book…
I read Lolita as the historical development of the (sexual) subject throughout 19th and 20th century thought. The subject (Humbert) starts out as a hyper rational intellectual with a culturally-unacceptable fantasy (Victorian romanticism). He proceeds to indulge that fantasy and in doing so leaves behind all established societal structures, becomes a vagabond (a la existentialism) with his Lolita, another subject herself who is only treated as a confused infant of his fantasy.
Humbert then returns to some semblance of normal societal structures when Dolores goes to school but the return to normalcy does not last. Again he becomes a vagabond (beatnik, mid-19C) and his fantasy subject (Lolita) decieves him: he contracts something of a psychosis, memories begin begin fluidly passing between past and present (postmodernism), Lolita’s tennis playing and her affair and her acting happening at the same time in Humbert’s memory (Bergson’s duration, referred to as “Mimir and Memory” in chapter 26, and the Deleuzean nomadic subject).
He has no reference to time without Lolita: it is true love because without her his universe has no structure, no order, no time dimension. Finally, this universe is reconstructed in Dolores’ child and husband Dick (appropriately named) who is the totally reactive answer to her passionate activity (Nietzschean bad conscience, reactive force as constituent of consciousness).
Humbert’s psychotic aggression recedes into a passive nihilsim and he accepts his fate since his fantasy is now a martyr anyway. The only thing left for a reactive force like Humbert is to kill the active force in the context of this dynamic: Lolita’s lover. With him gone the dynamic is overturned and sanity can be restored as a long-lost fantasy, like it was in the beginning of the book. Thus he is reintroduced into societal structures, but because of his psychosis it is an enclosure reminiscent of the penal structure that he is returned to, not the openness of normal society.
In addition to the complex structure, it’s also beautifully written. I felt like Nabokov was showing off his literary skills at certain points, using references and plot devices just for fun.