Stephen Metcalf in Slate:
For all its arduous recourse to the c-word, Lady Chatterley’s Lover places its faith in the sexually fulfilled marriage, a ho-hum piety in the age of divorce. For all its scatological frankness, Ulysses tells the touching story of a surrogate father finding his surrogate son. Lolita, meanwhile, tells the story of a stepfather serially defiling his adolescent stepdaughter.* Public taste was meant to catch up to Lady Chatterley screwing her gamekeeper, to Leopold Bloom sitting on his jakes. Public taste was never meant to catch up to Humbert Humbert.
“I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay,” Humbert asks us early on, by way of setting up his description of his first taste of sexual bliss with Lolita, the pre-pubescent daughter of his landlady. (Humbert will eventually marry the landlady; the landlady will eventually die; Humbert will eventually abscond with Lolita. For now, though, he is only their boarder, a debonair European with certain hidden proclivities.) “So let us get started. I have a difficult job before me.” This is Nabokov winking out at us. By difficult job, Humbert means: I want to conjure this scene up, with all its strange anatomical circumnavigations, as carefully as possible, to demonstrate to the reader that I am not wholly a monster. (He also means: I had to ejaculate, without letting Lolita know.) By difficult job, Nabokov means: I will indulge Humbert in all his strange circumlocutions, to demonstrate to the reader what a total monster he is. In this respect, Nabokov and Humbert have opposing aims; but in the telling, they become as one. All the comically baroque pleonasms help Humbert shield from himself how repulsively he has acted. They allow Nabokov, meanwhile, to describe a rapine act of frottage without becoming explicitly pornographic.