The subject matter of Lolita by Nabokov is, you know, somewhat controversial and it was banned in numerous countries in the years following its publication, including the UK. This is because it follows the story of one man’s obsession with a young girl and one of the main themes of Lolita is pedophilia.
Of course that subject hasn’t become any less disturbing in modern society but freedom of expression has developed considerably. Lolita is now considered to be one of the best books of the twentieth century and appears on many book lists as one of the top classics to read.
I found reading Lolita to be a thoroughly uncomfortable experience though I can definitely appreciate its literary merits. Nabokov’s unreliable narrator has a way with words and the prose in Lolita is beautiful and in sharp contrast to the content it describes.
Whilst Lolita is certainly a very unique novel, I found myself thinking of other books like Lolita whilst I was reading it. So I’ve compiled a list of other controversial novels that have similar themes to Lolita by Nabokov:
The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov
The Enchanter is a novella by Vladimir Nabokov that was translated and published posthumously by his son. It was written in 1939, long before Lolita was published and Nabokov himself called this his “pre-Lolita”.
The story is very similar to the later classic: an older man lusts after a girl he meets in the park. He marries her mother in order to gain access to her but her mother soon passes away due to illness. He takes the young girl, now in his care, on a road trip where he makes his move.
In The Enchanter we see another man destroy himself after we’ve given an insight into his mind. He simultaneously feels disgusted with himself and justifies his own feelings.
This short and bittersweet novella is perfect for people who loved Lolita.
How can I come to terms with myself?The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov
Ada by Vladimir Nabokov
Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle was published almost 15 years after Lolita and is another work by Vladimir Nabokov. In this book, there is an illicit love affair between two siblings, though this fact is unbeknownst to them. They believe themselves to be cousins, or rather that their fathers are cousins and their mothers are sisters. They meet when they are eleven and fourteen and begin a sexual affair.
Although the unnatural love affair forms the basis of the plot, this novel concerns time, memory and love. As such, it has been compared to works by both Tolstoy and Proust.
What sets Ada apart from the other titles on this list is that it takes place in an alternate reality on Antiterra. In this version of Earth, there are a large number of Russians residing in North America.
It’s hard to find anyone else who writes like Nabokov so if you’re looking for more of his beautiful prose then the rest of his oeuvre is the best place to start. This book is very clever but that does mean that reading it can be quite hard work.
Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
Notes on a Scandal is a Lolita-esque book involving a gender switch as art teacher Sheba begins an affair with one of her 15 year old students. We are told from the very beginning that Sheba has been charged with sexual assault of a minor so there’s no surprise about how this story ends.
What’s interesting is Heller’s thought-provoking commentary on human nature. Uniquely, Notes on a Scandal is narrated by a third party to the affair, Sheba’s best friend Barbara. She writes her own account of Sheba’s downfall and defends her friend saying her aim is to “shed light on the complex nature of her personality”.
In doing so, she reveals the complex nature of her own personality too. Whilst you might think at first that Sheba is the monster of this story, you start to wonder whether Barbara might be just as despicable. This is a great example of a story with an unreliable narrator that will keep you turning page after page. It’s a contemporary Lolita and a must-read if you liked Nabakov’s classic.
Putney by Sofka Zinovieff
Putney is set in London in the 1970s which is when 9 year old Daphne meets 28 year old composer Ralph Boyd. He becomes obsessed with her the moment he lays his eyes on her but it is not until she is 13 years old that he first touches her and the affair intensifies.
The novel alternates between past and present, detailing Ralph and Daphne’s relationship in the 70s, reflected on by Daphne forty years later in the present. Putney forces you to think about consent, the abuse of power and how to come to terms with what has been done to you. The Guardian aptly calls it a Lolita for the age of #MeToo.
We are offered three perspectives, that of the victim, the abuser and a witness. Unlike Humbert Humbert, Ralph Boyd does not see himself as despicable and continually justifies his actions to himself. There is no gratuitous sex but the inner workings of this monster’s brain are enough to make your skin crawl.
Our story had nothing to do with abuse. To link them is like pouring filth on flowers, like denying the power of love.Ralph Boyd – Putney by Sofka Zinovieff
Buy Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: Amazon | Book Depository
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Tampa by Alissa Nutting is another gender-switched Lolita, published in 2013. A female teacher becomes obsessed with her student and they strike up an affair. At first both seem to be getting what they want but things turn south very quickly and there are dire consequences for both.
There’s none of the beauty of Nabokov’s language here but there’s something darkly compelling about Celeste’s raw narrative. We are looking into the mind of a monster and she is unashamedly truthful about her fantasies.
Tampa doesn’t shy away from slightly sickening sexual situations and perverse thoughts of murder that cross the mind of Celeste as she desperately tries to satisfy (and hide) her fetish for pre-pubescent teenage boys. Tampa disgusted me but I was enthralled by it all the same.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
It is told from the perspective of an anonymous 15 year old girl who becomes involved with a much older Chinese businessman. In Lolita we only see Humbert’s romanticised view of the situation through poetic prose but in The Lover it is quite the opposite. We see only the perspective of the young girl and there’s no romance about it.
If you’re looking to dive into modern French literature then Duras is one of my all-time favourite French authors and this is a great place to start.
Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso
Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso strikes a little deeper than the other titles on this list because it is in fact a memoir, an autobiography. Margaux Fragoso meets Peter Curran when she is 7 years old and he is 51 years old. Her mother is overwhelmed by caring for her young daughter and so welcomes this man’s attention on her small family.
Tiger, Tiger gives us an insight into the mind of a victim throughout years of abuse. She recounts her childhood as Peter edged his way into her life and the devastating impact her relationship with him had on her development. It sheds light on how situations of abuse often come about in a matter of fact tone that will stay with you long after you have put this book down.
The End of Alice by A M Homes
The End of Alice is definitely the story with the most interesting premise on this list of books similar to Lolita. It tells the story of an imprisoned pedophile and his correspondence with a 19 year old girl experiencing similar desires for a young boy. They definitely aren’t the sort of pen pals your mum encouraged you to write to!
The story is narrated from the point of view of Chappy, the imprisoned pedophile, and how he gives his new friend tips about how to seduce children. In return, she details her best efforts to him.
Alongside this story are snippets from Chappy’s past about his abusive mother and Alice, the girl who landed him in prison. We are only ever in the mind of a pedophile in The End of Alice so it is a thoroughly unpleasant but gripping read. This definitely isn’t for those who are sensitive as it details child sex abuse and prison rape.
Lo’s Diary by Pia Pera
In 1995, Italian author Pia Pera published a response to Nabakov’s Lolita in the form of Lo’s Diary. It’s a retelling of Lolita from the point of view of Dolores Haze and it paints a more heinous image of the protagonists than that in the original tale. Lolita is a controlling sadist who enjoys killing small animals and Humbert Humbert is an unattractive and repulsive man.
This book is great for people who liked Lolita but won’t take this retelling too seriously. The writing and language are far removed from the original and the tale is slightly ridiculous in places but it’s interesting to read an interpretation of what the story may have looked like if Lolita had solicited Humbert’s advances.
Interestingly, after a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement before publication, Nabokov ended up writing the preface to the book and receives 50% of all royalties.
Buy Lo’s Diary by Pia Pera: Amazon
Roger Fishbite by Emily Prager
Lo’s Diary was followed by another retelling four years later, Roger Fishbite. The general consensus is that protagonist “Lucky Lady Linderhoff” is much closer to what most readers imagined Lolita to be like than that in Pia Pera which took a lot of liberties with the original tale.
It’s a modern retelling of Lolita that takes places in the 90s and intended to be a parody of Nabokov’s story. It’s told from the perspective of 13 year old Lucky and touches on how children are becoming increasingly eroticised in Western society.
Buy this if you’re interested in reading the thoughts of a modern day Lolita but be aware that this does read a little like young adult fiction. If it’s a despicable story with enchanting writing that you’re after then select from one of the first five options on this list.
Buy Roger Fishbite by Emily Prager: Amazon
Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam
David Lamb is having a mid-life crisis. His marriage has fallen apart and his father has passed away. Then he meets 11 year old Tommie and she becomes his new project. He’s convinced that he can help this young girl avoid ending up like him and leading a life of apathy.
Lamb gains Tommie’s trust and grooms her before then abducting her. Convincing himself that he’s doing what’s best for Tommie, he abducts her to a remote cabin and takes her on a road trip from Chicago to the Rockies.
Belinda by Anne Rampling (Anne Rice)
Anne Rice is best known for her vampire books beginning with Interview with the Vampire but did you know she also wrote under the pseudonym Anne Rampling? Using this name, she penned Belinda, a story about a 16 year old girl and the object of an older man’s ultimate fantasy.
Belinda is also told from the older man’s perspective but this time our young girl is willing, even inviting. She does lots to try and stay with Jeremy Walker whilst Lolita struggles to escape from Humbert Humbert.
Not my favourite book on this list by any means but the similarities to Lolita are evident and it’s a short read for fans of Anne Rice.
Buy Belinda by Anne Rampling: Amazon
Term of Trial by James Barlow
Term of Trial is an oft forgotten classic by James Barlow set in an unnamed industrial town in the 1950s. The main character, Graham Weir, is a school teacher and self-loathing alcoholic with an unsatisfactory home life. He recognises himself in one of his pupils and offers to give her some extra tuition.
However, she soon falls in love with him and makes advances on him. He rejects her advances but later finds himself on trial for indecent sexual assault. His friends and family disassociate themselves from him and Barlow captures the fallacies of human nature.
Buy Term of Trial by James Barlow: Amazon
These thirteen books all share similar themes to Lolita by Nabokov and were in some manner controversial. If you loved Lolita you should begin with those in the first half of this list, which are my top recommendations.
Pin now, read again later!