As part of their ongoing Spring Book Week National Review has reprinted a 1958 Frank Meyer review of Vladimir Nabakov’s classic Lolita. It is a very interesting take on the critical reaction to the book at the time. It is worth quoting at length:
Never has a society been more smugly proof against satire than ours. When one idea is as good as another and one institution is as good as another, when a dully equalizing relativism destroys all definitions and distinctions, satire is impotent. For the satiric genius works by shocking the reader into using the standards he implicitly holds but has failed to apply. It achieves its results by creating so savage a presentation of contemporary evil (exaggerated, caricatured, grotesque, but a true simulacrum of the essence of the social scene) that the bland and habitual surface of actuality is riven apart. But where there are no standards, satire has no ground from which to fight.[. . .]
Today things are different. Vladimir Nabokov writes a novel, Lolita. With scarifying wit and masterly descriptive power, he excoriates the materialist monstrosities of our civilization â€” from progressive education to motel architecture, and back again through the middle-brow culture racket to the incredible vulgarity and moral nihilism in which our children of all classes are raised, and on to psychoanalysis and the literary scene. He stamps indelibly on every page of his book the revulsion and disgust with which he is inspired, by loathsomely dwelling upon a loathsome plot: a detailed unfolding of the long-continued captivity and sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl. To drive home the macabre grotesquerie of what he sees about him, he climaxes the novel with a murder that is at the same time horrible and ridiculous, poised between Grand Guignol and Punch & Judy.[. . .]
Without exception, in all the reviews I have read â€” and they are many â€” nowhere has even the suspicion crept in that Lolita might be something totally different from the temptingly perverted surface it presents to the degenerate taste of the age. Not a whiff of a hint that it could be what it must be, if it is judged by the standards of good and beauty which once were undisputed in the West â€” and if it is, as the power of its writing shows it to be, more than a mere exercise in salaciousness.[. . .]
And satire, I am sure, considering his ability and the quality of what he has written, was Mr. Nabokov’s intention. Of course I may be wrong. He may simply be an immensely gifted writer with a perverted and salacious mind. But if the latter is true, it does not change the situation much. Lolita, in the context of the reception it has been given, remains nevertheless a savage indictment of an age that can see itself epitomized in such horror and run to fawn upon the horror as beauty, delicacy, understanding. But I hope that this is not so, that Mr. Nabokov knew what he was doing. It is so much more exhilarating to the spirit if the evil that human beings have created is castigated by the conscious vigor of a human being, not by the mere accident of the mirror, the momentary unpurposeful reflection of evil back upon evil.