Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I remember once, many years ago, attempting to read this novel and finding it simply unappealing. Something about Humbert's smug attitude bothered me. I failed, then, to see the humor in it. But when I gave it a go this time (in my attempt to tick off all the classics I'm somehow gotten this far without reading), I immediately fell into it. The sense of play in this novel is extreme and aesthetics take a great priority. Humbert himself is an aestheticist, thus his preference for the pristine physical form of the nymphet. But don't let us forget that our narrator is also a madman. His narration attempts to play up his mental malady, but it becomes apparent. to the reader through other means. He is obsessive, single minded, and illogical. Reason often takes a backseat to impulse. And yet we read on because we somehow find him likable. Grotesque, but likable.
Lolita is as salacious as it is made out to be. I certainly understand why many would have trouble with this book. But this is not erotica. The details given are not mean to entice but to show enticement. Someone with a defensive moral center is not likely to make it too far through these pages before chucking it out an open window.
The novel, though, goes quickly from a "novel of rapture" (as it says on the jacket of my edition) to a detective story, to a simply sad final third that demonstrates Humbert's pathetic nature. And while I could have read a hundred more pages of the first section, this remains one of the best books I've ever read.