Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

I'd like my focus for this blog to be on newer books, so I can keep up with what's hitting the shelves now--or at least recently. But when I think about my favorite openings, the ones that have rocked my world, one specific book always comes to mind, so I'd be remiss not to include it here.

My writing career, such as it is, can be divided into two parts: pre-Lolita and post. 

I've been thinking about this a great deal lately, examining my own writing, facing the fact that my natural voice veers ever so slightly towards literary although my subject matter does not. I picked through my books trying to figure when that changed. It changed around two, maybe three years ago with Lolita.

Pre-Lolita, my writing was functional. It was fine. Serviceable. It got the job done. But it wasn't good enough to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Until one day, while experiencing a reading malaise, I picked up Lolita and began to read...

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. 

The first time I read those words, I shivered. 

If we're lucky, we've been there. A man has said our name in such a way those tiny hairs stand at attention on the backs of our necks and in that moment we'd do anything for him to say it again.

I could picture Humbert Humbert, our narrator, standing there, the shape of his lips as he formed her name, that erotic drawl. Oh I knew the plot, his fixation on this girl child, the inevitable conclusion of the whole drama, but in that moment I didn't care because I was reading poetry that had slipped through the cracks and appeared on the shelves as a novel.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. 

This always makes me smile. Even when we're young, women are so many different things. We're kaleidoscopes offering a different facet of ourselves depending on the roles we're expected to play: daughter, sister, friend, coworker. But in the arms of a man we're just ourselves, and Humbert sees that even in this little girl. It's twisted and sick but astute. Nabokov shows us that his vile protagonist is a clever man.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. 

That wry, flippant sense of humor...

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns. 

Humbert Humbert knows what he is. He harbors no illusions about his true nature. He's a lover of girls, a rapist of children, and a murderer. The reader should hate him for his crimes and sins, and at times I did. Since this isn't a book review, I won't delve any deeper into that. What Humbert is is an observer of human nature, and in this opening he shows us that he's able to look inward and well as outward. He sees himself.

I confess it wasn't the plot that encouraged me to read onwards because I already knew the story. The narrator's voice turned out to be a riptide dragging me across the pages. I wanted to hear his version of events, because he is, quite frankly, charming and entertaining despite his more loathsome traits. 

Nabakov--and Humbert Humbert-- taught me novels and poetry don't have to be that different. We can use repetition of words and sounds to make our writing more pleasant to the ear. Why be functional when we can be more?

So although, as far as story goes, this is far from my favorite book, I adore the writing for the sounds it makes as I read. There's not a single superfluous word. Every single syllable counts. Just like good poetry. 

You can buy Lolita here or here.


  1. This doesn't tie in exactly with the point you're trying to make, but if you ever run across the audio version read by Jeremy Irons, I highly recommend it. His's perfect, and it makes it sound even more poetic, even during the more distasteful portions of the narrative.

  2. Thanks for the heads up! Yeah, I can definitely see how his voice would be perfect for this. I'm going a-googling! :D

  3. So I stopped over here to tell you about Jeremy Irons and his audio version. Late again. :(

  4. Oh noes! I can pretend Angie didn't tell me if you like.

  5. I just found this entry, and wanted to add my love for Lolita (and yes, the Irons narration is delicious).

    I was sitting in line at midnight to pick up one of the Harry Potter books. They had wound us up and down the aisles and we were seated on the floor waiting for midnight. Some chatting, some reading. There, right by my head, was Lolita. I pulled it off the shelf, curious. I read the opening and couldn't put it down. So that night at midnight I bought Harry Potter and Lolita. Disturbing much?