I’ve been addicted to a daily reading of Lolita ever since I first read it: Nabokov being a sorcerer, a writer of impossible phrases – and Lolita perhaps his finest work. No other writer of prose can coin phrases like: ‘beetle-browed’, ‘seaside-limbs’, ‘fatal-rigidity’, ‘fey grace’ and so on… His ability to put rare and unexpected words together, precisely, in magical combinations is unmatched. And yet, someone said to me the other day that he thought Nabokov’s works were very pretentious and marked by pedantry. They are intimidating, I concede, but pretentious? That’s very cruel, sir, almost blasphemous.
Let me give you an example: One has to read only the opening four paragraphs of Lolita to fall for it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is not that magic? Do not those lines capture you from the outset? And listen, we are not discussing the subject matter of the book – which, I understand, many of you may find very disturbing: the protagonist is a paedophile. Lolita – the novel – much like any other of his works, is everything you want from reading literature: masterly word play, puns, alliterations, brilliant imagery. It is wild and wonderfully imaginative. I guess it was John Updike who said that Nabokov wrote prose “the way it should be written, that is, ecstatically”. “Ecstatically” being the key-word here. While other writers might settle for something ordinary, at times, he never did. Any random sampling of his work shows this:
On dit que tu te maries, tu sais que j’en vais mourir and that melody, the pain, the offense, the link between hymen and death evoked by the rhythm, and the voice itself of the dead singer, which accompanied the recollection as the sole owner of the song, gave me no rest for several hours after Nina’s departure and even later arose at increasing intervals like the last flat little waves sent to the beach by a passing ship, lapping ever more infrequently and dreamily, or like the bronze agony of a vibrating belfry after the bell ringer has already re-seated himself…
(From Spring in Fialta)
How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!
(From Speak, Memory)
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain By the false azure in the windowpane; I was the smudge of ashen fluff…
(From Pale Fire)
I could go on and on quoting from his works but that isn’t the point. The point is, if you have not read Nabokov already, you must do so pronto!