Sunday, December 16, 2012

Andy's Brain Blog Book Club: Lolita

The one non-scandalous image of Lolita I could find

Since its publication over five decades ago, Lolita - one of Nabokov's several masterpieces, and arguably his best - has continued to provoke emotions ranging from awe and admiration to shock and outrage. Indeed, it is difficult to come to grips with the fact that one of the most brilliant examples of English prose should center upon such a sordid subject; to paraphrase a line from the book itself, even the most jaded voyeur would pay a small fortune to see the acts described within those intolerably vivid pages.

You will not be able to tolerate Nabokov at all unless you realize that he is not putting forth a message, or a moral, or using symbolism at any point to convey some deeper meaning. As he writes in his afterword - and we have no reason to doubt his sincerity - the entire point is aesthetic pleasure; to experiment with the rhythm and sonorities and cadence of the language and make it as pleasing as possible to the inner ear. This last point may strike some as odd, as Nabokov deliberately employs a rarefied, sophisticated style involving recondite vocabulary (see, now there I go) copiously interlarded with French turns of phrase (your humble blogger admits to not knowing a lick of French, once responding Trois bien to a French cellist's Ça va). Aside from the conflicting feelings aroused by Humbert's mind (at times achingly beautiful; at others, horribly squalid), many readers find the language itself to be an obstacle; two or three trips to the dictionary per page is not uncommon.

However, this need not deter you; for the first reading, I recommend paying little attention to the words and French you do not understand, and simply immerse yourself in the lyrical, shocking, roller-coaster prose. As you will soon realize (to your delight, I hope), Nabokov has an uncanny gift for constructing sentences and coining words that stick with you long after you have put the book down. After the first reading I could still see inly, projecting onto the silky screen of my retina and vibrating along my optic nerve, some of those odd, charming, gorgeous phrases: Lo-lee-ta; the biscuity odor of his Annabel Lee; nightmarish curlicues; winged gentlemen of the jury; limbless monsters of pain; the bubble of hot poison in one's loins; dim rays of hope before the ultimate sunburst; clawing at each other under the water; a list of names of children enrolled in Lolita's school (Irving Flashman, Viola Miranda, Agnes Sheridan, et alia); purple pills made of summer skies and plums and figs and the grapeblood of emperors; aurochs and angels; Lolita playing tennis; truck taillights gleaming like carbuncles; coffins of coarse female flesh within which nymphets are buried alive; the exquisite caloricity of Lolita's fevered body; the soft crepitation of  flowers; Humbert dehiscing one of Lolita's infected bugbites and gorging himself on her spicy blood; Will Brown, Dolores, Co.; icebergs in paradise; guilty of killing Quilty; drunk on the impossible past; Humbert looking and looking at Lolita - older, married, pregnant, eyes faded to myopic fish, nipples swollen and cracked, her young velvety delicate delta tainted and torn - and knowing that he loves her more than anything he had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.

Most of these I can still recall perfectly from memory; only a few of them did I go back to doublecheck, if not to verify the accuracy of my recollection, then to savor their rereading. (Only someone like Nabokov could have dreamed up something as twisted as Humbert attempting to get parenting advice from a book called Know Your Own Daughter.) These sentences and scenes serve as the nodes and nerves of the novel, checkpoints and touchstones scattered amongst interstitial words and prose for any reader curious or sensitive enough to detect them; and each reader will discover his own words and gems that resonate.

A final note: If you have already read Lolita, reread it. The Foreword, the novel itself, and the Afterword (included, I believe, in all editions after 1955) are rich in literary jokes and self-referential allusions that reward careful rereading, and contain details that, while nearly impossible to detect upon a first reading, enhance the experience after you already know the denouement.

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