You may not think that was the best way of describing Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel, Lolita, but that it was how he himself describes the book in its epilogue. I read it for the first time recently and I can see why. The language is mesmerising. In fact, it’s so mesmerising that forget the story is about a middle-aged man,a Humbert Humbert, pursuing a 12-year old girl. It is this dissonance that makes the novel shocking to this day.
In the book, Nabokov is able to describe the minutiae of American life in a way few authors have been able to match. He can also be very funny:
“The poor lady was in her middle thirties, she had a shiny forehead, plucked eyebrows and quite simple but not unattractive features of a type that may be defined as a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich.”
“We fell to wrestling again. We rolled all over the floor, in each other arms, like two huge helpless children. He was naked and goatish under his robe, and I felt suffocated as he rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.”
I have to admit that often I had to resort to looking up words in the dictionary, despite English being my first language while it was Nabokov’s second, after Russian. Words like:meretricious (sleazy), favonian (favourable), jocose (jokey), incondite (crude), venery (gratification) and eructations (belching).
His turns of phrases are great:
“My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes”
“the son of a then celebrated motion-picture actress whom he seldom saw in the three dimensional world”
“All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do so.”
“Humber was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith* he longed for”
“moth holes had appeared in the plush of matrimonial comfort”
“as I look back on those days, I see them divided tidily into ample light and narrow shade”
“very particular about the rules of such conversations, though the sunny cellophane of which not very appetising frustrations can be readily distinguished.”
“while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty”
“Let her come soon, I prayed, addressing a loan God”
Well, enough of my opinion, don’t be put off by the subject matter, read Lolita for its masterclass in English.