A Love Affair With the English Language

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.


2 thoughts on “A Love Affair With the English Language”

  1. Hi Bilal, you’re the first person in Banking I’ve come across who is also into writing and has a blog public to all. I’m a keen reader and I’m passionate about writing. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid and I’m still doing it now. I write articles and stories which I call ‘contemporary realistic fiction’ where I explore the human psyche and heart in this modern city life with a kind of raw honesty that likely would surprise many people. And yes, English is my second language – I’ve fallen in love with it for a long time and I’ve been told I have a way with words. Well, I also work for a bank and I still struggle to find an identity, or show myself, in my professional life considering that I can’t really be open about my writing for the nature of it. I always feel like I have to mute the writer side of me even though it’s such a big part of me, it shows who I really am, my thinking, mindset, and it’s what sets me apart. So when I saw your blog posts on LinkedIn, I felt really envious. I wish I could share so openly like that and find others like minded people. Well, maybe I should change my topics and write more work/banking-friendly stuff hah! Anyway really good for you. These posts are great. I especially love the book recommendation lists – I’ve actually purchased one book. Keep writing! Thanks.

  2. Excellent review, Bilal!

    I discovered Lolita during a phase of my life when I was intensely into audiobooks. This was back in the days when you had to actually travel to a store to buy books. This was back in the days of cassettes, mind you. It was the mid 90’s, shortly before the film version with Jeremy Irons was to be released.

    I was planning a road trip and had already experienced how enchanting long, solitary road trips can be made if accompanied by a proper, well-narrated captivating story.

    I had never heard of Vladimir Nabokov until then and had only heard the name Lolita as some obscure literary reference in passing. But the cassette box and its cover felt enticing. I preferred quite long stories. The longer the trip, the longer the story needed to be.

    Audio Lo announced itself on the box cover to be 12 hours long. That would be plenty of delight to dig my auditory teeth into, so long as it proved worthy. I was not disappointed. The masterful recording of this classic remains my guiltiest aural sin to date.

    I feasted on it as I began my travels. It provided the soundtrack to my journey much the same way a torrid romance can turn a moment in time into an unforgettable memory.

    To a literary hedonist, this is a rare occurrence, and you have to be one to appreciate the analogy and the glee. I became sufficiently obsessed that it took several complete read-throughs to finally sate me.

    It wasn’t until after several days of belletristic inebriation when I carelessly shared my rapture with friends that the awkwardness of being so entranced by such an uncomfortable subject reared its guilty head.

    I swear, I confess to none of the proclivities that Humbert Humbert is enslaved to. On the contrary, the question of my enchantment at the hands of this book had to give me pause. No, no, I was safe. It was the prose that made me do it!

    After that one literary confession, I admit, I have for a time, kept my bookish delectations private.

    As you mention, The best part of Lolita is the writing, the absolutely mesmerizing prose.

    One critic called it “The only truly convincing love story of our time.”

    The audiobook raises the ecstasy farther by making Irons its narrator.

    Nabokov called Lolita “The story of my love affair with the English language.” Of the audiobook, someone added: “and Jeremy Irons makes it a “ménage à trois.”

    Quite right.

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