Friday, September 16, 2011
Lolita, light of my life, fire in my loins
It is one of those books I am not sure how I discovered, or why? But when I fist read it as a twenty-something, what struck me was its style and musicality, largely achieved through alliteration, metaphor, personification and simile. Nabokov was one of those writers I had heard about spoken of in reverential terms by several college professors, and by them talking of him (and Updike, the American Nabokov), he peaked my curiosity. His characters were eccentrics, highly educated and opinionated and brash, but hardly possessing the psychological and spiritual collapse of the modern era. In Nabokov's characters you find little in the way of existentialism, stream of consciousness, time as character, digressions relating to God and spirit. What you find is underachievers whose brash flourish towards living life on their own terms created havoc. You find taboo subjects, pedophilia, lust, the agony of people having to suppress their greatest desires to conform with society's expectations and norms. Nowhere in my previous reading had style merged so fully with content. He presented the objects of the world and defamiliarized them, making them new, in a style and language that singed the hairs on your head. His was an Aristotlean attention to detail--matter as spirit.
The anti-Hemingway, he wrote in an intricate, decorative style, employing the rare (often obscure) word to achieve a stratified density. You don't just read his novels, you fall into their depths, layer by layer, swim in their currents, deeper and deeper, until just the glimmer of the sun like a coin shimmering above remains your only link to the outside world. This way of telling a story had more to do with his fascination with figurative and metaphorical language, than it had to do with an intricate plot. Words are what mattered to Nabokov. Words, like Flaubert's prose, put in the right spot and in the right order: just the perfect word. The pay off is on every page: every sentence soars.
What Lolita taught me, more than any other novel, was about the 1st person POV, its strengths and limitations, which affected the particular words a writer must use to develop character arc and story arc. But what it also taught me was the importance of punctuation. Nabokov achieved deep character interiority through asides, dashes, parentheses; linked long sentences (like Woolf) with semi-colons and set off lists with colons, end dashes. His books are, and continue to be a great resource in terms of how to construct not just simple and compound, and complex-compound sentences, but beautiful ones, musical ones.
His prose comes with a warning: Do not try this at home! He takes bold risks because of the sheer magnitude of his intelligence, which allows him complete mastery over his stories.