Favourite Books #1: Lolita


When people ask me my favourite book, I usually reply with a list. There will be disclaimers: “I like all the Discworld books but this is my favourite so it stands in for the whole” (Nightwatch); “This was my favourite book as a child and I’ve read it a million times so it gets a special mention” (Watership Down); “This is the most beautiful book written in English” (Lolita).

I don’t actually know whether it is or not, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful I have ever read. The very first page, in particular, claimed me utterly and forever. The first few chapters heavily reference one of my favourite poems, Poe’s Annabel Lee, which was another point in its favour. It is slow to start, and as it goes, Nabokov incorporates longer and longer passages of French (the bastard…) that rather break things up as one goes searching for the old school French-English dictionary. But it is the unbearable beauty of its prose, the lilting passion of its indefensible narrator, that captivates one and drags one through until, exhausted, tormented, one reaches the end. There is nothing, nothing, that quite tears at my flesh the way some of the passages of this book do.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. … 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.

I want this shit carved into my skin.

And one really has no need to defend HH. He is awful; he knows he is awful. That he is handsome, and charming, and speaks beautifully – these things have no bearing on his awfulness. They are no defence and no excuse. “Oh but he writes such beautiful poetry!” is not a thing one can say; he writes beautiful poetry, but the devil would too. You can, after all, “always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”.

I really must recommend that you go back and read the prologue after you have finished the novel. When first read much of it means nothing, and by the time one reaches the end one has forgotten much of what it contains. Going back, it smacks one about the face with a particular something I shan’t mention. (No, I shan’t; you must read it!) And, more than that, you must find yourself a copy that contains the afterword, “On a Book Entitled Lolita“, in which Nabokov himself scolds the reader, the critic, and the poor sap who dares to find within his book some hidden meaning.

“Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as “What is the author’s purpose?” or still worse “What is the guy trying to say?” Now, I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book… “

He has your game, has Nabokov.

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