Book Of A Lifetime: Lolita, By Vladimir Nabokov

The summer after A-levels. I had promised myself that once all the cramming was over, I would buy 'Lolita'. I felt both furtive and outrageously adult as I purchased it in The Totnes Bookshop. I nurtured hazy notions of a racy read to ease my brain after all the Chaucer, imagining this was 'The Valley of the Dolls' with class.

What I didn't realise, of course, was that I was about to fall in love with the work of the most playful, lyrically virtuoso prose writer of his century, if not of all time. I started reading, and the writing inevitably blew my mind, and has never stopped astonishing me over so many re-readings. It's like watching a tightrope walker perform 'Swan Lake' while singing 'Don Giovanni' while laughing at a private joke.

This is a novel so very famous; so reviled then lauded by generations of writers and critics; so filmed and misused as a concept, that ideas about it are bound to be warped. At its simplest, it's the tale of an academic, Humbert Humbert, who is attracted to what he terms "nymphets" – certain underaged girls. One summer, he chances upon the ultimate nymphet, Dolores Haze, whom he refers to as Lolita. After a strategic marriage to her mother, he spends the rest of the novel chasing the elusive girl, while attempting to thwart a rival.

But the plot is subsidiary to a novel that works on so many levels, that is so exuberant yet controlled, witty, allusive, and breathtakingly beautifully written. Published in 1955, it is many things: a love story; by its own admission a disturbing tale of child abuse; an elaborate game of language, rhythm and subtext, and much more. What never ceases to amaze me is the fact that English was not even this Russian writer's first language, yet his fluency and poetic agility outclass almost any native author you care to name.

What stay in the mind are throwaway descriptions: Humbert's "salad of racial genes" and his "princedom by the sea"; the list of the names in Lolita's class – "a poem, forsooth!", and the "luminous globules of gonadal glow" of the jukebox. Was there ever more economy than in his recounting of his own mother's death: "(picnic, lightning)"?

When my publishers described my new novel as "'Lolita' meets 'Wuthering Heights'", I was taken aback. Did my influences show that much? But in writing of a 17-year-old schoolgirl and her relationship with her older teacher, the themes of longing and obsession and the power difference created by age come into play. In thinking back to the age I was when I first read Nabokov, perhaps I had absorbed more of its themes than I had thought.

One of my most treasured possessions is a re-bound first edition of 'Lolita'. It's a novel that never goes away.

Joanna Briscoe's novel, 'You', is published by Bloomsbury

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum