Book of a lifetime: Lolita, By Vladimir Nabokov

 

I first read Lolita about as many years before now as the age Dolores Haze was when she died (you can always count on a fan girl for a fancy prose style). That is, I was a schoolgirl, and utterly seduced.

I was in the process of discovering that what I loved in literature above all was language – more than character, concept, or plot – and I loved the richness of the prose, the relishing of each syllable's mouth-feel: "Lo. Lee. Ta." When asked, at a university interview, what I had read and enjoyed, this was the book that came first to my mind – because, I said, it is so beautifully written.

But is that, in itself, problematic, they asked? Are we not being sweet-talked by a monster, whose hyperbole makes of his ecstasy and agony something grander than the sordid crime at its heart? I know I said I didn't agree with censorship; I hope I also said that it's more complicated than that.

I was a little in love with Humbert, so eloquent, so arch, so urbane, and the shock of Lolita's "sobs in the night – every night, every night" does not diminish, no matter how many times I read of them. And I have read this book many times, finding always some new aspect: its humour, its subtlety (of characterisation, concept, plot); the tremendous paean to the America that Nabokov made his home and to the language he made his own, not only the high poetry of it but the demotic and ephemeral, not minding "if these verbs are all wrong", which of course they never are unless their author means them to be…

And this is a book that rewards re-reading; which revels in its own unreliability, which demands to be unravelled, which forever foregrounds its own written-ness. From that famous first paragraph of Humbert's, this is a book about language – about naming, about who is writing who – by a narrator who "shall not exist if you do not imagine me".

It plays complicated games with words; games which are, like most games, about mastery and power. This is a book about fascination, about the compulsion to capture, to possess by describing. Nabokov, the butterfly catcher, returns to this theme again and again – the impossible desire "to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets".

On that first reading I was conscious of something that was, to me, new – a book which drew attention to itself as fiction. This was the book that showed me how a book can be always reminding the reader that it is made of language, a written thing, and still and maybe because of this be funny and clever and complex and unsettling and, always, achingly beautiful.

Amy Sackville's novel 'Orkney' is published by Granta

Comments