Saturday, May 28, 2011

Vladimir Nabokov Hates Your Prose

Lolita is famous, not I
                                --Vladimir Nabokov

If you are like me (which I hope you aren't, for your sake), you cringe whenever people refer to a "Lolita" in some salacious yet totally out of place context. Language is dynamic and changes, I know. And truth is, I enjoy seeing literary references used outside of academia; I like to think that literature is still somewhat relevant and capable of penetrating our technocratic, solipsistic culture. But as a Nabokovphile, I am tasked to side with Nabokov's obtuse and often times untenable tenets about his characters and his motivations.

I doubt many people would bother reading through Lolita to grasp the character of Dolores, aka Lolita, in full. To be fair, I never recommend people begin with Lolita if they are curious about Nabokov and his influence. Lolita is Nabokov 2.0; this is his crowning achievement when it comes to displaying his wordplay,  allusions, puns and internal references that are supposed to lead the reader in a detective's hunt.

I do recommend they read his short stories. Some gems include: "Bachmann", "The Return of Chorb", "The Aurelian", "Spring in Fialta" and "Cloud, Castle, Lake". Out of his 50 or so (I think a couple have surfaced in the last decade) published stories, these are some which I think exhibit some of Nabokov's strengths while hinting toward what he will latter accomplish in other stories and novels.

Nabokov was nothing if not opinionated. He bragged with glee about how his novels never served any "social purpose"; he derided notable scholar and writers; he hated all things Freudian; he denounced all forms of symbolism and symbol searching in art; he didn't believe in time. The list can go on.

I admit: I like Nabokov's obtuse, convoluted prose (to a point). But if you are not familiar with his works, please don't think his prose is nonsensically obtuse and convoluted.

That is to say, Nabokov's earlier work is not to be thought of as undecipherable and unreadable. As much as I enjoy Nabokovs's wit and turns of phrases and love of words, his last three novels are not very enjoyable due to their self-aware convolutions. I couldn't read Ada or Ardor; Transparent Things is still on my list; but Look at the Harlequins, actually, isn't that bad, now that I am reading it.

Mary McCarthy, in her review of Pale Fire, called him "the last dandy" writer. This seems apt and makes me like him even more. Today, one gets the distinct sense that novelists are out to make a name out themselves, and, therefore, must take on a persona. But this is actually a good case scenario. On the other hand, you have your typical slacker urbanites whose ambitions to write often outshines their output, but who for some reason get published, only to become flash in the pan writers.

This is not to say that Nabokov didn't put on a persona--good God, did he ever put on a persona. Yet, with Nabokov, who claims to have been literate in English before speaking his native Russian (in which he wrote some of his best works), and fluent in French, who was exiled at a young age and was forced to scrape by a living by selling the surplus of his gentleman's upbringing (to paraphrase from The Gift), we can allow him to artfully incorporate his personal life into his works.

So next time you want to call some young scantly clad girl a "lolita" please remember to read one of Nabokov's short stories, or if you are up for it, Lolita.

My favorite Nabokov novels listed in order from least to great (note, I haven't read Ada or Transparent Things yet)
  • King, Queen Knave
  • Pnin
  • Lolita
  • Mary
  • The Eye
  • Despair
  • Laughter in the Dark
  • The Defense
  • Invitation to a Beheading
  • Bend Sinister
  • The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
  • Glory
  • Pale Fire
  • The Gift


  1. An interesting post; especially as it highlights a concern I frequently raise to myself: what validity can popular culture create for a concept? I have never read Nabokov's work, and I would never question such an ardent fan. But for sake of example, what I was reminded of here was every single occasion that I feel I am forced to correct people who refer to Frankenstein's nameless monster simply as Frankenstein. I know, without even needing to think too hard, that they are wrong, and yet, the repetition of such a fallacy has lent the (incorrect) term a definite point of legitimacy. And what I gather from your post is that you feel a similar occurrence has happened to the term "Lolita," which I am sure you are correct in expressing. I wasn't really aiming to make a point here, but your post was an interesting addition to this situation in our culture that is of great interest to me.

  2. Great articulation of a a concern I think many besides you and I have (and which I think many authors have raised, if only obliquely).

    I make it a point to say "Frankenstein's monster". Most people either don't care or don't pick up on this distinction; I figure so long as they here Frankenstein uttered they "get" what I am saying. I think language operates in great measure this way. It's almost as if language is like water: it wants to find the quickest path to the ocean of meaning. (Because I like that analogy I just came up with, I am going to blog about it :)_)

  3. Ok, I don't want to be think but can someone please explain the 'Nabokov hates your prose' thing. I mean it sounds funny and it even makes me laugh but I do not understand it at all. Is there a sensible explanation or is it simply a case of being sublimely ridiculous?

    Sorry for being so think.