Lolita, Nabokov and the Love of Language


“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo-lee-ta.” (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)

If beauty were a word, the word would be, “Lolita.” In the opening sentence of his seminal novel, Nabokov employs language to the point where words transcend social signification and reach the intangible; the realm where spirit overcomes reality and meaning glides, like an endless river. The rabble, that is the reader, stumbles beneath the force of Nabokov’s offering and yields to the musicality of his text. Sensuously alliterative, we are putty in the hands of the language that is derived from the psyche of a wordsmith, whom we proclaim a genius, but are afraid to like.

For many years I resisted my compulsion to read Lolita, as though reading a novel containing themes of child abuse would somehow legitimise the crime. Having succumbed to my compulsion, I carry no regrets. Reading Lolita may not have improved my moral fortitude (neither has it damaged it), but it has enriched my appreciation of the art of writing.

As his protagonist, Humbert Humbert manipulates his child lover, Nabokov manipulates the reader with displays of brilliant wordplay. This shields us from the reality of the truth that we are reading a novel about the abuse and exploitation of a child by an adult man. Lolita shows that beauty is nearer to ugliness than genius to the ordinary and that pleasure often yields the price of spiritual self-flagellation.

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