Having confined myself to reading non-Western authors this year, those familiar with Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita may question my pick. After all, the book was written in English and it takes place in the Westernest of all Western cultures: the U.S. of A. Rest assured, however, that I am—or was—unschooled in Nabokovism. Only after reading it did I discover it took place here, and only upon tangential research did I find Nabokov had written this book in English, not his mother Russian.
In all likelihood I have nothing new or interesting to contribute to the discussion of this book. Its racy theme and spurts of nymphet ecstasy likely linger in the minds of those who have trod these pages before me. As a novel of unabashed pedophilia and even incest (“Lolita, with an incestuous thrill, I had grown to regard as my child”) it is distinct. As such, Lolita is a sensational read, akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion. Humbert Humbert’s forthrightness about his feelings, passions, and miscreant deeds make this novel captivating and absorbing. He said what!? He did what!? Turn the page… Because H.H. neither hides nor obscures his devious thoughts and deeds, the reader is disarmed—an unusual and thrilling accomplishment not easily performed through literature.
So I decline to discuss further the novel itself. It’s a phenomenal work; I am neither the first nor the last to make that claim.
Instead, the use of a second (and third) tongue merits a note of attention. Nabokov’s word choice was so precise and vivid—a mastery of the English language on display in each and every paragraph. (I even found myself running to the dictionary from time to time). The smatterings of French throughout are, no doubt, just as well informed as his English. But because I do not speak French, this heavy reliance on the mellifluous language was frustrating. What gem am I missing when H.H. slips in some naughty looking French turn of phrase?
I recall the same annoyance in reading A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Stern, a novel glazed with the same French cream. But at least Nabokov and Stern stuck with just one third language. Their bilingual flourishes were not as pretentious and frustrating as Umberto Eco who, in Foucault’s Pendulum, peppered his rambling novel with French, German, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic—only the latter of which was, curiously enough, given a footnote translation (Because Arabic is base? Not a language of the cultured?). Is it too much to ask for a little assistance when two or three languages are used in a novel? Yet I digress…
Why write in a tongue not your own? On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, author Ha Jin recalled the horror and despair he felt after the June 4th crackdown. In protest of the brutal actions of his home government (Ha was in the U.S. at the time) he vowed to write only in English. Writing in the New York Times Ha says:
"That was when I started to think about staying in America and writing exclusively in English, even if China was my only subject, even if Chinese was my native tongue. It took me almost a year to decide to follow the road of Conrad and Nabokov and write in a language that was not my own. I knew I might fail. I was also aware that I was forgoing an opportunity: the Chinese language had been so polluted by revolutionary movements and political jargon that there was great room for improvement.
Yet if I wrote in Chinese, my audience would be in China and I would therefore have to publish there and be at the mercy of its censorship. To preserve the integrity of my work, I had no choice but to write in English."
Political motives, there’s a good reason. And Nabokov? Sure, politics played a role in his choice to write in English too—after all, his literature was censored and banned in Russia. But for me, Lolita is a romance. Not between Humbert Humbert and Lolita, but between Nabokov and English. It is a passion for that object so hard to obtain, especially teasing when one’s fingertips can almost touch it. His play with English is nothing short of lovemaking (writing), writhing and barely hidden beneath the sheets (the story).
Writing in 1956, a year after Lolita’s publication, Nabokov recalled a review in which an American critic “suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel. The substitution of ‘English language’ for ‘romantic novel’ would make this elegant formula more correct.”
Much like Humbert Humbert showed signs of wanting to get caught in his romantic affair, Nabokov reveals his scintillating, titillating affair with another love, the English language; yet it is the audience who gains so much by sharing in the pleasure without the agony of courtship.
“Freedom for the moment is everything.” – H.H.
This is one of several "quick reviews," a series that provides a snapshot of international arts and culture.
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Vladimir Nabokov, Quick Review, Translation, Russia, China