Loving Lolita

Last week was an extraordinarily good week for my reading. I began reading Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy”, which is already beginning to look like it will be one of my favorite novels; but also, wonderfully, I finished reading Nabokov’s “Lolita”.

Have you ever read an author and felt the thrill of recognizing that this is the person you want most to write like? Nabokov, I think, comes closest for me. I absolutely love his style. I fell in love with it in the first paragraph of his book:

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.

Experts say a good writer has two skills; one, the sensitivity to capture people, places and moods with an interesting perspective, and two, a keen sense of word-craft to find the right words and sentences to express these perspectives. Often one encounters writers who are good at the first but not so great at the second; but rarely – and it is worth the rarity – one comes upon a writer who loves language so much that it shines through every sentence in his work.

Nabokov is one such writer. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” – combining metaphor, alliteration, three ideas in nine words; “the tip of the tongue takes a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth” – this is almost a poem written out in prose, blurring the line between language that we read and language that we speak. Read it out loud; it’s almost self-referential, the cadence and the lilt.

And that’s what the whole book is like; when you know that a book about a pedophile is also widely acclaimed as one of the best books of the 20th century, it’s not because the reader identifies with the loathsome protagonist – it’s because every sentence in the book is a love poem from Nabokov to the English language.

Vikram Seth also loves English (though his skill is less than Nabokov). It was in imitation of his “Golden Gate” that I wrote my own magnum opus, a play in college that was almost entirely in rhyme, and which took the Chennai theater scene by storm (in a teacup) in 2002. And as a lover of wordplay, I now admire both of these novelists immensely.

On the subject of wordplay, another incredible book I have read is called “A Void” – the English translation of a french novel called “La Disparation” by Perec, which is a full-length detective novel that does not use anywhere the letter ‘e’. This is an old technique of wordplay, the elision of an essential letter, and by itself no longer evokes great wonder; but A Void is also a good novel. And in addition, it has several virtuoso performances inside – for example, a version of famous poems (including Hood’s “November” and Poe’s “Raven”) without ‘e’, and a long passage without either of the letters ‘e’ and ‘a’.

As a parting note, I leave for my dear readers one of the loveliest pieces of wordplay I have ever encountered: a poem by Mary Youngquist called “Winter Reigns”. Can you guess the constraint that the author has imposed upon herself (and pulled off so remarkably) in this poem? (Answers tomorrow…)


Shimmering, gleaming, glistening glow–
Winter reigns, splendiferous snow!
Won’t this sight, this stainless scene,
Endlessly yield days supreme?

Eying ground, deep piled, delights
Skiers scaling garish heights.
Still like eagles soaring, glide
Eager racers; show-offs slide.

Ecstatic children, noses scarved–
Dancing gnomes, seem magic carved–
Doing graceful leaps. Snowballs,
Swishing globules, sail low walls.

Surely year-end’s special lure
Eases sorrow we endure,
Every year renews shared dream,
Memories sweet, that timeless stream.

–Mary Youngquist


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