Beware of the Russians

As I look forward towards the next few homework-free months of summer, my thoughts very naturally go to my reading list. Really, it’s my reading shelf. Okay, shelves. It started out with a small section of one shelf devoted to the books that I wanted to get to sooner rather than later. I dubbed it The Green Room, and it has grown substantially since I first inaugurated it.

The problem is that I am the kind of reader who really needs to be focused on one book at a time. I become so utterly immersed in the story that trying to read another book at the same time feels like cheating. Even more than that, though, it feels unsatisfactory. Having to split my attention means I can’t fully engage the way I like to when I read, and so I end up feeling like I just ate a couple of slices of individually-wrapped cheese product when what I really wanted was one small bite of a fantastic triple cream Brie.

I must also mention an additional factor of what is increasingly reading like a mild case of OCD: I am loathe to leave a book unfinished, even if I’m not particularly enamored of it. So I really have to finish a book – not just decide that I don’t feel like reading it anymore – before I can start a new one.

Why are these two quirks of mine creating a problem for me right now? Ladies and gentlemen, I’m reading Lolita. I have managed 166 out of 317 pages of my paperback edition, and this has already taken me at least a month. What you should know in order to understand the significance of the previous statement is that I am a very fast reader. A book of 317 pages should take me no time at all.

Vlad certainly is giving me a beating!

Maybe I’ve been too influenced by my devotion to Hemingway and his spare style. Maybe it’s just not the right time for me to read this book. Perhaps there is some key element that I am missing. All I know is that Nabokov…Nabokov…Nabokov…Oh, he makes me feel like I just don’t get it!

Part of me is excited to have finally found Nabokov. I have been reserving my Friday posts for my adventures into new vocabulary items, and he has given me more material in five pages than I’ve gotten in thousands of pages from other authors: teleological, roan, Kilmerite, rufous, viatic, priapically, anent, coeval, and simulacrum.

The rest of me, however, is confused. I find myself getting impatient and wanting to skim, but if I do, I get lost. When I slow down and try to appreciate the prose in a more careful, considered way, it just makes me annoyed. His writing twists and turns and, even when I’m reading carefully, it sets me down in one location and then, without any awareness on my part, leads me to another place completely. I stand in this new scene, dizzy, trying to figure out how I got there, and start working backwards to find the pivotal moment that I somehow missed. How can he keep me in one place for so long, but change direction so abruptly, so sneakily?

I wonder why he has to interrupt himself so often, or go for so long without ending a sentence. I then ask myself why he insists on metaphor after metaphor, sometimes cramming five or six into one long paragraph. Is this to reflect the twisted nature of the protagonist/narrator, perhaps? Is it to distract the reader from being too repulsed by the subject matter? Is it to put a more romantic, flowery spin on the abhorrent actions of the pedophile telling the story?

I have not read anything else by Nabokov as of yet, so I cannot compare Lolita to anything else. I don’t know how much of this style is particular to the book or to the author. To be perfectly frank, I’m a little afraid to find out. It will be all I can do to finish this attempt at Nabokov, but finish it I will! It is a daunting task, but I will not break.

What I would dearly love at this point is to be the student of English literature, not a teacher of English literature. I need guidance, instruction, advice. Perhaps there is someone out there reading this post who could explain just a little bit about Nabokov to me.  If I had some insight that I am currently blind to, maybe the second half of this book will open itself up to me in a way the first half hasn’t.

So I ask, dear readers…what’s up with Nabokov?

13 thoughts on “Beware of the Russians

  1. Excellent post! Unfortunately, though, I can’t help you with Nabokov, never having read anything by him. A close friend keeps telling me to read Lolita, but I haven’t felt like it so far, and to tell the truth, after reading your post, I REALLY don’t feel like it! Some writers are annoying that way: I’m all for exploiting the richness of the English language (or of any language in which one chooses to write), and honing the text into an intricate, beautifully crafted piece, the same way a master jeweller works at a delicate piece of filigrane jewelry. But I wish certain writers had remembered their readers, and taken pity on them a bit. The bottom line is that meaning is the most important thing: however beautiful a text is, if you can’t understand it, it’s not much use. Personally, that’s what Henry James does to me (and also Joseph Conrad to a lesser extent): his grammar is so complex that a sentence can mean one thing or its exact opposite. And I really don’t like that…
    Anyway, good luck with Nabokov! And if ever you’re looking for another Russian classic, I highly recommend Bulgakov’s The Master and Marguerite. Brilliant!

    • Yeah, I feel sort of like that about James. I always feel like I should read James, but when I start, I just can’t quite get into it. I mean, I love writing that I can really sink my teeth into, but you’re right – not at the expense of clarity. Some authors will write that way just for its own sake, and those writers annoy me. I feel the same way about having too many pretty decorative items around the house (tchotckes!) that serve no purpose. A few here and there are okay, but I prefer things that look good and are functional at the same time.

      Thanks for the recommendation! I might need training for my attempt at War and Peace this summer :)

  2. Not having read Lolita, I can’t enlighten you, but I definitely can relate to wanting to read one book at the time. Currently I’m reading three, which is uncharacteristic and odd, and mayb I should just decide that one or two of them aren’t going to be read (at least not not). Well, I expect to finish one of them over the weekend at least.

    • Every once in a while, I find myself involved in more than one book, and I have to face the same decision: not finish the other two or just start focusing on one at a time until all three are done.

  3. A big part of Lolita is the contrast between old-world Humbert and the younger, crasser America he finds himself in. The tangents, the philosophical language, etc., are all part of an attempt to show that the narrator is an Old World intellectual (and also a bit nuts).

  4. Lolita also took me a long time and I am also a fast reader. I loved Lolita, but I’m not sure whether there’s a magic formula for understanding his style and technique because I think it’s just as likely that he didn’t know what it meant either. He wrote many different versions of Lolita over the years and he was also writing in English as a second language, and I wonder if maybe the prose feels more lyrical and inaccessible than even he anticipated.

    • At the moment, it’s a love/hate relationship. I love the distinct voice and the richness of his language, but I hate the sections when it feels like he’s just writing that way just because he can.

      It did occur to me that what I was reading was fantastic Russian writing with English words. I really think I can go into the second half with new ‘eyes’ and try to get more out of it than I did the first half. And I have a feeling I might have to read it again. It’s been a while since I’ve had to work this hard at a book, which is both frustrating and exciting at the same time!

  5. I recommend Pale Fire; Lolita pales by comparison. Nabokov’s language is brilliant. It’s even better if you know some Russian, because he’s prone to wordplay between the two languages (especially apparent in Pale Fire). I’m amazed at his grasp on the English language, especially considering that it’s his second language.

    For some reason his novel “Laughter in the Dark” (originally written in Russian) doesn’t use the same type of language, even in the original Russian. I mean, it’s still good, but it’s nothing like the novels he wrote in English.

    • Thanks for the suggestion! I would like to read something else by Nabokov, for comparison if for no other reason, but I’ve been hesitant. I have a copy of Ada, but I’ll look for Pale Fire instead. But I think I’ll have to burn through a couple of fluffy Agatha Christie mysteries before I once more attempt the Russian (apparently, that’s how I think of him now :)

      You’re right about his grasp of the English language, whatever he chooses to do with it. It’s remarkable. Unfortunately, I don’t know any Russian to be able to appreciate the wordplay.

      Thanks for the comment! It’s nice to see new ‘faces’ :)

  6. Pingback: Retrospective. | As a Linguist…
    • Hi Tessa! Nabokov is quite frustrating, isn’t he? It wasn’t the kind of frustration with writing that I know is just bad. I could understand that Nabokov was challenging and skilled, but I just couldn’t crack the code.

      For what it’s worth, I did have a little bit of a breakthrough. Part of it was just abandoning myself to the crazy and trying not to make too much logical sense out of it, because it just isn’t there. Sometimes it felt like I was falling through the rabbit hole, and then there were bursts of lucidity, but I figured that this might be what it’s like for Humbert, and maybe this is behind his abhorrent actions. It helped become a bit more immersed, and the second half did go faster than the first.

      I wrote about it in a subsequent post: https://asalinguist.com/2011/05/27/the-vocabulary-of-insanity/ Perhaps it will help in the rest of your journey through Lolita. Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

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