Oh what a shameful flirting and drooling from me all over again! And not for the man, you understand, not for any of them, however dashing they might have been in their uniforms and suits and kosovorotkas, strolling down St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s prospects, walking on Volga’s banks, sailing on mighty Don, … not for the men, but for the words!
For those words, those sentences bursting with emotions, as raw as cut on the forehead from blade that landed there quite by an accident in a drunken brawl in one of those gambling outfits one frequents on those nights when neither words nor sleep would come.
For those words, those sentences that sparkle like droplets of blood scattered over the fresh snow just before the dawn.
Aye to get drunk and forget all about so called ‘contemporary literary rules’, ‘workshops for writers’, ‘secrets of bestselling novels’ and alkies; where they instruct sentence starvation and practice restrain with such a zeal to leave nothing but white, brittle bones trashed upon the page to fell as they will. Hungry. Cut. Skeletal.
But those fellows, my dear, those fellows knew the business! They knew how to cherish, how to savour words with which to raise rich, dark waters of lust and love and grief … to evoke the glorious, the diabolical, the cunning, the shocking … from the bubbling vortex of humanity. To let them walk on pages, inside sophisticated prose. Rich, polished, captivating.
And Vladimir had it all! He was the oldest son of a rich, highly educated and liberal family. Born in 1899, he also had a Revolution, just freshly made, and when comrades seized the power the family left Russia and moved first to London, where he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. From London they moved to Berlin and it was there (of course) he published novels, short stories, plays, poems and translations to become one of the most outstanding Russian émigré writers! Even those two words; ‘émigré writer’ makes one stare into distance with glossy eyes … aye that eternal Slav’s melancholy!
In 1940 he moved to America with his wife and son, where he lectured at Wellesley College and Cornell University. He was awarded the American National Medal for Literature in 1973 and died in Switzerland in 1977.
While he published many novels, he is best known for Lolita … Lolita that opens with; ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.’
Pulse of life itself in the very first sentence of the very first paragraph!
When I first read Lolita I was still young enough to be at least partially ignorant! Besides I read it translated into my first language. Language that, at least in those years, came as easy as breathing … inhaling the precious air unconsciously, oblivious to the rare beauty of it.
All those years later he made me read it again in a language that was originally foreign to us both. So I will pay proper attention this time, aware of every breath, now privy to the knowledge that even breathings are learned, practiced, perfected.
Pay proper attention to such expressions as, (just to give one example); ‘It is not the artistic aptitudes that are secondary sexual characters as some shams and shamans have said; it is the other way around; sex is but the ancilla of art.’
Vladimir wrote Lolita in English and the novel was first published in Paris in 1955 and in New York in 1958. He later translated it into Russian. The novel has a classic status and is recognized as one of The Hundred Best Books of All Time.
Assuming personality of a suave John Ray, a character who wrote the novel’s Foreword, the author introduces us to Humbert Humbert, a middle-age literary professor and his forthcoming story. Story that; ‘Viewed simply as a novel Lolita deals with situations and emotions that would remain exasperatingly vague to the reader had their expression been etiolated by means of platitudinous evasions. True, not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work …’ And it is indeed so.
Through Humbert’s story we enter the world of obsessive love, lust and transgression told against the backdrop of American society in 1950s as experienced by European Humbert … ‘There is nothing louder than an American hotel.’
From his youth Humbert was torched with desire for pre-pubescent girls, nymphets gliding between fragility of a child and voluptuousness of a woman … ‘I have no intentions to glorify ‘H.H.’ No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy …’
When Dolores Haze, privately called Lolita, enters his word, Humbert marries her mother and Lolita becomes his step-daughter. Lolita was to Humbert what nine years old Beatrice was to Dante when he first fell madly in love with her in 1274, or what twelve years old Laureen was to Petrarch … ‘she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve running in the wind, in the pollen and dust, a flower in flight, in the beautiful plain as described from the fills of Vaucluse …’
When it first appeared, the novel was greeted with both; shock and awe; former for the subject and later for the sheer beauty of lyrical writing. Only true master could evoke such reactions; stir the murky waters of hidden human desires with such brutal honesty dressed inside the delicate prose.
And yet, speaking as a novelist in the Afterword, Vladimir explained;
‘Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as ‘What is the author’s purpose?’ or still worse ‘What is the guy trying to say?’ Now, I happened to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book and who, when asked to explain its origin and growth, has to rely on such ancient terms of Interreaction and Inspiration and Combination – which, I admit, sound like a conjurer explaining one trick by performing another.’
I know not of better reason for writing.