There is something magnetic, deeply mesmerizing about the opening paragraph of Nabokov’s Lolita. It takes three dainty steps of the tongue to pronounce Lo-li-ta, which is all the time Nabokov needs to showcase his dazzling writing skills and his love for clever word play and literary gimmicks. Extraordinarily simple yet highly ingenious, down-to-earth and “physical” yet brimming with an excess of desire, the controversial novel’s first paragraph draws in the reader in the bat of an eyelid, yet keeps her at an intriguing distance because of the morbid topic, because of the moral boundaries that are so brashly overlooked by the narrator’s thoughts and actions.
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.
What style! ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’, Humbert warns us at the outset. That may be true, for a murderer, but in Nabokov’s case it was someone else he could count on for advice, help and inspiration. Vladimir Nabokov wrote his first draft of Lolita (published in 1955) while on butterfly-collection trips in the Western United States with his wife, Véra Nabokov. Not many know the crucial role she played in drawing up the scandalous masterpiece: surprisingly enough she acted as his “secretary, typist, editor, proofreader, translator and bibliographer; his agent, business manager, legal counsel and chauffeur; his research assistant, teaching assistant and professorial understudy”!. It was Vèra who prevented Nabokov from burning the unfinished drafts of Lolita; she believed in her husband’s creative genius, privately encouraging and standing by him all his life — he called her “the best-humoured woman he had ever known.”
Now, putting aside the fear of sounding like a despicable child-abuser, have a go at composing a short paragraph in homage to Nabokov’s incredible style, and dedicate it to your own Vèra. Think about your loved one’s name (wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, companion or lover – it doesn’t have to be a paedophiliac, semi-incestous infatuation that drives your passionate immagination), find inspiration in its soothing sound and the meaning it acquires as you spell out the letters. Say it out loud a few times. Now break it up in syllables, listen to the consonants and vowels, draw shapes with the letters and go with the rhythm of the name. Though Nabokov, as Vèra herself admitted, always “had the good taste to keep me out of his books”, we — who lack his fervid imagination and literary status – are free to playfully smuggle our loved one’s real name into our imaginary word game. Try it as a very personalised and poetic card, as a humourous note to leave on the fridge before leaving for work, or as a romantic text message for a high-brow surprise during the day.
Amis, Martin. Visiting Mrs Nabokov: And Other Excursions. pages 115–118. Penguin Books (1993)
New York Times obituary, “Vèra Nabokov, 89, Wife, Muse and Agent”, 11 April 1991
Brian Boyd’s biography, “Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years” (Princeton University Press, 1990)