I was reading an interview with some author in the New York Times Book Review (can’t remember who it was) who said that he loved the wordplay at the beginning of Lolita, but as it went on, he got tired, and never finished it. Same thing happened to me. I tried to read the book in college (think I was home on a summer break) and I got about two-thirds of the way thru before putting it down. I couldn’t really care less about Humbert Humbert, or Lolita for that matter, and wasn’t really interested in finding out what happened to either one of them. As to the wordplay, I guess I missed it.
Yet Lolita is one of those books that everyone seems to love, or at least respect, for one reason or another, and I always wonder whether it’s just a matter of taste, or whether the book is simply overrated, (and maybe people feel like it’s something they are supposed to say that they like or admire), or whether I am just completely missing something?
Every once in a while, I go back and try to re-read those books to see if I can see whatever it is that I apparently missed the first time. The Catcher in the Rye, for example, I have read three times. Most recently just a few years ago. I am still missing whatever it is that I am missing.
However, when I went back to Lolita the other day, in search of this ingenious “wordplay” (also sometimes referred to as “linguistic gymnastics”), I actually found what I was looking for.
He has this knack for effortlessly weaving in metaphorical or descriptive words that are unexpected, perhaps alliterative, and expansive in meaning, without really detracting from the prose. (When I say “effortless” I mean for the reader. Better word may be “naturally” although it’s actually “unnatural” in the sense that it’s uncommon. I suspect it might not have been “effortless” for Nabokov.) But, as just an example:
“My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of Danube in his veins.”
“There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open (and then I see Annabel in such general terms as: ‘honey-colored skin,’ ‘thin arms,’ ‘brown bobbed hair,’ ‘long lashes,’ ‘big bright mouth’); and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark inner side of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Lolita).”
“In this wrought-iron world of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not alter their future?”
A “salad” with a “dash” is not how you expect to hear a person described in terms of his or her ethnic heritage, but, at the same time, it doesn’t feel particularly forced or strained.
The “laboratory” of your mind is similarly unexpected, and expansive, in terms of the way that one might be conjuring such images, but is not in any way disruptive of the linguistic or interpretive flow. The “on the dark innerside of your eyelids” is perhaps unnecessary, but it’s not strictly redundant, because it captures the projection of an image onto a concrete two-dimensional screen, as opposed a more ethereal image; (which is then further reinforced by “objective, absolutely optical”). The word “ghost” is not generally associated with this type of remembrance, and is therefore somewhat unexpected, but actually makes perfect sense, as Humbert is clearly haunted – and it’s offset by the “natural colors” (as most people probably think of ghosts in black-and-white).
Not only do I like the alliteration, but “wrought-iron” evokes the real and/or metaphorical prison bars, and “criss-cross” is interesting because you generally think of causation as linear, as opposed to lateral.
In all of these cases, and what I appreciate most, is that the words are communicating something to the reader. And, while different readers might take away different thoughts, images, appreciation, or ideas, the words generally flow, and are easy to understand; not simply showing off, for their own sake.
By contrast, for example, this description from a different author, in a different New York Times Book Review:
“‘Mr. Peanut’ is a hybrid wonder, being at once a detective story, an arch gloss on that genre and a bravura romance, totally upended, that employs the possible murder of one’s wife as a means of revealing the manifold facets of truest, desperate love. All this is driven by the edgy sparkle of the prose, which acts not only as a mirror or lens but as an accelerant, lighting up every layer of his characters’ consciousness to a degree that feels almost dangerous.”
How much effort am I supposed to make to try to understand what (if anything, really) this pretentious windbag is trying to say?