Monday, March 23, 2009

"I don't mind if these verbs are all wrong"

"My west-door neighbor... barbered some late garden blooms... or, at a later date, defrosted his driveway (I don't mind if these verbs are all wrong)" (179)

I love Lolita so much.  In the end, of my edition at least, there's an interview with Nabokov where he says, however indirectly, that "Lolita is the record of my love affair with the romantic novel English language."  And it really is.  He has so much alliterative fun, I think, for lack of a better word, with this language that he's learned (and arguably mastered?):
"Psychoanalysts wooed me with pseduoliberations of pseudolibidoes" (18)
"pharasaic parody of privacy" (145)
"condition of my glands and ganglia: (174)
"vicious vulgarity" (171)
"umber and black Humberland" (166)
"the days had a lazy lining of warmth" (163)
"lovely live legs" (14)
"all four limbs starfished" (199)
"Welcome, fellow, to this bordello" (183)

His outsider's perspective is so very uniquely valuable to the sheer beauty of his prose style.  I think sometimes our cultural constructs and associations with words, along with our natural self-editing filter, gets in the way when we try to write.  Since English is Nabokov's THIRD language and he grew up in Russia, he lacks a lot of the cultural constructs and connotations that we pick up simply by growing up in a primarily English-speaking place.  I don't know if I'd necessarily notice the "trochaic lilit" of "the words 'novelties and souvenirs'" (148) the way he does... or:
"She.. pouted and dimpled and romped and dirndled" (here we'd say "but dirndl is a scarf!" - and I am making this up - but I imagine Nabokov instead hearing the word and admiring its sound aesthetically, the way it dances off the tongue, discovering the meaning, and using it anyway - in that order)
"the raw rose about the lips" (64) (raw?  the more you think about it, the more it works)
"hot downy darling"
"eyespots of moonlight or a fluffy flowering bush"
"lovely live legs" (but aren't all legs live?  you might ask.  Well, obviously, but we have to try to get past these mental blocks of definitions and concreteness)
"seaside limbs and ardent tongue" (15)
"heartless vaporous eyes" (201)
"Qu'il t'y - what a tongue twister!" (223) - Nabokov isn't native French, either - he does the same thing with this language, twisting it around or using its arrangements to spell out other things - I think we all can recognize "Cue" at this point in the novel, but still, so clever.)
"a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine" (he stretches the technical meaning of voluptuous, and it works, somehow, beautifully)
"sparkling girleen" (19)
"my talons still tingling" (206)
"soggy black night" (126)
"a coarse flush had now replaced that innocent fluorescence" (204)
"sinful feet" (214) (again, we have to get past the literal meaning of "sinful")
"faunlet" and "nymphet" and "nympholepts" and "nyphancy" (so like "infancy") and "girleen" and other wonderful made-up words are scattered throughout..

As a native American (har) I sometimes get caught up in the instantaneous connotations of words and Nabokov is so good at either ignoring or not-knowing these that it makes me want to try to shed some of my preconceived ideas about words when writing in order to capture the visceral feeling he does.  It's funny - that what you'd think would be a not-so-solid grasp on the English language has made him an absolute master of it.

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