Problem Child

I’ll tell you a secret, but I’ll whisper it so no-one else can hear: My favourite author of the 20th century is Vladimir Nabokov. What! the cry goes up. The guy who wrote Lolita about the dirty old man and the little girl!
The exclamation marks bracketing the pejorative, before the statement falls from its shelf and smashes to the ground; then silence; change subject.
This is a shame as Lolita is a wonderfully written novel, and also very funny. Nabokov was a master of prose with devilish humour.
To many Lolita is his finest work (it isn’t, Pale Fire sits at the zenith of his literature heap), it’s certainly the most (in)famous. Do the challenging themes and unlikable characters in Lolita deter people? Or more pertinently deter people from readers of Nabokov?
Old Vlad (I can call you Vlad? ok) Mr Nabokov has presented his fans with a problem. The ‘nymphet’ appears in a few of his novels; so what was Nabokov thinking in his synaesthetic noggin? Whole academic conferences are organised to ask the question of the morality, or lack of, in Nabokov’s work, so it’s a thorny thicket. One aspect of his writing I’ve deduced though is not to take him too seriously. As one reviewer put it: he has a ‘flippant eloquence’. Nabokov always portrayed himself as non-political, irreligious and providing no social comment in his work. I don’t think this is entirely true: Bend Sinister and Invitation to a Beheading have obvious political reference to totalitarianism. It is true however that many of his stories take place in a disjointed or, as is the case in Ada or Ardor, an alternate reality. This device sidesteps potential political, moral or social criticism of his work. Nabokov can’t be accused of condoning the actions of his characters either as he is often particularly cruel to many of them (I actually dislike authors who are too in love with their characters).
Would I recommend Nabokov? That depends. If you prefer plot over prose; if you like fantasy, sci-fi or a labyrinthine crime thriller, then Nabokov probably isn’t for you. If you like exquisite prose, wordplay and (slightly pretentious) literary allusion, then give him a whirl.


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