Vladimir Nabokov is most famous for his novel Lolita and his richly-detailed writing style. Reading his work is like watching a virtuoso performer. His multi-lingual perspective was a deep reservoir of experience that inspired his writing—he spent the first twenty years of his life in Russia, the next twenty in Europe, the next twenty in America, and the end of his life in Switzerland.
His descriptions have affected me most. It feels like I'm there with him, seeing the details that make the setting, that create the mood. I feel time slowed down and I get a chance to take a breath.
What do the observations tell me about the character? In the short story, Beneficence, a sculptor comes to terms with losing his lover. While waiting for a rendezvous his attention is drawn to a nearby little old woman selling postcards and knick-knacks from a stand near a guardhouse. The window of the guardhouse opens and a soldier calls the old woman over and gives her a cup of coffee.
“Then she began drinking. I have never seen a person drink with such utter, profound, concentrated relish. She forgot her stand, the postcards, the chill wind, her American client, she just sipped, sucked, disappeared totally into her coffee—exactly as I forgot about my vigil and saw only the velours jacket, the bliss-dimmed eyes, the stubby hands clutching the mug in their woolen mittens. She drank for a long time, drank in slow swallows, reverently licking off the fringe of skin, heating her palms on the warm tin. And a dark, sweet warmth poured into my soul. My soul, too, was drinking and heating itself, and the brown little woman tasted of coffee with milk.”
After finishing the coffee she returns the cup with a couple postcards. The main character then observes:
“Here I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation, and I realized that the joy I had sought in you was not only secreted within you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed on us and unappreciated.”
By slowing down and showing us the details we see the things that led to his conclusions.
Nabokov rarely sums things up so nicely. Nor does his work always leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. Often his work is dark, but I always feel his honesty in observation. He doesn't judge or hold back. I can't help but think of him saying, "This is what I saw, and this is how it made me feel."
You can't talk about Nabokov without talking about despicable characters. I'm 54 years old and I had not read Lolita until this past month. It has always been on the periphery of my awareness. I knew it was a famous book but the subject matter was so off-putting. There was a part of my mind that attributed the subject matter—pedophilia—to the author himself. I'm embarassed to admit that, being a writer myself. I suspect it's just human nature because that question came up often in his interviews. In the book of his collected interviews, Strong Opinions, he said:
“I am very careful to keep my characters beyond the limits of my own identity. Only the background of the novel can be said to contain some biographical touches.”
Nabokov is by far one of the greatest developers of character. He talked about Humbert Humbert from Lolita, when asked if he was inspired by someone in real life:
“He’s a man I devised, a man with an obsession, and I think many of my characters have sudden obsessions, different kinds of obsessions; but he never existed. He did exist after I had written the book.”
At an early stage of a novel's development Nabokov would collect bits of information, names of things, descriptions—before he even knew what it was all for. Like a bird collecting bits of string and fluff. Then suddenly there is an awareness—"This is what I'm going to write." After that the novel starts to breed itself.
“Since this entire structure, dimly illumined in one’s mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not have to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception, I may direct my flashlight at any part or particle of the picture when setting it down in writing. I do not begin my novel at the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper.”
For him, this process was made easier by writing everything on index cards, rearranging them, numbering them only later when everything was complete. About three 5x7-inch index cards made up one typewritten page.
He said creative writers must study the works of rivals, and they
“must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world...Art is never simple...art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.”
The Reader's Reaction
When I read Lolita I experienced a visceral reaction I have felt only rarely while reading. Perhaps I've been reading the wrong books. I've felt it while reading Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood, Steinbeck. Why do I feel it when reading Nabokov?
“...you read an artist’s book not with your heart (the heart is a remarkably stupid reader), and not with your brain alone, but with your brain and spine. 'Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel.'"
Reading Nabokov gives me that tingle in my spine.
And finally, here is a poster of Nabokov with some inspiring thoughts for writers: