06/07/2016
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500 words on... Lolita

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In the August issue of Writing Magazine, James McCreet explains the value of a particular exercise – writing 500 words to explain your connection to a novel – as a route to discovering your natural writing voice. For the full article, see August’s Writing Magazine, and read James’ own 500-word exercise below.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three...”

Nabokov’s incestuous familiarity with – and genuine love for – the English language is clear in almost every sentence of Lolita. Grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, structure and voice are playthings to him, and the book is something he clearly delighted in writing. His punning, his wilful obscurity, his outrageous choice of story − homicidal paedophile as a protagonist we’re supposed to identify with! − show the audacity of a writer who knows he is (or at least believes himself to be) operating at a level beyond everyone else. Like Melville writing Moby Dick, or Joyce on Ulysses, Nabokov has entered that stratosphere of ego where colossal self-belief goes beyond delusion to become justified, and where brilliance flows.

Don’t think I can go on. Heart, head – everything. Lolita. Lolita. Lolita. Lolita. Lolita. Lolita. Lolita. Lolita. Lolita. Repeat until the page is full, printer.

‘The Rules’ are something always in the back of Nabokov’s mind as he purposefully mocks them. The conventions of the novel are remarked upon throughout, with narrator Humbert claiming not to be a professional writer even as he subtly undermines the art with implausible coincidence, meta-fictional asides and storyline reversals. Only a master posing as an amateur writing as an unreliable narrator could get away with the tricks he pulls, creating the ‘novel as in-joke’ – a writer’s novel.

She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Above all else, the narrative voice shapes the reader experience. Humbert dominates entirely with his literary allusions, his idiosyncratic bitterness, his faux-apologetic immorality and his poetry-disguised lust. He is everything we should despise, and yet he makes most of the people he meets (his ‘victim’ Lolita included) seem worse. Here is a man of polar opposites: simultaneously the multi-lingual intellectual and the depraved animal. He traps us in his world and seduces us with its perspective.  Almost always, he is funny.

That old woman who sat down next to me on my bench, on my rack of joy (a nymphet was groping under me for a lost marble) and asked if I had stomach ache, the insolent hag.

Some writers make you work to enjoy their work. When Nabokov has a passage in Latin or uses a phrase like “plumbaceous umbrae” to describe bags under the eyes, he knows you’ll probably have to look it up. And so you should! When a novel no longer stretches us as readers, when it doesn’t challenge or surprise or inform in some way, it’s become entertainment rather than art. In Lolita, we have both – but mostly we have art: inimitable, unique, timeless. Something for every writer to aspire to.

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