“For me, a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.” – Vladimir Nabokov, in “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” 11/12/56
When I mentioned that I was reading Lolita to a few friends and colleagues, they mostly gave me shuddered responses. The subject matter, of course, is dicey: Who wants to read about a pedophile? Especially those of us who have had close contact with pedophiles, it’s not a world we want to revisit.
Yet, Lolita is an iconic novel that sat on my shelf, one I never read, but thought I should read. I’d seen the movie years ago, but it had faded into the distant aisles of memory, with only images of its stars (Shelly Winters, James Mason, I think) hanging in front of the drawn curtains behind which stacked details from the film I could no longer remember.
Between novels, I’d pick up Lolita and give it a try, but pretty quickly it resumed its place on the shelf. And then last weekend I read an interview with Donna Tartt, whose new novel, The Goldfinch, just came out, in which she said, “My favourite book? Lolita. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll probably say something else.”
Done deal. I had to read Lolita. I ordered The Goldfinch and while I waited for it to arrive, I committed myself to Lolita. As I read my 1989 copy, the Vanity Fair quote on the cover–“The only convincing love story of our century.”–dangled about. I’d never thought of the novel as a love story, certainly no one had ever said as much, but it was, it certainly was.
The writing is perhaps the most gorgeous writing of any novel I’ve ever read. It’s not my favorite novel, but the writing is among the best, ever. Every writer in every genre should read Lolita, if for no other reason than to study from a master.
I’m excitedly onto The Goldfinch, now, and Lolita will resume its place on the shelf. I’ll no doubt be an evangelist for a time. Forgive me. That’s how it is when you read a book you know you’ll never forget.