InNoReMo 2008; Lolita, Pt. 1, Ch.s 14-22

In my experience, many of the "classic" novels of centuries past, and especially the 19th, aren't actually that classic. One problem is that they're too long - not too long in the sense of "I don't like books that are longer than 700 pages" sense but in the "There are too many sentences, even whole chapters in this novel I could have done without" sense. Even Moby-Dick, which is a cracker, could be better if the right 25% were cut out. 19th century writers tended to put everything that is part of the story in; it is not untypical of novels to start with the hero's birth and tell us about the pattern of the carpet the father was looking at while the birth took place. At a lecture I once attended the speaker said that that had something to do with 19th century people seeing the world as "a closed system". I had no idea what he meant.

What could they have done better? A look at Lolita helps answering the question. Apart from the subject matter it is a pretty conventional novel, (almost) starting with the narrator's childhood and going pretty chronologically from there. There are bits of information that, in and by themselves, are not that interesting, such as Humbert Humbert getting married to Charlotte Haze. How does Nabokov solve these problems? Simple:

a) Keep uninteresting passages short. This may sound trivial, but no one ever seems to have told Dickens.

b) Have the readers look forward to learning how things happened. Right off the bat we learn that not only Humbert has died in legal captivity, but also that his deeds were truly despicable. This is followed very soon by Humbert's confession that he has an obsession for "nymphets". Throughout the book there is foreshadowing of the "I didn't know then I'd become a killer" type (but in a more elegant style). Also, ch. 13, which gives us a taste of things to come, is just in the right place in the book to keep the reader going.

c) Write stylistically better than almost everyone else.

O.k., c) is pretty hard, but a) and b) is standard creative writing stuff nowadays. To anyone who says that nonlinear storytelling simply hadn't been invented by the 19th century, I say: Tristram Shandy.

A completely different point: Humbert leads us to believe that he will kill Charlotte Haze, then we learn about how he just can't - and then she gets killed in an accident. I'm fairly sure I've seen the same device used in a movie, but why isn't it used more often? I think it's rather lovely.

Favourite passage

I'm in a bit of an awkward situation here because I keep raving on about what a great stylist Nabokov is, but the passages I am quoting are at best very good (so far). Thing is, you need to read at least a page to get into the flow; the book's not made for taking a few sentences out of context. Having said that:

Thus I had delicately constructed my ignoble, ardent, sinful dream; and still Lolita was safe - and I was safe. What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another fanciful Lolita - perhaps more real than Lolita, overlapping, encasing her, floating between me and her, and having no will, no consicousness - indeed, no life of her own.

Assignment: "What Humbert says in the second sentence about his relationship with Lolita is true to an extent with regards to more normal relationships between lovers." Discuss!

Favourite expressions

"the business in hand" ("I cannot swear that certain motions pertaining to the business in hand - if I may coin an expression - had not drifted across my mind before.")

"mental tiptoe" ("Then, with all possible caution, on mental tiptoe so to speak, I conjured up Charlotte as a possible mate.")

"mauvemail" (" ... how eventually I might blackmail - no, that is too strong a word - mauvemail big Haze into letting me consort with little Haze ... ") The obvious choice would have been "greymail". But mauvemail? I mean, hey!

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