Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I have mentioned before how much I enjoy reading Tycho’s writings over at Penny Arcade. His command of vocabulary and rich, fantastic metaphor fills me with a tingly delight. After finishing Lolita, I think Vladimir Nabokov tops it, like a Tycho writing in the 1950s if Tycho was a trilingual synesthete.
Some context: A while back I was encouraged by Artwiculate to try crafting wit with arcane vocabulary (as my Twitter followers will corroborate with a regretful sigh). Over the past month, I’ve been more intensely reviewing all kinds of words in preparation for the GRE.
It seemed like every time I resurrected a new word, it appeared in the next page of Lolita. Such seemingly effortless use of a vibrant, wide vocabulary is astounding. It’s entirely unlike the loquacious use of “vocab words” by authors transparently employing right-click → synonyms in Microsoft Word, rather it is the artful placement of linguistic jewels flowing liquidly from his pen. The story is a beauty to read for that value alone, but it also creates contrast with the plot.
One of many bits that made me laugh out loud was Nabokov’s discussion of having sex outside.
…in the Wilds of America the open-air lover will not find it easy to indulge in the most ancient of all crimes and pastimes. Poisonous plants burn his sweetheart’s buttocks, nameless insects sting his; sharp items of the forest floor prick his knees, insects hers; and all around there abides a sustained rustle of potential snakes—que dis-je, of semi-extinct dragons!—while the crablike seeds of ferocious flowers cling, in a hideous green crust, to gartered black sock and sloppy white sock alike.Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Nabokov does scatter a lot of French throughout the novel. Having never studied it, everything not already part of the common parlance was lost on me. I feel like I might of missed out on some humor, but at least there’s something to please those silly people who took French instead of Spanish.
Writing like this is impressive and inspiring to me. In my experience, maintaining such language requires near-constant application. Otherwise I tend toward “favorite words,” ultimately at the exclusion of others. Not only is Lolita excellent writing, it tells a tragic story worth reading. This is definitely going on my shelf of all-time favorites.