Mary Vensel White is the author of The Qualities of Wood, which will be published on June 17 by Authonomy/HarperCollins. It is both a suspenseful murder mystery and an intriguing character study of a young marriage, an extended family, and an insular community. Today, Mary visits Read Her Like an Open Book to share the impact of reading Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita.
I first read Lolita in 1994, when I was still an undergrad at the University of Denver, and because I finished the book in July of that year (as noted on the inside cover), I can say that it was probably a welcome distraction from planning for our wedding in August. So it’ll be twenty years this summer—for the marriage and the relationship with Lolita—and it’s a good time to think (again) about the book’s influence on me.
I have two favorite books of all time, this one and Anna Karenina, depending on the context and what mood I’m in. But on the topic of Books That Changed My Life, it’s hands-down, no contest. Lolita rocked my world. From the opening pages, it still thrills me. First, there is the Foreword by the fictional “John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.,” in which we are told in clinical terms about a Mr. Humbert Humbert, that “he is horrible (and) abject,” and that his memoir is the thing we’ll be reading within the pages of the book. And then, it starts:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
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.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
I’m including the lengthy opening in part because it’s so difficult to explain the effect of the prose and in part, for my own pleasure in doing so. Even now, twenty years and four reads later, I still just can’t believe these first short paragraphs. There is so much there, intrigue and questions and beguilements. During that initial reading years ago, my shock and awe intensified as the story progressed. Reading this novel made me realize the unlimited power of the writer, the fact that you really could write about anything, however you chose to do it. It was like clouds parting to reveal a new, limitless sky. Nabokov’s mesmeric prose, his ability to draw empathy and understanding for this “horrible” character, the sharp humor and the skewering of humanity amidst a stubborn tenderness—what can I say?
It defies explanation, this book, at least for me. It is, without a doubt, the book that most changed my life. And I realized, in pulling it from my shelf, that it’s been almost seven years since my last reading, which is certainly much too long.