Lolita by V. Nabokov. Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
the elegant and sophisticated teasing so characteristic of ‘Lolita’ is nowhere, perhaps, more conspicuous than in the “Foreword”, purporting to have been written by one John Ray Jr., Ph.D. After judiciously discussing the book’s alleged history, “Mr. Ray” permits himself to assay its quality, concluding “But how magically (the author’s) singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!” Since the convention that discriminates between the fictitious Mr. Ray and the fictitious author of the main narrative is clearly not intended to be taken very seriously, we cannot help feeling that Mr. Vladimir Nabokov, the real author of the entire work, is teasing us.
The main narrative begins “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”—and a few paragraphs later the narrator, still in euphuistic vein, proposes to go on gambolling for a while “within the hollows and dells of memory . . . if you can still stand my style”. Our rueful smile, at this point, is involuntary for we were, of course, just beginning to wonder. Mr. Nabokov is still teasing us. He has also begun to tease, or at least to toy with, language, and perhaps, swerving confidently from the outset to the most hazardous perspective of irony, to tease himself.
To tease successfully one must understand: and before we have read many pages we are compelled to acknowledge Mr. Nabokov’s right to tease us. He understands us—our continual battle with hypocrisy, our permanent difficulty in accepting anything not previously authorised by either convention or the pronouncement of genius, our ultimate inevitable capitulation to literary truth.
Few authors have been capable of establishing and maintaining such an intimate, if slightly mocking, hold on their readers. “Reader!” Mr. Nabokov cries, and immediately anticipates our response to the absurd appeal by adding “Bruder!” At any moment he may glance up from his writing to visualise us “a blond-bearded scholar with rosy lips sucking la pomme de sa canne”, with such casual intensity that we mislay for a moment our conviction that we are really dark, stickless and clean-shaven.