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.

What a potent feeling of authenticity is gradually generated by this book, which never seriously attempts to establish a single, conventionalised relationship with reality, which, indeed, seems almost to mock its own claim to be taken seriously! The machinery of Lolita is sometimes preposterous and never (to appropriate the adjective used for the adolescent heroine’s underclothes) more than perfunctory. It is as if the narrative conventions of the European novel having finally broken down, analysed out of existence, perhaps, by Joyce, Nabokov has cheerfully started again from scratch. Or rather, since it is late in the day to begin at the beginning, has impartially adopted any convention that suits his immediate purpose, protecting his readers, all the while, by a veil of irony, from the demands of any of them. And yet, although the degree of stylisation and the favoured convention may vary from page to page, almost from sentence to sentence, we find the authentic quality of 20th century life emerging.

Steadily, as we read on, the doors of Lolita swing open to reveal more and more of our culture. We follow an elaborate and melodious pun until it has led us unexpectedly to a new and valuable perspective on academic or social life. An audacious and complex image, gathering up strands of contemporary significance, flowers ultimately into a whole bouquet of psychological insight. Physical objects proceed down avenues of enchantment and may, no matter how slight in themselves (few authors have had Nabokov’s eye for telling minutiae), burst suddenly into lurid, but often exact, symbolism. Almost anything—the name of a hotel, a pill, a literary reference, a fragment of popular music, or an article of clothing—may develop into a distinct theme, acquiring ever richer deposits of meaning as it proceeds through the book.