In the summer of 2001 in a holiday house in Italy I picked a book off a shelf and it was Lolita. It would be excessive to say it changed my life but it wouldn’t be to say that it made me aware of literary style in a way I never had been before, and presented a challenge to the reader that I don’t think any other book quite matches in its strangeness and capacity to unsettle.
Writing about great writing is a difficult task. You wouldn’t try to express your thoughts about Picasso in the medium of paint or collage, but with writers you don’t really have any choice but to enter their territory if you want to celebrate or critique or otherwise engage with them (uh, writing about writing is like dancing about dancing?). When the writer is such a stylist – when they’re respected basically because of their style, it’s all the more intimidating. Which is what makes this extra paragraph of writing, actually redundant to the point of this blog post, such a foolish endeavour. Ah well.
Moving on. I just wanted to say: you don’t know style until you know Nabokov. With some writers, you kind of know when they’ve just written a sentence they’re really proud of – when they’ve just executed on a bit of style. It’s usually because there’s some horribly overwrought image sitting in the middle of their sentence shouting for attention, like an ugly kid at its own birthday party, with the author its oblivious, doting parent.* WITH NABOKOV, HOWEVER, it’s just silken beauty all the way; you occasionally have to sort of stop and blink and shake your head and smile a bit but somehow that’s never annoying, it’s just awesome. I may or may not already have said on this blog that a fiver for a second hand copy of his collected stories was the best book bargain I ever got. There’s just so much sumptuosity. But of course, the problem with Lolita is that it’s about the kidnap and repeated rape of a young girl by a middle aged man. Which means that as a reader, you’re constantly having to fight the urge to side with him – he is of course the narrator as well. This is the uniquely uncomfortable aspect of reading it that I was on about earlier.
It’s also, happily, the subject of a competition and a book organized by an architect and blogger named Jonathan Bertram. A couple of years ago he collected as many different front cover designs for Lolita as he could find (I’m not sure if this is that collection or another one; either way, it’s illustrative). What he found was that a disturbing number of these covers – whether attempting to capitalise on the book’s notoriety/controversy or not, depicted the titular character as, essentially, a sex object. Now, I guess one could argue that given the book is narrated by the perpetrator of the crime, these covers essentially represent the content of the book in that the book looks at Lolita through his eyes. However, Mr. Bertram felt, probably rightly, that a lot of these designers had basically got the wrong end of the stick. His competition and subsequent book was about finding a better, more appropriate cover for the book. There’s a writeup here (got the link off Kottke again), where you can also see a lot of the designs. The one at the top, by Jamie Keenan, is particularly effective, I think, and by that I mean that I find it truly disturbing.
Well worth a read and a look, and an inward shiver.
*Attempt at irony tragically undermined by this footnote.