Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Vladimir Nabokov’s way with words

Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, is widely admired as a master of English prose, which is all the more remarkable since his first language was Polish and his second was French. Less attention is paid to Vladimir Nabokov in this respect, though the two are comparable, both in their not being English and in the quality of their English prose.

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you, with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler’s water clerk he was very popular.

That was the first paragraph of Conrad’s Lord Jim.

A large woman, a very stout woman, Mademoiselle rolled into our existence in 1905 when I was six and my brother five. There she is. I see so plainly her abundant dark hair, brushed up high and covertly greying; the three wrinkles on her austere forehead; her beetling brows; the steely eyes behind the black-rimmed pince-nez; that vestigial moustache; that blotchy complexion, which in moments of wrath develops an additional flush in the region of the third, and amplest, chin so regally spread over the frilled mountain of her blouse. And now she sits down, or rather she tackles the job of sitting down, the jelly of her jowl quaking, her prodigious posterior, with the three buttons on the side, lowering itself warily; then, at the last second, she surrenders her bulk to the wicker arm-chair, which out of sheer fright bursts into a salvo of crackling.

That was the second paragraph of Nabokov’s Mademoiselle O, one of the thirteen short stories that comprise Nabokov’s Dozen.

Comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry says in Much Ado About Nothing. The point of comparing these two paragraphs, each demonstrating a complete mastery of the English language, is not to prove that one is better than the other, but rather to show what is different and special about Nabokov – his playfulness, the way he surprises, the sheer delight he takes in language.

In First Love, another story in that collection, he remembers as a child bathing in Biarritz.

Professional bathers, burly Basques in black bathing suits, were there to help ladies and children enjoy the terrors of the surf. Such a ‘baigneur’ would place you with your back to the incoming wave and hold you by the hand as the rising, rotating mass of foamy, green water violently descended upon you from behind, knocking you off your feet with one mighty wallop.

Nabokov enjoys language, indulges in it, gives us excess of it, with deliberately overdone alliteration and an unexpected dollop of vernacular.

In ‘That In Aleppo Once…’ he tries to conjure up the face of an old lover.

But I cannot discern her. She remains as nebulous as my best poem – the one you made such gruesome fun of in the ‘Literaturnie Zapiski’. When I want to imagine her, I have to cling mentally to a tiny brown birthmark on her downy forearm, as one concentrates upon a punctuation mark in an illegible sentence. Perhaps, had she used a greater amount of make-up or used it more constantly, I might have visualised her face today, or at least the delicate transverse furrows of dry, hot rouged lips; but I fail, I fail – although I still feel their elusive touch now and then in the blindman’s buff of my senses, in that sobbing sort of dream when she and I clumsily clutch at each other through a heart-breaking mist and I cannot see the colour of her eyes for the blank lustre of brimming tears drowning their irises.

An unlikely simile, a random reference, an obscure simile, subtle alliteration (‘amount… make-up… more… might’), a striking image and yet more alliteration (‘the blindman’s buff of my senses’, ‘the blank lustre of brimming tears’) in the dream narrative that gives the paragraph its dying fall.

In Spring In Fialta he creates one of the long sentences which he uses often to recreate a complex moment in time, in this case a chance meeting with a woman whom we might call his lover, but for whom he is unable to find the right word.

Every time I had met her during the fifteen years of our – well, I fail to find the precise term for our kind of relationship – she had not seemed to recognize me at once; and this time too she remained quite still for a moment, on the opposite sidewalk, half turning towards me in sympathetic incertitude mixed with curiosity, only her yellow scarf already on the move like those dogs that recognize you before their owners do – and then she uttered a cry, her hands up, all her ten fingers dancing, and in the middle of the street, with merely the frank impulsiveness of an old friendship (just as she would rapidly make the sign of the cross over me every time we parted), she kissed me thrice with more mouth than meaning, and then walked beside me, hanging onto me, adjusting her stride to mine, hampered by her narrow brown skirt perfunctorily slit down the side.

Nabokov is never vague or imprecise. If he is unable to find the precise term for something, he invents a phrase (‘sympathetic incertitude’, ‘frank impulsiveness’), strengthens it if need be with alliteration (‘more mouth than meaning’) or, if a phrase won’t do, creates a compound sentence in which words and images combine with syntax to do what a painter does in a painting: immobilise time so that we can go on looking at it.

Nabokov’s way with words is like a painter’s way with paint in another way too. He loves words for their own sake and enjoys playing with them. As a painter is painterly, Nabokov is writerly. The novel most closely associated with his name begins with its own name. In the beginning was the word and the word was…

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.

Joseph Conrad could never have written anything as playful as that.

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This entry was posted on December 30, 2020 by in Fiction, Literature and tagged , , .
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