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Alliteration in Lolita - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
June 4th, 2002
05:16 pm


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Alliteration in Lolita
Still reading Nabokov's Lolita, I am again drawn to notice and comment on a stylistic choice of his. But hey, the book is famous not for its plot, but for its style.

Humbert's prose is strewn with alliterative phrases, and I found most of them delightful. I like alliteration; I realized that first when I read Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, and later when I read the poetry of Oscar Wilde and Charles Algernon Swinburne.

But alliteration as a literary device has been dead for quite some time now, especially in prose. Nabokov seems determined to not only sneak a few alliterations here and there, but to flaunt this device throughout the book. I wonder, again, at the background for that stylistic decision, and how it was received when the book was published. Also, has Nabokov used alliteration in any of his other works?

P.S. avva gave me a fascinating explanation of Nabokov's treatment of the Russian concept Пошлость (poshlost'), right here. Go read it.

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(5 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2002 10:03 am (UTC)

Whose / Prose ? [note: visual rhyme?]

Well, I'd say the book is _infamous_ (or at least notorious) for its plot -- and all I know of its style is what you've mentioned here. But not to let you wonder alone, try this:

It's _Humbert's_ prose that Nabokov strews with alliterative phrases, more flauntingly than sneakily, as you put it.

If alliteration as a literary device is passe or worse (i.e. dead),
and Nabokov has this as a device Humbert favors... what does that tell us about the relationship between author, character, and reader?

[am exercising mighty restraint in refraining from further comment,
but let's just say I personally don't have any inclination whatever to read this particular book -- though I'm curious about this author, if perhaps he's produced another work with a character with whom I'd like to spend my time, etc....?] FWIW...
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2002 11:57 am (UTC)

Re: Whose / Prose ? [note: visual rhyme?]

No, no no!

Lolita is a wonderful book. What it is infamous for is banalized misreadings that glorify pedophilia and legitimize aberrant behavior for its perversion. But these are silly misreadings made popular, I suppose, by silly reviewers and sensationalist renditions. If you read just the first chapter, the first paragraph, the first line even, you will know immediately that it is with aesthetic genius you are meeting, and that however monstrous the character depicted (who, granted, sometimes or often even snares our sympathies), the depiction itself is a work of great intricacy and beauty, that the English language has seldom received such a glorious gift, in it, by it, for itself. The most banal interpretation of all of Lolita, perhaps, is the truest one: the real gushing love of which the novel tells is not of HH's to Lolita, but of Nabokov to English. This love is breathtaking to behold, and there is nothing uncouth about it.
[User Picture]
Date:June 17th, 2002 03:45 pm (UTC)

Remaining unconvinced after sampling.

Gaal, it may not be a first, but I can't recall the last time someone's succeeded in persuading me to crack a book within 24 hours of recommendation. Thanks to perhaps the most valuable remnant of what was once a kibbutz here, a phone call to my faithful librarian routed our excellent library's copy of "Lolita" in my mailbox by the time I arrived home from the office. And as you'd declared, a long hour's sampling of Nabokov's writing gave me the gist of his/HH's use of the language.
Sorry, but I could neither enjoy nor appreciate it. Humbert's egocentrist, aesthetist, ultimate epicure-consumer's view of the world -- including his interactions with what bits of humanity impinge on his self-defined sphere -- so thoroughly and totally infuses his language (or is reflected in it; either way), I found the whole mess too repulsive. He is indeed a monster.
I really tried to set aside my die-hard, unreconstructed feminist reading (in which I was schooled; BA English Lit, UCLA 1976), and I was not untouched by the sensualism of this man in that world. I even suppressed the alarmed outrage natural to a mother of pre/pubescent daughters. But my 60s schooling and 70s sensibility could not tolerate the book (= character) for long. We were brought up on altruism and it conquered our aesthetics. Which is why I'm living here (in Israel) and writing this (at 01:23 AM), rather than living my own self-indulgent version of Humbertalia. (and you can take my word for it that the choice was there, and made -- and sometimes, renewed.)
I wouldn't presume to compare "my" English with the great writer's. But that, and the education-generation-thing (i.e. your being of the eighties/nineties/oh-ohs), may be significant in my cool reception of Nabokov here, in contrast to the ardent response his language evokes from Ijon and yourself.
But then again, there are a lot of things I can't freely enjoy. Maybe it matters (and doesn't go-without-saying) that for the past three years I've been a nearly-full-time Holocaust archivist. And maybe I have to leave that as the last word, for now.
I am rather a hard case, guys -- but I hope that won't place me beyond the pale of discourse. (On the contrary, you might say -- but till I know you better, that remains only theoretical... though I'd like to think my belief is well-placed, that Ijon _would_ say that...)
[User Picture]
Date:June 17th, 2002 11:54 pm (UTC)

What to do with a text

The best thing you can do with a text is enjoy it. If that is for some reason denied you, I'm not sure you need give anyone an excuse. Of course, putting your discontent into words is presumably an invitation to talk about it; but despite the effects of my original reply on you, I am not here to convince you of anything. And neither, which seems more important anyway, is Humbert. Unreconstructed feminist, parental, and altruist readings may not allow that, but it is exactly in this
(to my view) that they fall short. (Indeed, of these outrages, the one you suppressed seems to me to be the best.) I do not agree with your identification of the book with the character. I don't fully know what to make of your consigning me to this and the last two decades. A philosophical debate over these assumptions might ensue, but I don't see the use of it here. It was not a theory over why Lolita is grand I was after. It was a momentary glimpse of living light I was presumptuously trying to give you, and I have not forgotten the presumption (and risk) that's inherent in such an attempt.
[User Picture]
Date:June 17th, 2002 03:08 pm (UTC)

Alliteration happens.

A revision to my previous suggestion, now with the benefit of having read-around-in "Lolita" :
given the nature of word-formation in the English language, plus the density of said language as used by Nabokov/HH in this prose,
I'd say any alliteration (which didn't particularly strike me, anyway) is more likely to be an artefact of accretion, a product of happenstance, rather than any deliberate ruse.
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