On Writing…Lolita – 4th October, 2015

“On Writing”…

To any budding writers out there, I thoroughly recommend Steven King’s book, “On Writing”. It is partly anecdotal, and relates the interesting story of how he rose from a struggling writer, earning barely enough to put food on the table, to one of the most successful writers of our age. It is an inspiring story, by any standards.

In the second half of his book, he gets down to the ‘nitty-gritty’ of writing and it is packed with excellent tips and advice.

One of his ‘messages’, which I was intrigued to read, was that generally speaking, creative writing schools are a waste of time and achieve nothing. This was a comfort to me, as I have always had grave doubts about their value. I have always felt you either ‘have it’ or you haven’t, and no amount of writing schools or creative writing lectures is going to change a hack writer into a great writer.

However, King provides a large list of  tips; for example, when to use passive verbs and always use direct dialogue rather than reported dialogue etc. These and many other items of advice  are invaluable to authors who wish to improve their writing and to make their novels more appealing to the reading public.

I was quite chuffed to note that I was already applying many of his ‘tips’ to my own writing and I was particularly pleased to read that by far and away his strongest recommendation to all aspiring writers is to read, read and read. This is something I still don’t do enough of, but  nevertheless I have probably read more than most in my life. In my younger days I was a prolific reader.

He maintains that the best way to improve your writing skills is to read books by successful authors. This includes the classics as well as notable authors from the 20th and 21st Century.

King provides an eclectic list of books and authors from all over the world which he has been reading in recent years. The list includes acknowledged literary greats as well as popular books which are not particularly noted for their literary merit but were nevertheless extremely successful. (e.g. the Harry Potter series).

I was also delighted to see that King’s long list also included a number of my own favourite authors, which seems to confirm that I am on the right path.



One of King’s recommended readings is ‘Lolita’, by the Russian author, Vladimir Nabokov. The book was originally published in Paris in 1955, in New York in 1958 and finally in London in 1959.

The novel caused sensational headlines when it was first published, which is why it took 4 years before a publisher in England dared to take it on.

Yet Lolita, the story of a 38-year-old literary professor who is obsessed with a 12 year old girl with whom he becomes sexually involved, is now acknowledged as one of the finest books written in the 20th century. (Time magazine’s lists Lolita in it’s 100 best English language novels, and the novel is high in many notable lists of best novels of the 20th Century.)

Believe it or not, Lolita contains less overt sexual content than even my own book, Azzy, which by no stretch of the imagination is a hard-core sex book, and also doesn’t contain any explicit sex.

To those who have not read Lolita, let me assure that  the author, who writes in the first person, never glorifies his deviant desires. From the start he admits he is wrong and deserves to be punished.

The book is beautifully written to an exceptionally high literary standard and the poetic majesty of the descriptive text is in a class by itself. This book contains some of the finest prose I have ever read – by any author, bar none.

The book is also full of clever, ironic humour and populated with finely drawn characters and places and events that come alive and ‘jump off the pages’ at you.

His endearing descriptions of ‘small town USA’ in the late 1940’s – during his lengthy trips around the country with his ‘step daughter’, Lolita – are a positive feast of fascinating information. (like hotel lobbies with spitoons…). This is especially so for those who may be interested in reading about a USA that existed before the advent of modern technology, and multi-lane expressways.

The lush, almost Dickensian descriptive text may be a little over-done for the modern-day reader, but for those not in a rush, it is something to be savoured. 

Indeed, in my own novels, I try to keep the descriptive text as short as possible. I understand that modern day readers often have short attention spans.; they just want to know what happens next, not a five-paragraph description of a house or a person.

The most remarkable thing about Lolita is the author.

Vladimir Nabokov’s first language was Russian, not English. He was born and raised in Russia, in a home where three languages were spoken: Russian, English and French. He grew up to be a master of all three. In fact, although he wrote Lolita in English, he later translated the novel into into French and Russian for readers from those countries.

Russian was Nabokov’s preferred language, and before Lolita was written, he had already risen to international prominence from the publication of his first nine novels, which were all written in the Russian language. Yet the linguistic dexterity he displays in the pages of Lolita – with his irony, plays on words and incredibly rich vocabulary is quite astonishing.

Nabokov was a prolific writer and wrote dozens of novels and short stories in Russian and English, and a number of poetry collections in Russian. He translated notable works from Russian to English, English to Russia and French to Russian.

He also wrote more than 20 non-fiction works on a wide variety of subjects in Russian and English.

On top of all this, throughout his life he was a noted lepidopterist, and published a collected works on butterflies.

Clearly a genius…

After I finished the book, I watched the 1997  film version of Lolita, directed by Adrian Lynne and starring Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain. It is a well-made film and faithfully follows the book in pretty much all respects, but omits some of the events described in the book due to time restraints.

Irons is a believable seducer, ‘Humbert Humbert’, and he captures the essence of a man lusting after ‘forbidden fruit’. Swain is excellent as the promiscuous and provocative ‘Lolita’ – depicted as a 14-year-old in the movie, rather than a 12-year-old, as in the book.

Neither the book, nor the film in any way glorifies nor condones the act of sex with underage girls. Nor does it make any excuses for the protagonist’s illicit desires and actions. It does however seek to understand what motivated him, how he came to be the way he was and why did he go to such lengths and take such risks to satisfy his urges.

If you are interested in fine literature, read the book and then maybe watch the movie. You will not be disappointed.


MAB mini pic

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