Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and the Inspiration of Aspiration

Full disclosure:

  1. A) Lolita is one of my favorite books of all time
  2. B) This is a re-read -I have know read Lolita 2.6 times (I started and for some reason did not complete a re-read about 2 years back)

Lolita is wonderful. Nabokov is an unmatched master in the classical sense who is more than deserving of every bit of praise he has received. But rather than defaulting to a continued gushing on about how amazing this book is, I’d prefer to take a look at the motivation and rewards of re-reading, and the inspirational/aspirational role of reviewing great art in the context of one’s own creative output.

Lolita is better than the things I make, and it was created long before many of my own literary inspirations were published. It’s been my experience that truly transcendent displays of virtuosity have one of two effects; the devotee of the virtuoso will either run to his own performance of the craft in a frenzy of manic inspiration, or he will step away from the craft for a time, depressed by his own relative lack  of skill. As a young(er) man, I was a rather driven guitar player. I had cut my teeth in church bands and transitioned into playing in metal, post-hardcore, and jazz groups (sometimes all in the same week). I had good gear, good chops, and decent technique. Unfortunately, I also suffered from being an overly-competitive and egocentric young male. Every superior guitar player was a threat, a rival. I would pick apart their playing with the most critical eye possible (sure, he’s fast with those sweep-picked arpeggios, but all he can do is play that fake-ass Yngwie Malmsteen neoclassical bullshit -he couldn’t handle the polyrhythms I have to work with). This was -obviously- incredibly unsatisfying, and that attitude was objectively detrimental to my growth as a musician.

Once I got enough distance from that part of my life to recognize those kind of tendencies in myself I worked hard to try and move beyond that place of ego. Not to say that excellence in a creative endeavor doesn’t require ego; it absolutely does. There is an inherent conceit in the root idea of “lots of people should take time out of their day to mentally upload the words and ideas I make up”. At the same time, that excessively masculine and externally deprecating ego (displayed most publicly in, say,Hemingway and Norman Mailer) is absolutely toxic. Some of my  best writing has forced itself into objective existence in a literary post-coital afterglow.

I can see myself coming back to Lolita, specifically for this effect. There is no better example of an immediately recognizable voice, a voice that we have every reason to deplore but cannot help but come alongside of, invest in. While there is certainly a danger of coming off as a second-rate Nabokov clone when sampling so heavily for inspiration, I don’t think my own work would suffer for being a bit more Nabokovian than it is now.

Recommendation: Read it. Duh.


by Vladimir Nabokov

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