writing about love

April 11, 2011 § 8 Comments


i recently read the real life of sebastian knight (vladimir nabokov). nabokov also wrote the wonderful lolita. i am yet to find a book in the english language that is as consistently, funnily, unhappily lyrical as lolita… like with a suitable boy, i find that i can allow lolita to fall open at any page, and i can reread from there without feeling lost. either this involves a fantastic or a terrible narrative, you can decide for yourself.

there is not that quality in the real life… i can’t say it is as good as lolita, but i really can’t tell. i seem to have mentally elevated lolita to a position she won’t be shifted from without looking very disapprovingly at me indeed – and that image of the young dolores, all translucent freckles and transparent contempt, it is difficult to top that characterisation.

so, i was reading the real life or sebastian knight – which shall i call it? – and it has that very same gentle lyrical ebb and flow, ebb and flow  that i think i can safely associate with nabokov now. it never really builds up to a breathless crescendo like lolita, but that’s okay. that’s fine. that’s forgivable, a master on a down day. there is a letter that is written to a woman in this book; a sad, funny letter ‘breaking up’ with her. it struck a chord with me for many reasons, but for exactly that reason i can’t tell – yet again! – if it was worth mentioning objectively. still, sebastian knight is worth one read so i suppose you could extrapolate that to the letter inside it.

do you remember when i said i was reading virginia woolf’s to the lighthouse? it’s stream-of-consciousness in a very real and wonderful way, and maybe i’ll talk about this the next time i get excited about it, but for now – there is a passage – was it an entire chapter? – where a stuffy young man realises that he is falling in love with a much older woman, and while this realisation is building up in him, he is first uncomfortable because he cannot recognise what is happening, and then is overcome with the disbelief that it could be happening to him.

and that wonderfully escalating lead-up to his bodhi tree moment, that description is the most beautiful description i’ve ever read of that mental ping! that sensation of hot sugar syrup trickling slowly, uncomfortably, impossibly down the inside of your chest, that moment you realise that flying in the face of all your plans and decisions and smug opinions of yourself, you have fallen in love.

i think what was nicest about having read nabokov first and woolf next was that nabokov’s love is black and physical and inseparable from regret and addiction and self-doubt and self-hate. i mean it’s fantastically written, but you’ll need electrolytes and a cold shower at the end of a really good nabokov session.

i moved straight from nabokov to woolf, and what with never having read anything by her (and very little of her) before, i was expecting – i’m not sure what – but here was this beautiful, perfect writing. not maudlin, you understand, and not played up like some sort of epic, inaccessible love.

just a woman with eight children and a young idiot freshly in love with her.



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