Prior to this year, I had only a passing interest in the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. I read Lolita several years ago to see what all the fuss was about, and found myself utterly seduced by Humbert Humbert’s language, and discomfited and disturbed by my empathy for such a charming pedophile. Nabokov challenges all kinds of assumptions of acceptability in that novel, and does it in a way that entrances you, as if putting the reader under an incredible spell for the length of the book.
At that point, I did want to find out more about Nabokov, but got a bit intimidated by the size of his published oeuvre. I had heard of Pale Fire, but many of the other titles were unfamiliar to me, and so I didn’t know where to start, with the result that I didn’t.
Time passed, and then I came across a copy of The Enchanter on the shelves of BooksActually, an exquisitely designed edition with watercolor cover art, and the look of uniform series design (which, when I found other Nabokov titles, turned out to be the case). Penguin had begun reissuing all of Nabokov’s books in 2010 with these beautiful covers and high-quality paper, and I was immediately attracted, much as I had been with the man’s language.
So I bought The Enchanter from Karen at BooksActually (who is also quite the Nabokov fan), took it home, and read an alternate, much shorter version of Lolita, a version that predated that much more famous work, and could almost be thought of as a dry run for it. A version that works on its own merits; the unnamed enchanter is less successful in his attempts to seduce his own nymphette, and comes to a much worse end.
Some time later, on a visit to Kinokuniya, I spotted other Penguin Modern Classics of Nabokov’s titles, and plunged in, steadily filling in the gaps of Nabokov’s bibliography with visits there and back at BooksActually (where the shelves were now more fully stocked). At this point, I’m only missing four books for the full set (Transparent Things, Look at the Harlequins!, The Original of Laura, and Strong Opinions). And though the books look beautiful on a bookshelf in their uniform simplicity, I had yet to get to the words inside.
Yesterday, I decided that this was the time, and issued myself a Nabokov Reading Challenge: to read the entire oeuvre in chronological order, starting with Mary. This way, I also get to chart Nabokov’s progression as a writer, and really get a sense of the differences between his books originally written in Russian and those in English.
I started Mary last night, and am already about halfway through it. It’s a short book, and this is a characteristic of much of his Russian writing (with The Gift being a notable exception). I’m hoping that the brevity of a good many of his works will enable me to finish all of them by the end of the year, but I won’t be too strict about this. I do have other books that I want to read, and may intersperse them as well.
I’m also hoping that reading the man’s writing in such a concentrated way will have a subconscious effect on my own writing. I did notice that whilst reading Lolita my own fiction was wittier and more language-conscious; I don’t read writers like Nabokov or Mieville to improve my vocabulary (a sentiment that some of my students actually subscribe to, as if this is all that reading literature is good for), but this tends to be a nice side effect.
So that’s, what, 23 books in just over four months? Certainly possible, though like I said, I’m not pushing it. Anyone want to join me?
Update (31 August): Based on my friend Deirdre’s excellent suggestion, I’ve decided to make this reading challenge more reasonable: instead of cramming 23 books into four months (which may exhaust me and inadvertantly turn me off from Nabokov forever), I’ve decided to read one title per month. Which means that I’ll be done sometime around June 2013, give or take a couple of months. This way, I have an attainable goal, and it allows for the reading of other authors during that time, which I’ll absolutely want to do.
I’ve created a Goodreads group, Nabokov in Two Years, to organize the reading challenge, and hopefully to invite others to participate as well. The group is open, so please join today!