Vladimir Nabokov & Storytelling Techniques

Perhaps the worst offense crime is to rob a child of their innocence purely for your own unbridled desires and pleasures. This happens to be the story of the novel, Lolita. The text speaks volumes for Vladimir Nabokov’s writing ability for he took such a horrific subject matter and at points, managed to engrain beauty and lyricism into it. Still, one can never truly justify the actions of Humbert, no matter how much he pleads his case as we read the story from his point of view.

Reading the novel, I could not help but be inspired by Nabokov’s masterful writing. Hence, I made a list of a few things I learned about the craft of storytelling as I read this book. Of course, there are many more lessons than what I have listed especially when it comes to sentence construction or paragraph construction but I’m mainly focusing on the storytelling aspect of Nabakov’s work.

On The Use Of A Foreward: Nabakov uses the foreward to essentially tell the reader how the story will end for we know the fate of Humbert right away. What this does is that it neatly packages the story, for now, we have a semblance of what kind of story is being told. Also, by prepping us for the coming unreliable narrator, Nabokov, as the true narrator, can then have a bit more creative freedom for we are not going to be told an unbiased story but rather, the story will be a criminals memoir.

Additionally, by mentioning the possible mental health issues Humbert may have had, Nabakov also attempts to create some sympathy for his character because once the story begins and we start to read about his pedophilic activities, creating sympathy becomes almost impossible.

On Conflict: At the core of it, conflict is what drives a story. In Lolita, Nabakov constantly presents various different conflicts for Humbert to deal with. The overarching conflict being his desire for a child to satisfy his needs. In doing so, Humbert creates a narrative in his own mind in which he almost blames these children, “nymphets”, as he calls them, for seducing him. Although he is clearly wrong in his reasoning, this is an example of how the character would try to justify his actions in order to overcome a conflict.

Additional examples being simple conflicts such as running low on money or Lolita being attracted to other boys or nosy neighbors. Additionally, a series of conflicts may take place in a single scene such as when Humbert meets Lolita’s husband. In that scene, there is an overarching conflict, whether or not to kill the husband, and then smaller conflicts such as trying to get Lolita to come back with him or whether or not he should express his love to her again.

What I took away from this is that a character must always be trying to resolve something. He or she doesn’t have to succeed in solving the conflict but there must be something they are trying to fix or overcome or avoid in order to bring stability and order back into their lives. Stability and order which has been interrupted by the conflict.

On Expectations: Nabakov also plays on the reader’s expectations to build suspense and to keep the story interesting. This is aided by the fact that we, as the reader, are inside of Humbert’s head and so, whatever Humbert expects to happen, we also tend to think will happen. Nabakov is then able to use this to subvert our expectations and take the story in a different direction. An example of this is Lolita’s mother’s death. We know Humbert did something bad for him to be in prison, as stated in the foreward, and we also know that the mother presents an obstacle for Humbert. Hence, Humbert plans to kill her. It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Humbert will go to prison for killing the mother and yet, that does not happen, in fact, the story takes a completely different turn as the mother is accidentally killed in a car accident.

Furthermore, such a technique is even used at a smaller scale such as when Humbert is meant to initially live with a family with young children and so, he begins to dream about things to come, only for his expectations to be crushed when a random fire causes him to move into a different home. Now, with his lowered expectations, he enters this new home, where he finds Lolita. Once more, the expectations for things to come are raised.

Another way of manipulating expectations is to give the character what he expected but in a manner that was unexpected. A case for this can be seen in Humbert’s plan to be alone with Lolita when they, including the mother, go to the beach. However, the plan doesn’t even get a chance to start because Lolita brings a friend with her. But, the very next chapter, Humbert almost on accident finds himself alone with Lolita in their home and is able to fulfill his desires as he had wished previously. So, the end goal is realized but through different means.

Constantly, Nabakov plays with Humbert’s expectations and our own, raising them, cutting them short, turning them around, giving hope and so on. It is a simple technique and yet powerful because if the character is taken by surprise and then so is the reader, hence, the story remains interesting.

Too Much Detail/Unpacking: The only issue with the novel was the level of detail concerning things other than Humbert or Lolita or other characters. I am fond of Nabakov’s writing, like many people are, however, it was a chore at points reading several pages in a row that merely described the setting or where they were going in such detail that it was tiresome to keep up with the long sentences.

However, it is the same level of detail and care which makes this book so incredible. So, when that detailed, unpacking style is aimed at the characters and what is happening to them and what is going on in their minds, you get to see these figures that almost seem real, living, breathing humans. But when aimed at objects and things, it can really slow the pace of the novel down. This is a personal preference. I am interested in the characters more so than the world.

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