finding inspiration from literature: nabokov’s & philadelphia’s lolita

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

– Jim Jarmusch

the streets of Philadelphia at night
the streets of Philadelphia at night

On December 20, I started reading the classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita.  I wrote this review of it on Goodreads:

It’s easy to despise the deeply flawed pedophile Humbert Humbert, with his long-time sexual abuse of his 12-year-old nymphet/daughter Dolores Haze (his Lolita, his Lo). I have put off reading the book forever because of the subject matter, which is certainly hard to take.

That being said, it’s hard not to fall in love with Nabokov’s prose. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Jeremy Irons, and found some scenes to be so perfectly rendered, so engrossing, that I had to check the book out of the library so I could read and study the passages. Nabokov’s prose is so detailed, so observant, so meticulous, so perfect, so nuanced! If only I had such command of the English language. And to think that Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899 and English wasn’t even his first language, having moved to the U.S. in 1940. I highly recommend this book just to experience the author’s writing style and wonderful use of language.

Philadelphia nights
Philadelphia nights

I was engrossed in the book at the time we went to Philadelphia, admittedly bowled over by the author’s writing style.  So it was a strange coincidence when we went out to look for a dinner restaurant near our hotel, The Independent, and we happened upon the enticing Lolita tucked into a narrow space on South 13th Street.

Philadelphia Muses by Meg Saligman, 13th and Locust Streets, Center City
Philadelphia Muses by Meg Saligman, 13th and Locust Streets, Center City

We sat down at the bar because it was crowded; no matter, we enjoy sitting at the bar anyway.  I found an appealing new drink on the menu: a jalapeno and cucumber margarita, which was ultra-refreshing and not too sweet.  As I sipped this marvelous concoction, I mentioned to one of the bartenders, a young woman, that it was serendipitous that we found Lolita because I’m right in the middle of listening to the audiobook.

jalapeno and cucumber margarita at Lolita
jalapeno and cucumber margarita at Lolita

She gushed that she adored Nabokov: “His prose is amazing!  There is nothing like it!”  Her enthusiasm matched my feelings, and I felt an instant kinship with her. This is what reading will do to a person.

Lolita in Philadelphia
Lolita in Philadelphia

We enjoyed Lolita’s ambiance, as well as our fabulous dinners: chipotle shrimp enchiladas verdes (charred tomatillos, serranos, garlic & cilantro) stuffed with roasted sunchokes, sauteed local greens, queso mixto & radish salad for me, and queso fundido (charred corn puree, queso mixto, local mushroom mix, roasted baby corn & poblanos, served with warm corn tortillas – served with house-made chorizo for Mike.

food
chipotle shrimp enchiladas verdes (charred tomatillos, serranos, garlic & cilantro) stuffed with roasted sunchokes, sauteed local greens, queso mixto & radish salad

Inspiration is found in unlikely places.  All one has to do it be open to it, recognize it, and run with it.  After reading Lolita,  I can only dream of writing like Nabokov. I know I don’t have that talent, but if I could remotely approach him, I would be happy.  I’ve been thrilled by writers before, and I’ve yearned to have such natural and spontaneous creativity.  In writing classes, teachers often encourage students to find admired masters and try to mimic their style.  Of course, a writer is also supposed to find his or her own “voice” when writing.  But my voice seems so boring!

When I read something like Lolita that makes my heart beat faster, that takes my breath away, then I want to study it, dissect it, analyze it, and try to take something away from it.  If I could write even one sentence like that, just one….it might be possible to write another, and yet another.

In the book, at the beginning of part two, Humbert Humbert and Lolita take a road trip across the country.  I’ve taken many American road trips in my life, and Nabokov captures a small part of their journey perfectly in this passage:

Now and then, in the vastness of those plains, huge trees would advance toward us to cluster self-consciously by the roadside, and provide a bit of humanitarian shade above a picnic table, with sun flecks, flattened paper cups, samaras and discarded ice-cream sticks littering the brown ground. A great user of roadside facilities, my unfastidious Lo would be charmed by toilet signs — Guys-Gals, John-Jane, Jack-Jill and even Buck’s-Doe’s; while lost in an artist’s dream, I would stare at the honest brightness of the gasoline paraphernalia against the splendid green of oaks, or at a distant hill scrambling out — scarred but still untamed — from the wilderness of agriculture that was trying to swallow it. (p. 153, 50th anniversary edition, Lolita, June 1997)

This scene is wonderfully rendered.  The picture of “huge trees” advancing toward the moving car, clustering “self-consciously by the roadside,” and providing “a bit of humanitarian shade” is not only great description but it prompts in the reader a leap of imagination.  It endows the trees with human qualities — self-consciousness and humanitarianism — and prods us to see them with vague and tender recognition. We might not have described them that way ourselves, but we feel the rightness of the description.  The “sun flecks” suggest a summer afternoon, indolent and barely breezy, the setting for a romantic rendezvous that has now ended, with remnants of confetti scattered as reminders.  Samaras seem exotic; when I look them up, I find they are a type of fruit with a flattened wing of papery tissue developing from the ovary wall.  The discarded ice-cream sticks conjure up children, and yes, Lolita is a child, a nymphet, that thing Humbert longs for, that thing he can’t resist.  Here, like the child Lolita is the object of Humbert’s desires, the flower and the ice-cream sticks are both exotic and sexual; together, they hint at  the protagonist’s pedophilia, of which we are all too aware from our reading.  Humbert even finds Lo’s unfastidiousness attractive; we already know this from what we’ve read before. Nabokov doesn’t waste any opportunity to infuse his writing with reminders of Humbert’s obsession.

I love the different names on the toilet signs, a fantastic detail which captures the nuances in the monotony that one sees on a road trip. We all know the frequent stops we have to make on a road trip, especially as a child, “How much further, Dad?  I need to go to the bathroom!”  I can just picture the gleaming “gasoline paraphernalia” of the 1950s (Lolita was published in 1955), painstakingly polished by gas station attendants who cared lovingly for their roadside facilities. And I love how the distant hill “scrambles out — scarred but still untamed” much like his own Lolita.  She is certainly scarred, but he’s never really able to tame her.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Philadelphia’s Lolita –  the day after

How can we write fabulous prose?  It seems to me some people have a natural ability to do so; others of us have to struggle mightily to come up with one good sentence.  Just looking at Nabokov’s prose, here’s what I take away:

  • Be observant when you’re out in the world.  Notice every little detail.    This one is hardest for me, as I seem to wander around with blinders on half the time.
  • Carry a notebook or a camera so you’re always ready to capture what you see or feel, what you smell or hear, what you taste.  Take time-outs with your notebook at a cafe to write notes.
  • Note anything unique and unusual; anything that is out of place.  The flattened paper cups, the discarded ice-cream sticks.  Things that seem unimportant yet create such perfect details in a story.
  • Note things that are mundane: the picnic tables, the roadside facilities, the gasoline paraphernalia, the names on the toilets.  These are things that everyone sees and expects to see, and often go unnoticed.
  • Describe the things you see using human qualities – “cluster self-consciously” or “provide a bit of humanitarian shade.”
  • If you have trouble with this, note what you see and then brainstorm words that might describe human emotions or states.  Experiment with word pairings.  I love when a word is paired with another word in a surprising way.
  • Find active verbs to describe static things: “a distant hill scrambling out.”
  • Make something mundane seem interesting: as in the frequent stops at the roadside facilities and the bathroom names.

So, what could I come up with in my attempt to write a Nabokov-like paragraph about a road trip?

________________________

As we drive north on that white-lined freeway fenced in by concrete barriers, the Toyota RAV’s rubber wipers swish the drizzle to and fro on the windshield, a squeaky metronome.  Sedans and SUVs from Maryland, Virginia, The Garden State — even the Sunshine State with its green-leafed oranges — press in as they whizz past, their tires flinging dirt-infused mist on our windshield.  A Warehouse for Lease! slumps on the fringes, punctuated by green highway signs with white letters announcing exits like Bel Air and Emmorton Road.  Black spiny trees blur along the roadside approaching Exit 80, where blue signs announce Food: McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts.  U2 sings “Mysterious Ways” and highway vagabond Miranda Lambert wants to “go somewhere where nobody knows.”  I’ve snagged my left thumbnail and as usual, I don’t have any nail clippers in my purse.  The annoying snag persists. A brown sign announces we’re passing Susquehanna State Park and another forbids U-turns and when we cross the bridge, a ghost brigade of mist rises off the Susquehanna. Barns, silos, and bristly sepia fields scroll past and an aqua “Town of Perryville” water tower mutters a greeting.  On the stretch of industrial corridor near Port of Wilm, metal utility towers spread their triple-triangle arms and factories belch smoke, gasping their last breath.  Blue-green porta-potties stand in formation along the tracks and containers lie like coffins on idle trains.  The derelict train station’s windows are broken.  Citywide Limousine squats beside a lot of Ryder trucks and an empty pedestrian bridge covered in chain-link looms over us as we sputter underneath.

Finally, “Pennsylvania, State of Independence,” welcomes us while Hidden Figures of NASA stand in all their mathematical genius on an electronic billboard.  Run-down brick row houses hug the highway behind a thin veil of chain-links.  CSX rail cars hunker along the highway, dead in their tracks.  Another billboard promises “The Wounded Warrior Project helps me heal the wounds you can’t see.”  At Philadelphia Energy Solutions, giant cylindrical tanks with blue bands around the tops squat on the land and, next door, bundled paper haphazardly occupies a recycling plant. A pink “Risqué Video” sign entices those so-inclined.   We skid into the Philly outskirts, land of the free and home of the tired.

______________________

I’d like to challenge my readers to write a paragraph describing something or someplace and share it as a link in my comments.

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4 thoughts on “finding inspiration from literature: nabokov’s & philadelphia’s lolita

    1. This is fantastic! I loved it overall, but I also adored many particular parts of it; where do I start? The chapter is beautifully written, and so full of admiration and love (both self-love and introspection, as well as Eric-love), as well as deep insights about life, including your regrets and lessons learned. Your descriptions are perfect.

      First, I was struck by how much Eric sounds like my youngest son, in many ways. Your description of Eric’s character hit home for me. But as you say at the end, “the only “freedom” [you] had purchased in packing in that pretty exciting life and that permanent job with the United Nations was the kind of freedom that accompanies chronic unemployment.” Any choice a person makes has both promises and pitfalls, benefits and sacrifices. I love the way your story arc comes around to that point, that decisions we make are a trade of one kind of freedom/imprisonment for another. We’ve talked about this before. I love how the story circles back in on itself in this regard.

      So many great details everywhere: the details of what Eric owned and how he might have died; the funeral scene: the broken glass metaphor, the macabre scene, the tripod of unhinged agony that his tall parents and brothers made. The way you stuffed “Eric’s jacket pockets with Marlborough cigarettes so that he would not be caught short in the next life.” Your privileged life contrasted with Eric’s vagabond life is stark and telling.

      And of course, I love the moment of realization for you: “That cold recognition happened on my way home from the funeral, appropriately enough while flying over the North Pole right around midnight, its freezing black skies outside my window hiding nothing because as I was looking out the window, my own face was looking back at me.”

      It’s wonderful all around. I hope to read many more chapters of this in the coming months. It really needs to be a book. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for being the only one to comment and share something of yourself on my post.

      I hope you don’t mind that I’ll cut and paste these comments on my own blog as well. Hugs xxx

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