Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

I’ve been thinking about voice lately, how a writer creates a speaker’s voice, a first-person narrator. I’m working on a long piece of fiction with a narrator who comes in and out, and I also just finished reading a draft of a friend’s nonfiction book that he, or some version of himself, narrates. Whether fiction or not, whether there’s an old man whispering his story into our ear from his jail cell or an omniscient narrator surveying the horizon and controlling the camera angle, the voice one uses to tell a story is a creation. It’s formed from the first sentence, the first swerve of language. We build both the story and the storyteller in the readers’ minds.

What better example of a few brief sentences that establish a character than this? The opening of Huck Finn comes to mind and The Catcher in the Rye and some others, the attitude of those speakers. But Nabokov’s narrator is a sensualist–we see right away he’s in love with language, with his own mouth. Here the sound is turned up to eleven. Lots of echoing–alliteration and internal rhyme. We see–or hear–also that he’s obsessed with this girl. I don’t know about you, but I’m drawn to this guy, without yet knowing what he’s gotten himself into. I’m persuaded–by the way he talks–to pay attention.

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