“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.” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955).
Since Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was first published in 1955, it has never ceased causing controversy. For the defendants of the novel, it is an uncompromised work of art that exhibits the magnitude of fiction, and controversy is merely borne from a misunderstanding that fails to read the fact that a character can be despicable without clearly being condemned in prose. However, the retractors will be quick to add that when it comes to the untold hardship of abuse, fiction has no place when it can cause suffering to victims of the abhorrent reality and potentially perpetuate the problems therein.
This debate will never go away. Underpinned by fair points on both sides, the argument is not a case that awaits a verdict but rather a melee of opinions and corroborations set to tussle in the epilogue of this work of art forevermore. This wasn’t lost on Nabokov during its creation either. And as such, its uncompromising vigour is something that sets it apart—it is written from a place of artistic prowess that holds the weight of what he was writing with a sense of profundity and the lightness of grace.
This notion of art infiltrating wider culture and having reverberations beyond its pages is one that has stuck with acerbic rockers since its publication. They might be inspired by the wallop of its fevered, expressionist prose, but that air of controversy does not go amiss either. A work that can rock the boat but retain its artistic integrity is pretty much the peak aim of punk.
A man who has become a master of this is Nick Cave, and from a very early age, he was rocked by the depth of Lolita. He is, in fact, the quintessential literary songwriter. There is an undoubted profundity to printed text and the hefty tome that it constructs. It is this that Cave must grapple with even in a meta sense. “I am dancing on water lilies when I write,” he once poeticised, “and one’s heritage can have a terrifying tonnage. I must remain one step ahead of the songs, optimistically hopping from lily pad to lily pad, and doing my best to ignore the great dark wave of work that is building up behind me.”
This dark wave was first created by Nabokov’s classic text. As Graham Greene once wrote: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” For Cave, that moment was when his father read him the opening paragraph of Lolita. “I was 12 years old at the time, so I didn’t understand half of what I was hearing. ‘Fire of my loins’? What on earth did that mean? And some of it made me very uneasy. But more than anything else, the words he was reading excited me. I knew nothing would ever be the same,” Cave once recalled.
Both Cave and Nabokov share in their writing a certain sense of expressive acuity. In 1999, Nick Cave helped to define this wrought writing process when he delivered a lecture on love songs in which he dusted off and donned the old Spanish word ‘Duende’, which was defined by poet and (perhaps) purely platonic love interest of Salvador Dali, Frederico Garcia Lorca, as exalted emotion unearthed from within, “a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained. The roots that cling to the mire from which comes the very substance of art.”
As it happens, his friend Patti Smith is also an artist who bleeds this Mediterranean expression. She too was inspired by Lolita. As she once wrote: “Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. The words that formed Lolita, The Lover, Our Lady of the Flowers.”
Those words, and perhaps the place it holds in society, in particular, on this occasion, inspired David Bowie too. The text sits proudly amid the list of his favourite books. Enamoured by the way the book captured the counterculture generation, he probed at the whys and wherefores of its success like the art critic that he always secret (or otherwise) was at heart. The mix of light and dark in his work is as seamless as it is in Nabokov’s prose.
Much like musical trends, the book says a lot about society. This is how it became a part of Kim Gordon’s life and remains one of her favourite books too. As a precocious 12 year old, Gordon’s mother handed her the book. “I think it was really odd for her to give me that book when I was so young but I think she was trying to stress that you can be one kind of girl or another,” Gordon once recalled. “She made it so black and white, you know, like if you read and you’re more intellectual then men will like you a lot and not just for your body. She was trying to teach me something like that.”
In the process of reading the book, Gordon came to realise some of the double standards held in society. As such, she has always tried to illuminate injustice in her work, without losing a sense of poetry as she does so. This motive is partly upheld by the experience of reading the text. And that is the crux of Lolita, it is quite simply a work of art that cannot be ignored.