Photo by Joel Robison
I'm very tempted to blog about being done with Siren Suicides, because I'll be done in a few days! But I want to reserve it until the real moment of really being done to really write about how it really feels. Presently, I've noticed I haven't done much blogging about reading books, and I should. One particular topic has been on the forefront of my mind lately. We all have a couple of these books in our library, the ones we read, and reread, and reread. For me this book is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, both because it reminds me of my past, and because it's been one of those "controversial" books that I got my hands on as a teenager back in Russia, and because I have just read it for the first time in English, and am rereading it now in Russian. Also, because a few of my friends are trying to push me into translating from Russian to English, so I decided to study the subject matter on this particular example. Well then, what did I learn that can be applied to writing?
Each book is layered like an onion. This is a kind of invaluable lesson I glimpsed, and it's an idea I intend to borrow for my writing. When I read Lolita in my teens, I saw only the lusty part of a pervert, and it was both yucky and interesting at the same time. I sailed through it and never took another glance at the sentence structure, or plot development (not like I knew what any of this meant back then), or the like. A few days ago, when I got done reading Lolita in English (Nabokov originally wrote it in English and later translated it into Russian), I was struck by the layer of literary poetry hidden within. The feelings of the main character that shaped his actions and propelled forward the story were those of pain and longing, albeit directed at the wrong subject. Still, I didn't see this before. Now I'm rereading it in Russian, and I see another layer. A kind of very Russian humor that didn't quite come across in the English version, but is clearly coming across in the Russian one. Everything is the same, yet it isn't. I'm not sure how I can intentionally apply this layering to my next novel, but I do know that a great book needs multiple levels. This is why Harry Potter is so popular. There is something for everyone.
A great book has a strong personality. I understand this is not a proper way to describe it. Let me try again. A great book is like that person you see on the street and are struck with her or his presence, be it hair, or clothes, or speech. It's that person you will remember for many days, or maybe even years, a stranger that was somehow special. This is what I get from reading Lolita in English and Russian. Although both versions have a slightly different air about them, English version being more melodramatic, Russian version more sarcastic, both have the same strong presence of the story. It's like, it doesn't matter what language the story will be translated into, it will retain its core. That core is a very specific desire of the main character, to the point of obsession, even to the point of mania. And that desire is Lolita. I think I mentioned this in the previous post on character development. The main character must have one clear goal, and the clearer that goal is, the more invested the reader is. I never saw this message executed in a more brilliant way as I saw it when reading Lolita in 2 different languages. That is truly its core, and it's what will carry it though in any language.
Emotion tramples word choice. Because my English vocabulary is not very rich, I struggle with being able to explain things in my book with enough flair so as not to sound boring. After reading Lolita in Russian, I realized that what Stephen King mentioned in his book ON WRITING, about never reaching out for a Thesaurus (which I'm guilty of) and only using the words that are on your mind, is true. Minute details, such as describing a restroom in the hotel, for example, bear a very different mood in English as opposed to in Russian in Lolita, but the feeling they evoke stays the same. I suppose that is why they call translation "a literary translation", with enough room to wiggle, to capture that essence of the scene. It actually gave me courage to keep using the same principle in my own writing. To stop worrying about how to wow my reader with exquisite prose and start really writing how it really feels. This caused me to cut out some over-flowery descriptions, and for the best. Never thought that reading the same book on two languages would do that.
Good writing takes good time. This was an unexpected benefit, one of those things everyone tells you about but you don't see it until you experience it for yourself. My biggest fear was the fact that I'm taking too long to finish Siren Suicides. May 15th it will be 1 year since I started! What reading and rereading the same book did, it opened my eyes to all those little details I didn't see before. They are especially apparent in different languages. All of a sudden I saw author's craft and the time that went into creating the story, into polishing each sentence, into thinking through each line of dialogue. This calmed me down, giving me a permission of sorts to take my time, to take good time and allow myself to shape my story. How did I see this, you ask? I saw it when rereading Lolita in Russian immediately after being done reading it in English. Nabokov's style rang through both so distinctly, that it made his story his, and not anybody else's. His personality meshed with his narrative. Ultimately, each writer is part of her or his story. This made me see the fact that I, too, am starting to develop some semblance of my own style, and it's okay that it takes so long. It just does. Great art takes time. The only thing I can do to speed it up is to keep writing every single day, to keep shaping it.
Hmm... this post ended up on reading as much as writing. I guess it ended up being more about how to read as a writer? Anyway. I can only keep guessing how Lolita would read, say, in Italian or French, and maybe one day I'll learn these languages. Until then, if you have an opportunity, if you know another language besides English, pick up a book and read it in both. If you can't, pick up a book you haven't read in years and read it, and then immediately reread it after done, a second time. Perhaps you'll see what I saw? Or something else? Let me know.