This is the first post in my series of themed reading recommendations.
The topic of the day is Vladimir Nabokov, who, according to John Updike, "writes prose the way it should be written... ecstatically." I am currently reading Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, a tale of an incestuous pair of siblings, and it is one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had. While Nabokov's stories often feature strange fetishes (and always feature butterflies), the fetish he satisfies most is the one for words. Ada is clever, brilliant, and exhilerating. Nabokov writes of Ada and Van, lovers born to Marina, sister of Aqua:
Their immoderate exploitation of physical joy amounted to madness and would have curtailed their young lives had not summer, which had appeared in prospect as a boundless flow of green glory and freedom, begun to hint hazily at possible failings and fadings, at the fatigue of its fugue—the last resort of nature, felicitous alliterations (when flowers and flies mime one another), the coming of a first pause in late August, a first silence in early September.
If you are getting started with Nabokov I would recommend Lolita: it is his greatest work I've read thus far, for its use of language and the use of the unreliable narrator. Pale Fire is also a favorite; it is more funny than Lolita (and more clever) but less beautiful. My friend David likes his memoir Speak, Memory; I enjoyed it less than his other works for the same reason David likes it: it is Nabokov being a "real person" (and revealing more of a love for words--the original title was Speak, Mnemosyne.) All of these were originally written in English.
Nabokov was also quite prolific in writing novels in Russian; he translated all of them to English himself. I have not read many of these, but one I enjoyed was Laughter in the Dark. The opening passage captivated me:
Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.
My friend Luke's favorite is Invitation to a Beheading, about a man sentenced to death for "gnostical turpitude."