Reading Lolita on the run

Posted on September 16, 2008 by Steve

After efforts to synchronize a read-by-e-mail group session around Notes From Underground came to naught, I nudged some friends toward Nabokov's infamous book. I was myself encouraged by Tony, who assured me that the book was not on the All Time Greatest lists for nothing.

Indeed, the book was not at all what I expected. I was among the readers who assumed that this was a "lewd book." The subject, of course, is discomfiting, to say the least. But one soon falls under the trance of the narrator's hypnotizing prose and forgets to despise him. And Humbert Humbert wallows so in his abject wretchedness that it's hard not to feel sorry for him.

It didn't hurt that my book was an audio performance by Jeremy Irons, proven by mathematical formula to have the perfect voice. (Here's a sample of the delicious mellifluousness.) This meant that I had to "read" the book while driving, but these uninterrupted half-hour blocks of literature made even commuting enjoyable.

As for the story, well, it's a bit of a sideshow. Almost slapstick at times (inconvenient character, meet speeding truck), it's not really enough to go on -- a licentious road trip, a shadowy rival. If fancy verbiage is not your thing, I doubt you'll make it through. I felt my interest begin to flag at least once, during an overlong appreciation of Lo's tennis technique, complete with a distracted aside caused by a passing butterfly.

But there's more than enough fancy verbiage to keep a fan of language entertained. I frequently had to back up the CD, sometimes to catch something I missed, more often to absorb in amazement a bit of prose. There are plenty of foreign inclusions, mostly in French, and one multilingual mouthful that defied recognition:
Seva ascendes, pulsata, brulans, kizelans, dementissima. Elevator clatterans, pausa, clatterans, populus in corridoro. Hanc nisi mors mihi adimet nemo! Juncea puellula, jo pensavo fondissime, nobserva nihil quidquam.

This was translated in Alfred Appel's Annotated Lolita:
The sap ascendeth, pulsates, burning, itching, most insane, elevator clattering, pausing, clattering, people in the corridor. No one but death would take this one [Lolita] away from me! Slender little girl, I thought most fondly, observing nothing at all.

It wasn't until I finished Lolita and moved on to one of Graham Greene's standards that I realized what a step down I'd taken. Compared to the artless bumblings of a vacuum cleaner salesman, HH's adventures seemed positively enthralling. Indeed, I was deeply chagrined halfway through Lolita when I scanned the Wikipedia article on the book and thought I spoiled a plot point. It turned out I was one of the inattentive readers Martin Amis mentions who missed a major plot device that is hidden in plain sight.
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Posted by T. | September 17, 2008 | 07:28:23

I never got around to Martin Amis's intro, though it's included in my edition of the book, but I bet I missed the plot device too.

The tennis thing, I suspect, was personal for Nabokov, something he really loved. Remember that he wrote the book for himself, and had it published as an afterthought. Also, however, his insistence of making a tennis pro out of Lolita is one of the many ways in which he wants to possess her. Tennis, in those days, was thought of as a very elite and European game; it is Humbert's way to impose his culture on his provincial American Lolita. At least that's how I took it.

A nit: in the first paragraph you write "I was myself encouraged myself..." As you had said in the past, I know you would do the same for me :)

Posted by Steve | September 17, 2008 | 18:30:37

At least the butterfly scene wasn't expanded into a pages-long aside, despite the author's fever for lepidoptery. Tennis was a legitimate plot element, with thirty mentions, by my count (here's an online version of the text). There are only two butterflies, by contrast.
While I'm at it, here are the top ten nouns used in the novel:


Interesting how time seems to have become a more significant subject in modern writing.

Thanks for pointing out the mistype.

Posted by beowulf | September 17, 2008 | 20:07:44

The obit actually occurs in the introduction (written by Nabokov, but made to appear as if it were an Editor's note). I read both the Introduction and Amis's Foreword but still missed the significance of Lo's obit when I read it. Admittedly, her name was encoded as Mrs Richard M Schiller, which no one who'd read the book the first time could be expected to catch.

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