As Lolita Lay Dying

As a child, I was a reader, voraciously consuming books like the Boxcar children, or the adventure series by Enid Blyton (Sea of Adventure, Circus of Adventure, etc.).  Once I had run through all of these, I would save up my allowance and go to the Surprise Shop and buy a new Hardy Boy mystery.  (My identity as a tomboy was so firmly established that it never occurred to me to buy Nancy Drew.)  Old family photos show me sitting at the beach quietly reading while the rest of the family went swimming.  On one vacation I had packed poorly and had to read the single book I brought over and over.  My mother gave me a book quiz, and when she asked how Ellen held the lion, I was able to give the correct verbatim reply of “fondly.” 

My love of reading was certainly not nurtured by my parents.  My mother hated bedtime rituals and felt that reading out loud was only a manipulative trick to prolong the process.  She wanted to snap her fingers and have us all march dutifully to bed.  In her defense, she was dealing with 6 children.  Besides I never cared, since I could read a book faster than anyone could read it out loud.  I adopted the same strategy as a parent, and thus have felt a bit guilty – maybe if I read more to my children, they would enjoy reading more themselves.  Oh well.

After grade school, “reading” was no longer a class and you were pretty much left to your own devices.  Certainly in college and medical school, there was limited time for anything other than textbooks where reading was purely a communication device.  But just as I had been eager to find out whether the Boxcar children ever found their kindly grandfather, I was just as eager to find out why Hitler did not invade England when he had the chance or how energy was transferred in the citric acid cycle.  I would situate myself in the library with a big textbook on my desk and a brand new yellow highlighter, which I would sniff in appreciation of its chemical odor, and then off I would go for several hours.  At one point in medical school, I had such an extraordinary volume of material to consume that I sat up in bed and arranged all the books around me in a tight fortress.  When I went to sleep at night, I simply lay back quietly without disturbing any of the books.  When I woke I just sat up, picked up a book and resumed where I had left off.  In the afternoon, I would move the operation outside to a lawn chair, occasionally napping off as I was surrounded by my books.  At the end of the study period, I was perfectly tanned only on one side of my body and I looked like the two disparate sides of a pancake.   

In the midst of this long non-fiction period, I did manage to read a few novels which generally occupied the comfortable middle ground of an engaging story, well told.  But I will never forget the two that taught me that in talented hands words can go beyond their meaning and that the plot line can be an incidental vehicle to showcase their beauty.  I encountered William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” in high school, a shortish story told in multiple voices of the Bundren family from backwater Mississippi.  The family is making a rare trip to town to bury the family matriarch, Addie.  Each family member has a separate agenda, young daughter Dewey Dell wants an abortion, her father wants new teeth and a new wife (in that order), the youngest brother wants a train set.   Sometimes the punctuation and phonetic spelling are sketchy and the story line is garbled.  Unlike a linear narrative, you have to work at this story and reread passages.  At one point, Darl goes on this existential riff:

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep.  And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you.  And when you are emptied of sleep you are not.  And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.  I don’t know what I am.  I don’t know if I am or not.  Jewel know he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not.”

The commentary that seeks to explain this passage far exceeds the length of the entire book, but to me Faulkner brilliantly describes the challenges of identity with simple unadorned language.  Come to think of it, just last night, I had trouble emptying myself for sleep to make room for a dreamy new identity.  In another chapter, Dewey Dell says, “I feel like a wet seed, wild in the hot blind earth,” a phrase that exquisitely captures the limitless possibilities of youth unencumbered by responsibilities or realities.   I have not reread As I Lay Dying in the last 40 years, but occasionally at the library I will go into the stacks, flip through the book and find that phrase, easily spotted at the end of a chapter.  I feel the same way when I happen to walk by my jewelry box, open it up and check up on a much loved bracelet.

I first encountered the novel Lolita in a bizarre way.  A friend was giving Nick and me an engagement party and unexpectedly showed the movie as after dinner entertainment.  This was in the pre-DVD days, so an at-home movie was a real novelty.  Somehow Rich had gotten hold of the actual film reels, a projector and had set up a sheet for a screen.  We all sat transfixed, watching the grainy movie that was slightly distorted by the undulations in the sheet.   Lolita tells the story of a middle aged man with the improbable name of Humbert Humbert* who has a consuming obsession for a nymphet, his namesake stepdaughter.  Deglamorized, Lolita details the chronic rape of a 12 year old, but the alliterative language and word play is so magnificent that you are not repulsed. In fact the novel is number 4 on the Modern Library list of 100 best books.  I rushed out to get the book the next day.  In most novels I riffle ahead, since the whole point of reading is to find out what happens.  With the author Nabokov, I can just sit back and let the lush prose and sly humor wash over me. 

“Once a perfect little beauty in a tartan frock, with a clatter put her heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip her slim brave arms into me and tighten the strap of her roller skate, and I dissolved in the sun, with my book for fig leaf, as her auburn ringlets fell all over her skinned knee, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on her radiant limb next to my chameleonic cheek.”

In contrast with Faulkner’s simple language, the Russian Nabokov finds obscure English words that would even escape the most diligent preparation for the SAT vocab.  Periodically, he lapses into his native French or even Latin.  I stumble across the phrase, “those puerile hips on which I had kissed the crenulated imprint left by the band of her shorts.”  I had never seen the word crenulated before or since, but I know immediately that this is the one perfect word to describe the little chain of pockmarks left by bunched up elastic.  And then there is the word “phocine,” as in  “[Lolita] retreated to her mat next to her phocine mamma.”  I initially thought that phocine was just a typo for porcine, a word that could easily convey Humbert’s disgust with the mamma who stood between him and his obsession.   But a word like porcine would be a pedestrian choice for a linguist like Nabokov, so I was intrigued enough to look it up.  Phocine: seal like.  Of  course, the single perfect word to describe a well-oiled, sleek, but overweight woman beached and basking in a nearby lawn chair.  I should expect no less from Nabokov.

Puttering through the library, I was thrilled to find an audio version of Lolita to entertain me during my 7 hour drive through the upper peninsula of Michigan.  When I popped in the cassette, I realized that Jeremy Irons was Humbert Humbert, reading the book in one of those cultured English accents that Americans always fall for.  His sonorous tones were simultaneously reptilian and thoroughly compelling and the hours flew by as I reveled in the language.  I would heartily recommend Lolita for your next long distance journey, but would caution you to pay attention lest you get distracted and carelessly swerve into oncoming traffic.  When I first saw the Michigan squad car tailing me, I felt sorry for the poor sap ahead of me who was about to get arrested.  And then I realized that I was the target.  What had I done?  I was stunned when the policeman said, “Ma’am did you realize that you were doing 85 in a 55 mile zone?  I explained that I had just been caught up in a book, but wisely decided not to educate him on the charms of Lolita.

Forty five minutes later, I was arrested again, this time in Wisconsin.  

*Humbert Humbert joins Sirhan Sirhan and Boutros Boutros Gali in the elite group of people with repetitive names. 
The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. spot, stop, post) and the number of dashes indicate the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with the preceding or following lines.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

Ah my nymphet, with languid limbs and dewy —-,

 Your bare necked tawny nape, and puerile hips,

 Your feckless sibilant —- is the essence of pure bliss,

 And beckons me forward to proffer a clandestine kiss.

 I lie helpless and bewitched in your tremulous thrall

 Into your voluptuous abyss, I —-, tumble and fall.







Answer: lips, lisp, slip

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