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A Sunburst Above a Receding Road

How I Ruined Lolita for Myself
by Namwali Serpell
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

A Sunburst Above a Receding Road

Namwali Serpell
25 Snaps

1.

Lolita returns. She returns to my mouth, as she returns to Humbert’s. As an example of monstrous allure. As an example of complicit laughter. As an anecdote about chance, beauty, the slow, inevitable process of ruining books for myself. About the spot of afternoon light in the library where I knelt reading this Lolita, my Lolita, the one unassigned book I read in college. About my moral code, so suspended then that I did not see what the fuss was all about.

I didn’t know anything about Nabokov, about the novel, the two movies, the pornographic epithet. I simply picked up the book and read it.

Perhaps not so simply. It was the spring of my sophomore year. Too early for the Internet to have spawned its masses of young girls with their legs butterflied open. I stood outside the Grecian dining hall, smoking with someone. There was, we noted, a book lying at the base of a nearby column. There was, we noted, a long-stemmed red rose lying on top of it. We scoffed. My first love—let’s call him Gaston—had just left me. Badly. I was not in the mood for roses.

Then it began to rain. It was still sunny; I did not have an umbrella. Now I can see the drop of water, the McFatedness of it all. Back then all I said was, “Oh, we shouldn’t let the book get wet.”

I like to say that it was this protective habit from my childhood that compelled me to save Lolita that day. Kiss the book if you drop it. But it was probably just an excuse to take it, this paperback with the chiaroscuro cover on which a pair of girl’s knees turned mawkishly inward. I stole Lolita. I put it in my bag. The next day, I found it there and I read it.

Nothing inside revealed the purpose of the red rose I’d left in the rain. There were no marked or underlined passages, though I did discover one page with its corner folded over. As I read, I folded over the corner of a different page, my favorite, in chapter 32. Although I was to write papers about it, lecture on it, fight electrically with my father over it, I never wrote a word in this particular copy.

I found out later that Nabokov abhorred the idea of a cover depicting anything of Lolita herself; he wanted a sunburst above a receding road. But even so, this cover, with its wafting black skirt, its torso-less legs, its knocked knees, its pristine bobby socks, and its ironic Oxfords; my cover, with its facile Vanity Fair quote (“The only convincing love story of our century”), the stolid-fonted title unfurling in white across it, remains my favorite. My first resistance to Uncle Vlad.

Next to it on my bookshelf are two copies of The Annotated Lolita, desk copies from teaching. What a terrible cover! What a terrible idea! Oh, earnest Alfred Appel, with your name so like a Humbertian pun (your name means “name”! the theme of apples!), did you have to burrow so avidly, so obviously? You had to know that you were becoming a parody of Charles Kinbote, the maniacal annotator in Pale Fire. But I understand, I suppose. This is how I ruined Lolita for myself as well.

 

2.

The spring that I find Lolita in the rain, I write an OK paper. The next fall, I write a slightly better paper. My senior year, I cobble the two into a typo-riddled, confused senior thesis. The following winter, at an interview for a graduate-school fellowship, I wax prolix about Lolita with a professor whose lecture course I took in college. He does not recognize me; I was a face in a crowd of undergraduates and I never went to office hours. But for most of the half-hour interview, we are in raptures over Lolita. I say something too easy but slightly true: perhaps Pale Fire splits Humbert in two, the poet and the madman. The professor lights up. We dash off into more reverie while official gray-haired ladies grow puzzled around us. When we pause, panting, one of the ladies asks timidly: “Didn’t your application state that you’d like to study postcolonial literature?”

A couple of years later, now in graduate school, I give a guest lecture. A student openly reading the newspaper in the middle of the auditorium closes it halfway through, listens. He asks a redundant question at the end. Another student emails to ask if I might send her a copy of the lecture to help her study. Amid the tepid applause, the wry professor conducting the course strides up to the podium and shakes my hand with greater vigor than I have ever seen him do anything. The gratification I glimpse in his eye bolsters my confidence enough to elbow him into becoming my adviser. Later, he directs me to Richard Rorty’s reading of the barbershop scene that Nabokov inexplicably privileges in his afterword. I take pleasure in the essay, the curious pleasure so familiar to readers of Nabokov of having missed something only to catch it later.

But I can feel my pleasure waning. I do not make it through my fourth reading while preparing the lecture. I find myself admonishing the second half of the book for pressing the zany devolution of H.H. too much upon us.

Only chapter 32 remains intact. I rediscover it when a professor tells us that this chapter is the crux, Nabo­kov’s apotheosis, if not Humbert’s. I flip to the page from which he sonorously reads. I glance at the adjacent page and I’m startled. It’s my page, my favorite: 285, the corner still folded over. The azure-barred beauty of the passage had seduced me then. Now I am filled with a dizzying, mirrored horror: Humbert’s horror, Humbert’s self-horror, my ­horror, my self-horror. The last of these is this: how did I miss the horror? This sheds new light on the pleasure of having missed something only to catch it later.

I attend an academic conference in Spain. To support a philosopher’s contention that one cannot separate ethics from beauty, I offer my interpretation of the opening passage of Lolita, a reading I had tried out in my lecture two years earlier. 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. Lo. Lee. Ta. The reader’s impulse, I say excitedly as though discovering this for the first time, is to test Humbert’s rapturous description, to say the name and see where the tip of the tongue actually steps, actually taps. And we do this as our eyes scan the third denotation of the name, the one written as three short sentences. We say, as the book says, as Humbert says: Lo. Lee. Ta. Perhaps we whisper because we are in a library, but the impulse is there. In that moment, in the very first paragraph, Nabokov has put Lo­lita in your mouth.

Complicity not just of the mind, but of the tongue. The philosopher is enchanted. After the session, he jokes to me that he will steal this reading of mine, because even though I’ve declaimed it twice in public now, it has not yet been published. The joke is that we are at a conference about ethics and literature.

Idly Googling myself two years later, I find that the friendly philosopher has paraphrased, thanked, and neglected to cite me in an article he will soon publish. In a rage of indignation, I compose a plea for a citation (I’m on the job market; it would help me considerably; here’s the correct bibliographic format). Over drinks with my graduate-school friends—we are drinking heavily, insistently, every night as we prepare for interviews—I lambaste the philosopher, who has not written back to my email, who is likely laughing at my feeble attempt to reclaim my unpublished reading. But for all I know, it is someone else’s reading; I have yet to do the research to ensure I didn’t unconsciously steal it. This is the paranoia of plagiarism but it is also the fear of self-forgetting: I do not remember how I came to know this. It creates an anticipatory déjà lu about one’s work in the making. Over the page hovers the shadow of the bird that feeds on scholarly bones: “Haven’t I read this before?”

A week later, I receive an email from the philosopher asking me to approve a final draft of his article, which includes a newly thickened footnote. His email sounds worried sick; this is apparently his second email to me. Have I taken offense? Why did I not respond to his first reply? I frown and shake my head; I search my email account, my in-box, my trash folder. I never received it, I write back, and sign off with my unqualified approval of the new draft, my effusive thanks.

It reminds me, this lost email, of the confusion of mountain and fountain in Pale Fire (“Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!”) or of the library book Pnin requests from himself. The whole incident smacks of the ivory tower: redundancy, envy, sycophancy, pomposity. We are both Kinbotes, though. There is no Pninian innocence or pity to the story, no Shade to this all-too-academic exchange.

 

3.

Finding Lolita was recompense enough for the loss of Gaston, my first love. Or perhaps that’s just how it seems now, because a year later, I fell in love with someone else. My second love appeared the summer I tried to read all of Nabokov and failed, stuck in the early leaves of Ada. Let us name him Richard, after Dolly Schiller’s sweet, deaf husband.

Richard was sunlit, a wild, beautiful boy. I force-fed him books. I gave him Calvino, The Baron in the Trees. I gave him Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I gave him Lolita.

It is entirely possible I gave him Lolita first. I remember he enjoyed it and I remember he quoted it—the scepter of my passion—in a letter­ he wrote me the first summer we spent apart. I didn’t catch the allusion until later and we never did discuss it. There were many things we didn’t discuss.

Love was not one of them. We talked endlessly about love; we wrote daisy chains of emails about love; we said blameless, spurious things about love; we made puns and anagrams of love. One anagram in particular, the kind of portmanteau we made of our names, helped me with a problem I had, the problem that made me sit down to write this: I could not recall his name.

I loved Richard as I’d never loved before. I loved him even when things went wrong. Another girl. I found myself literally banging my head against the wall, throwing my cell phone across the room, shivering in drunken shame under my desk. But even then, in the tar pit of self-pity and heartbreak, his first name would slip my mind.

With anyone else, I might have just shortened it into a nickname. But I didn’t—no one did, come to think of it. In fact, people liked to lengthen it to include even the full hyphenated glory of his surname. In the early days when the love letters flowed cathartically, I punned on his initials; pages and pages of the three-letter acronym, the word it serendipitously spelled, the silly sentences it could stand for. Richard followed my lead. We developed a code. He hung precariously from a bridge and, upside-down, graffitied its side with his devotion to me. In code. Oh, my darling, I have only words to play with.

And yet, enmeshed in this love raw as Humbert’s tongue on Lolita’s­ cornea, in which we might just eat each other in the middle of sex, I would open my mouth and moan: nothing. Not his first name, not his last name. Not even his initials.

A cognitive yawn, the deep, eter­nal what’s-his-name. It was like climbing stairs or counting bell beats in the dark, how the rhythm gives way—you’ve miscounted, the stair isn’t there, the bell doesn’t ring—to a sudden and inopportune blank.

Richard, on the other hand, literally woke up saying my name. I surprised him one night when we were long-distance: snuck in his front door, stripped in his hallway. Naked, I hovered over his face, beautiful and dead-asleep. I kissed him. He murmured my name into my mouth before his eyes were even open.

I wrote that guest lecture on ­Lolita—with my reading of the ­novel’s opening—in Richard’s kitchen. The house was still with the stillness of a secular Sunday. I believe that this was the beginning (this New England house, this tawny-­toned day) of my long-standing belief that one of the best things in the world is two people in different rooms in a house on a Sunday. Stultified with anxiety, I sat at the kitchen table and stared alternately at the blank computer screen and the blank kitchen window. And then I typed it out, every­thing I had to say about Lolita. I took the train home that night, editing calmly beside my eddying reflection in the window.

In the acid belly of the next morning, I practiced in front of the mirror. I faced it at first, but after a sentence, I turned to the side, delivered it to my profile, and dashed to the lecture hall. Amid the applause afterward, my wry professor shook my hand, grinning. Another professor hugged me warmly while a huddle of graduate-student friends chimed charitably round. Giddy, I emailed Richard a copy of the lecture. He didn’t read it.

 

4.

One letter I gave him was a set of three gaudily decorated eggs, hollowed of yolk and white the way one does for Easter. I’d fed a thin strip of paper into each dried-out shell through a tiny hole. To get to the message, you had to crack the egg. Inside two of the eggs were long egg-themed expositions about love and its origins. The third one had miniature hazard-tape wrapped around it and was labeled with a warning: “Do not break until we are broken.” I can’t remember how many times I begged him to break that last egg, which is probably buried in a box somewhere now that he has moved out West to live with a woman with an uncanny resemblance to his sister.

What I knew, what he did not know, was that inside the third egg were four slivers of paper, each the size of a cut-out Garamond eleven-point word: I. Still. Love. You.

 

5.

I’m in love again. The third, the final love. The words sing through me more out of hope than certainty. Let us call him Lo. He is in fact a male version of our eponymous heroine. I could be fancy and say he is younger than I am by half the age I was when I met Gaston. But these are irrelevant matters: I am not concerned with so-called “age” at all. Anybody can imagine an age gap somewhere between eyebrow-raising and jaw-dropping. A different endeavor lures me on: to fix once and for all the perilous magic of loving again. The question is not of precocity but of belatedness; not of the too-soon but of the once-more.

I am shocked by my lack of shock. Scandalized by the ease with which I allow Lo’s young body, his utterly young life, into mine. We are both happily flabbergasted. The courtship takes its obvious course (email, mix tapes), and yet we feel like McFate has handed something to us.

We needed an occasion, of course. Somewhere in the middle of our emails, Lo went abroad. While in Africa, he rode a bus through my country listening on repeat to a song I’d put on that mix tape, a song by a singer who carries his name, a singer I’ve adored since… well, since before I was his age. When Lo returned, he asked me to coffee.

He walks into the café where I am tapping listlessly at my dissertation and our eyes lock and he has changed. He is, for one thing, suddenly rather tall.

Two days later, near dawn, talking about love. Maudlin with rum, I exclaim: “Oh, it’s like the other person is light!” I put my head on his shoulder. I sigh and say his name. He kisses me. I have a cold but neither of us cares. We spoon in our underwear like teenagers. I reiterate that I am drunk. Lo nuzzles my nape, brutishly tightens his grip around me, and within a minute is softly snoring. In the morning, he makes to dart away; I prevaricate. He insists and I relent, collapsing back into the sheets, grinning.

I Google like a madwoman. No laws have been broken. But Lo is, according to the half-your-age-plus-seven-years rule, still too young. Lo is, to employ a pornographic and quibbling term, barely legal. Plus I will receive my PhD soon and I have a job lined up. I do not call, I do not write. I won’t seek out my own misfortune.

He writes. The first line is just my name. Three times, separated by commas. Like waves.

We establish that we are both terrified. We begin anyway. A month later, we are walking down a street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, delirious because we are drunk but also because the moon is out, it is warm, the walk will be short. We have been holding hands all day, our maneuvering more and more absurd as we try to do everything while holding hands. Under the red awning of a shuttered bodega, Lo laughs with no irony, a rippling sound like nothing else I can imagine. “What?” I say. “It’s just that I’m wildly in love with you,” he replies.

I cannot help but Lolitize him; cannot help but think of his brute charm as corollary to her crude charm. His hands rolling over each other to explain the world to me. His thick brown wrists and the way he holds me down. The way he handles my hands: rough and adroit at once. His hip bone in my hand. His linted belly button. His smell, so specific. Alcoholic almost. His lips that seem thinner than they are, that look to be thin and curl under when he smiles but that form a pulsing thick purse against mine. What he calls his coy stutter. The deep rose flush that creeps slowly up his neck and then floods into his gasping cheeks, eclipsing the pale­moon cheekbone there.

 

6.

The problem returns. Although his name easily peppered my conversations in the past, now that I am in love with Lo, I once again find myself agape. I can’t recall his name. Except that this time, instead of the deep, eternal what’s-his-name, my mind rushes to fill the gap. It is never one name or another. It is just men’s names. Any man’s name other than his name.

It seems at first like a symbol of the gap between us, the experi­ential chasm. I am Lo’s first. For him, in a sense, there is only my name. ­Written three times like waves, with commas like buoys. For me, there are, wait, how many names now? But no, that is unfair: I am no wizened old witch diddling the tender faunlet. I am still young. I reassure myself that this nominal problem never happens to me with friends, family, innumerable students. This is just what happens to me whenever I fall for someone.

Oh, the horror! Love should not be repeatable. No one seems to understand this. In vain, my sister tells me: “This is a good thing no matter what happens; this experience is a lesson that you can love again.” Others recapitulate: “You seem so happy, I’m so glad you see now that you don’t have to be so cynical about guys.”

He’s a person! I want to scream. I love him! The proof, it seems, is this: I can’t recall his name. Am I actually supposed to love more than twice? More, for that matter, than once? Love cannot be a vacant slot into which men tumble for a time. I think of eighteenth-century novels that insert dashes for incriminating names. Dear ———, I love you.

I have to restrain myself from comparing Lo with the others. Gaston is a dream I no longer remember. Richard is a dream from which I am gaspingly glad to have awoken. The message in that egg is true only in the most magnanimous sense. I still love you, as in: I wish you well.

But my third and final love—this Lo! my Lo!—he is as real as my hand. I wish to speak only to him. Even these words: to him. I feel the urge to coin a new word for us. Love, as always, is the wrong and only word.

In a flurry of goodwill, my older brother and sister meet my young lover. Do you know what they both say about him? “Oh yeah, he’s totally your genre.”

 

7.

Re-reading Lolita has been on my mind. “Only the rereading counts,” Nabokov once said. “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” I have a ­theory that Lolita is designed to prompt re-reading. I do not know which order the readings come in, or if they can come simultaneously, but I am certain that there are at least three readings of Lolita. There is the aesthetic reading: the bliss of the language, the Flaubertian light incandescing the world. There is the epistemological reading: the hunt for clues, the quest for allusions, the camouflaged “Qu’il t’y,” the golden and monstrous peace that comes through the satisfaction of logical recognition. And then there is the ethical reading, the reading that recognizes the thirty-second chapter of part II as the bitterest, cruelest self-indictment a lover could utter, the acutest understanding of the wickedness of a love that has not truly loved.

I tell Lo this theory. Of course we discuss Lolita. We discuss everything. The ease I feel with him is rocked only by my unease about his comparative lack of comparison. This unease becomes an insistence. We will soon be separated by the expanse of a continent; there is the need for a real separation; there is the need for him to “sow his oats.” Lo should go spelunking, I cheerfully tell my girlfriend. Bawdy girl! she G-chats back. But even as I make this pragmatic old-wives’ assessment of comparative male desire, I realize that what horrifies me is comparison itself.

A disconcerting number of Nabokov’s titles are women’s names, as though he were begging us to compare elusive Laura, downy Lo­lita, the cryptic Vane sisters, Ada who has my eyes. And of course, famously, Humbert finds Annabel Leigh again in the form of Dolores Haze. Did she have a precursor?… In a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel… the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride… she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype. And most distressingly: Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta.

It does not matter to me that Annabel is eclipsed; the very idea of an alias dismays me. The horror is in the fact of the precursor. Then, I ponder this: the precursor may well be just a fact. Though Lo is technically the inexperienced one, even I have an alias. There’s another woman, ironically even older than I, who has been pursuing him. He has not told her about me. The reason for this is unclear. It could be to protect us from the hell-hath-no-fury of a scorned woman. It could be to keep his options open.

My jealousy rears its head. This woman is heavily coveted by other men; she is a collector of professional success; she is disconcertingly stunning. She sends Lo free-associative emails with lines about unrequited love. She sends him pouty text messages. I am a vehement advocate of the high-minded view that he really ought to tell her about me. I proffer the provocation that his shyness may actually be unethical. But I back off; Lo, despite or upon comparison, chose me. He named me. Thrice, like a spell.

This is the other side of the moony torture of forgotten names. The Humbertian demand for devotion to my name. How love solipsizes everything! Even these words, which I just said were to him, were always about me.

I am ashamed of how much I want to keep him for myself. I think of a moment very early in our romance. We are frolicking goofily after sex. Lo is on top of me and I have monkeyed my legs around him. I kiss him and suggest, “Let’s go swimming!” We pause to consider this.

Then I surprise us both by saying, “Forever!” There is another pause and we both burst out laughing. We have not even said “I love you” yet. We have barely begun.

We do go swimming, eventually, at a pond. We talk about it for weeks in advance; it assumes the proportion of Our Glass Lake (or is it Hourglass?). There is a terrible moment right before we leave when I confess to him that I went to this pond once before, with Richard. “Why did you tell me that now?” Lo asks, disgusted. “It was awful,” I say. “He swam away from me.”

Now that we are about to part, his name is all I hear. It has a lovely lilt to it, a limpid ease. I try, like Humbert, to analyze the spine-thrill of delight it gives me, this name among all the others. What is it that excites me almost to tears…? The tender anonymity of this name, sounding a mnemonic beat, jinxing our ringing knell, our death bell.

 

8.

Before I leave, Lo gives me a gift. A first edition of Vlad’s first novel, a jacket­less hardback, its title impressed into the grave matte cover. The pages’ top edges are tinted magenta. It is not inscribed. “I don’t know if you like first editions. I haven’t read it, but it’s about a first love,” he says cautiously. I smile. It is a gift for and about him; it is a gift for and about me. It is the perfect gift. Later, he tells me he wasn’t sure whether to give it to me; it seemed strange to give me a book called Mary.

When I read it a week later, I am unduly saddened that its plot to reunite the lovers fails. The protagonist, Ganin, yearns throughout the novel to re-create with Mary the bliss of their youthful passion. But then, having intoxicated Mary’s new husband beyond belief and made elaborate arrangements to surprise her at the train station, Ganin unexpectedly gives up. He never again sets eyes on Mary.

He has his negative epiphany while watching a lazy scene of early morning workers passing tiles as they roof a house. As Ganin looked up at the skeletal roof in the ethereal sky he realized with merciless clarity that his affair with Mary was ended forever. It had lasted no more than four days—four days that were perhaps the happiest of his life. But now he had exhausted his memories, was sated by them. This is a predictable Nabokovian twist. I should be relieved: at least the romance crumbles because Ganin, with whom I identified against my gender, changes his mind, exhausts his memories. It would have been worse if Mary had vanished, an ending that might have raised the spectre of Lo’s fleeting affections.

I am distraught the next day when I realize the error in this first reading, the unwitting reversal I made. By any logical interpretation of the textual and personal situations, I am not Ganin, the man sated with his first love, ready to move on. I am Mary. 

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