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Friday, December 23, 2011

 

First sentences: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

TW: I assume most people know this, but Lolita is a story of child abuse.


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

In a sense, quoting only the first sentence is incomplete because the whole first paragraph is a prose poem in itself:

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 whole paragraph is an explosion of sound based around the Ls and T's of Lolita's name, a narcotic, obsessive chant that begins to hypnotise us into Humbert Humbert's desperate rhythms. This is the story of a child rapist who entraps and abuses an orphaned girl, a man of loathsome character whose attitude towards almost any person he meets is either predatory lust or vicious contempt, depending on whether or not they serve his sexual appetites. But the style, the style! 'You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,' as Humbert warns us at the outset, and it's the gorgeous pyrotechnics that hold us to the page despite the horrors that unfold. Humbert Humbert picks up his baton, taps out a rhythm to the tune of his victim's name, and begins to croon us into complicity - or at least, into staying with him rather than putting down the book and turning away in disgust.

And yet. There's an interesting point to be had even in the first sentence: he's calling her Lolita. The title of the book, its base note, 'repeat till the page is full, printer.' But that's not actually her name. The lush paedophilia of the word - the sensuous 'Lola', evocative of such figures as the courtesan Lola Montez while reduced with the diminutive '-ita' - is the first of many concealing tricks that Humbert pulls upon us.

In the second paragraph he shows his hand: 'She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.' Lolita is the name of a sexual fantasy imposed on the real girl, not the name of the girl herself. The girl herself signs her letters 'Dolly'. Humbert eventually comes to admit to himself that 'I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile cliches, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate - dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions' - but we hardly need Humbert to tell us this. Dolly's 'juvenile cliches' are heard in her speech, but never in long enough sequences that we can get much content out of them. We know how she speaks, but we hear very little of what she says. Her speech is all snapshot, a fetishised part of her outer appearance rather than a conveyor of thought and feeling. In terms of how he describes her, it is only a question of whether she does or doesn't do what he wants.

Dolly's personality, in short, is only visible to us in glimpses. Despite her status as the eponymous character, we actually know very little about her. She asks for clothes and treats; she plays at grown-ups by flirting with Humbert until he rapes her and then finds herself trapped; she displays in later stages a hard-headed practicality unsurprising in such a prisoner; what she is in herself is held from us by a narrator that only cares for his lusts and observes nothing of her inner self.

It's interesting how misled people can be by this. To call a girl 'a Lolita' is to call her sexually precocious (and also to render oneself a suspect observer of girls, because seriously? You really just said that?) Covers for the book vary a great deal, but you'll see plenty of images among those that suggest an erotic novel rather than a horror story. Humbert is nothing if not a forceful narrator.

And in the first sentence, linguistic beauties aside, is one of his strongest tricks: he conflates light and lust. 'Light of my life' is emotional and spiritual; 'fire of my loins' is physical and sexual. A romantic partner can be both, of course, but note the order in which they come. 'Light of my life' is first, with 'fire of my loins' second. As a description of true love, this would be a list: you are the light of my life and the fire of my loins. As a description of Humbert's obsession, the life of a man whose interest (at least as far as the story he chooses to tell us goes) revolves entirely around his fixation on children, it is not a list but a causal sequence: you are the light of my life because you are the fire of my loins. Sexual gratification is one of the few things Humbert values, declaring that to be a paedophile is to be 'an artist and a madman', conflating again the sexual with the spiritual.

Images of light are associated with desire - 'radiant', for instance, is a word used more than once - and it begins here. Consider, for instance, the assonant vowels: light of my life, fire of my loins. Light, life, fire: we slide down along a cascade of Is into the sexual. 'Light of my life' and 'fire of my loins' are, of course, sayings rather than original phrases, an unusually familiar and thus persuasive use of language (cliches can take on the status of truisms in our subconscious mind), and by placing them side by side and rocking us with their rhythms, Humbert makes it hard for us to resist the sense that they are natural partners. But the assonance stops at the end of the sentence: 'loins' catches us, stops us, opens our eyes. Humbert is never explicit in his vocabulary - he is fairly clear what he does, but hides behind many metaphors - and 'loins' is about as frank as he gets.

But by the time we reach that frank word, the soft Ls and dreamlike Is and sighing Fs have already begun to seduce us. Lolita is before us and Dolly is lost. This will not be a book about Dolly Haze, but a book about Lolita - and Lolita exists only within Humbert's mind. The brutal eclipsing of her selfhood takes place in the first sentence, velveted in poetry, and we will never get her back.

Except. Except that this is not, in fact, the first sentence of the book. The actual first sentence is this:

'Lolita or The Confessions of a White Widowed Male,' such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange pages it preambulates.

Lolita is prefaced by a fictional 'note' from a psychiatrist supposedly entrusted with editing the work, a writer who swings from formal awkwardnesses like 'preambulates' to a kind of Humbert-influenced eloquence in phrases like 'panting maniac' and 'a desperate honesty that throbs through his confession'. This editor gives us several facts, including the briskly terrible news that Dolly never makes it to adulthood: '"Mrs Richard F. Schiller" [her married name, though we only learn this near the end] died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl...' we are dryly informed: girlhood itself is unsustainable under Humbert's curse. The editor acknowledges Humbert to be 'horrible' - yet seems somewhat seduced himself. His next adjective, for instance, is 'abject', a word for a victim rather than a victimiser, and in reflecting on Humbert's style, he remarks, 'But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita which makes us entranced with the book even while abhorring its author!' Clinical objectivity is not his: he believes in Lolita - even to the point of choosing her name as the title of the book, the title that foregrounds, and thus implies the cause of the crime to be, the victim rather than the criminal.

Poor Dolly. Hidden even from the supposedly objective editor of the work, she is annihilated before the book ever begins. Seldom has so great a soul-murder been so beautifully clad.

Comments:
I loved Pale Fire so I really should get around to Lolita soon.

And for genre whiplash, how about the cheery first sentence of Anne of Green Gables?
 
Wow, those covers! Liked the ones best that don't show the title character at all but a dirty old man instead--the book is, after all, far more about Humbert and how his brain works than it is about his victim. Most alarming was the 1959 one from Istanbul which looked downright wholesome, closer even to a romance novel (and a pretty tame one at that) than to an erotic one, much less a story of victimization.

Wondering if you could perhaps do I Capture The Castle?
 
Jessica,

I took Anne of Green Gables down from the shelves last night and read through a fair bit of it, but my goodness me that's a loooong first sentence.

TRiG.
 
Just an observation:
The name Lolita is a diminutive of Lola, which is short for Dolores, literally "pains".

It could be argued that even the title presents her from Humberts point of view: As a child(the diminutive) and as painful/tormenting, all the while keeping to a theme of polyglotic plays on words.

Thank you so much for your fantastic blog, I've just discovered it(through your great first-line analysis of nineteen-eighty-four), and am enjoying it so much!
 
A must read and a literary classic. Nabokov represents emotions and thoughts with mathematical visual precision. You can feel that each word is weighed against the rest of the sentence, against the rest of the paragraph against the rest of the novel, following the strict tone of the entire piece. Unity is one of the main features of art.
Every page gets laughs.. sometimes its laugh out loud funny. A delight to read..
 
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