Save As… “Lolita”

posted in: Art 4


(c) Sally Mann.
(c) Sally Mann.



I am reading Lo. Lee. Ta.

I read it my sophomore year in college, not for a class, but for —  I was going to say “for fun,” but “fun” is not a word a person employs to describe a Lolita-ing. I read it because someone told me, not incorrectly, that Nabokov’s novel is the greatest of those written in the English language (usually in a dead heat with Ulysses) and undertaking it is non-negotiable for anyone wanting true human race citizenship. I cut through my foolishness (beer, flirting) long enough to get a copy, sit down, and be destroyed.

What is a masterpiece? For my money, I’d say a masterpiece happens because whomever we are and whenever we are, that masterwork of art affects us anew each time it presents itself. (Really, though, don’t we present ourselves to it?)

An example outside of literature: You see Water Lillies*  when you are ten. You love Monet’s painting because it’s looks like so many pink dresses. You see Waterlilies at twenty-five and you hate it, because you’d much rather check out the Duchamp and the Dali, this being a dada and surreal time of life — your rejection is a choice; you have still been moved by the haunting painting. You see Waterlilies on a bad day after a hard rain in your thirties and you marvel at what those paintings did, how they were made, what it took, what it gave, etc. You buy a print when you are sixty. Your granddaughter loves it when you are long gone. She is eight, and it calms her down to look at it when she’s sad.

Two-bit, goofy cartoon characters don’t do this to people. Pulp romances don’t, either. This is the difference between art and everything else.

In the St. Louis airport yesterday, reading Lolita, I had a dim awareness of being an advertisement for the power of a great story. My surroundings disintegrated, washed out into the ether as the Haze house built up around me. Dolores ran past me on her colt legs and even I was in love with her, even I wanted to smell her “biscuity” smell. I physically shuddered when Humbert described himself as a spider; I audibly groaned twice, once when he unfurled a silky strand, again when he unfurled something else. I was in St. Louis, but I might have been in Kuala Lumpur for all the difference it made. The book is a spell.

I debated selecting a few sentences to share with you, a few rubies, but I can’t. Imagine sitting at a five-star restaurant and being placed with the best dish the house can make, some buttered, silky, foie-crunch-braised-foam fresh tower of artistry and then taking out a penknife to strip mine “a good part” for your dining companion.

Hell to the no. You’re just gonna have to read it, folks. You’re going to have to read Lolita, maybe again, maybe for the first time.

It’s been nice knowing you.

*Astonishingly, I selected this example at random, only to find when fact-checking that the series in Monet’s native French is entitled Nymphéas. The only truly Nabokovian stroke here and it was an accident. Great.