Summer 2020 - Creative Nonfiction

Giles Scott

In Everything Enchanted There’s an Element of Trust.

                                                                       

 

My wife’s on a flight to Chicago, sitting on the LAX runway, third or fourth plane in line. She’s on page 85 or so. The man next to her leans over and recites from memory the first two sentences, “‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sign, my soul.’”

“It’s ‘my sin,’” she tells him.

“I know,” he says, “That’s what I said.” A pause and then, with the emphasis on each famous syllable, “Lo-lee-ta.”

There’s something feels sinister about that, the precursor to a moment that might have developed differently. She tells him her husband’s teaching it. He assumes to college students. “No, high school,” she says. She adds “seniors” as a clarification.

As she tells it, he visibly recoils. The response when it comes, “Wow, you’re a brave one.” It’s not like she said middle schoolers.

 

It usually works to open with the novel being initially rejected by most major publishers in the U.S. That it was finally published by Olympia Press in England in 1955, to little acclaim until John Gordon, the editor of The Sunday Express, called it, “the filthiest book I’ve ever read. Sheer unrestrained pornography.” Instant notoriety. Banned by the Home Office and seized at customs. Banned in France for two years. Not published in the U.S. until 1958 when it sold almost a 100,000 copies in three weeks. Previously only surpassed by Gone With the Wind.

 

They want to know if there was a trial? What were the specific grounds for seizure? And then for repeal? I warn them that it’s not quite as lascivious as they imagine. That it’s not Faulkner. There’s no donkey in the corner of the bedroom. Information which does nothing to temper their excitement. I think they think I’m kidding—the reason it’s so famous being exactly the description of the involvement of the said non donkey in the non corner of the room.

 

Not “He’s a brave one,” but “You’re a brave one.” The implication being that to teach this to high schoolers places her husband, her life partner, in a compromised position, a position involving possession of certain kinds of desires, desires that undermine and eat away at the center of healthy relationships, relationships between fully formed adults. Because of that, brave, because she tolerates such depravity in the one she attested to vows with, vows involving words such as “love” and “commitment.” He didn’t expand. She didn’t ask him too.

 

When she reaches the end of part one, after the rape, the entrapment, the horror at the center of the central relationship she asks why I keep teaching it.

 

“Because they read it,” almost instinctively emerges first. Second-semester seniors in high school with barely enough motivation to view each other’s Snapchat posts. But Lolita—they read. Girls devour it. The boys keep going even after realizing there really is no donkey. They read it in stunned amazement, sentences wound around nouns, verbs, and adjectives they’ve never seen before—words like expiatory, favonian, rufous, valetudinarian—sentences that bemuse and baffle, constant interjections of untranslated French, references to logodaedaly and lepidoptery that leave them clueless. Still they read, their brains bloodied and battered but unbowed. Stunned that anybody could write like this, about this, and write about it like this. Convinced he, Vladimir Nabokov, had to have been a pedophile.

 

A group of editors from The Anchor Review, planning to carry a substantial excerpt from the novel, asked Nabokov how he happened to know so much about little girls. Nabokov’s wife, Vera, tactfully answered the question by saying he had sat on buses and listened carefully. He had also haunted playgrounds until his doing so had become awkward. There were, otherwise, Vera assured, no little girls in his life. Though there were other girls. They married in 1925, a marriage that survived until his death in 1977, survived his serious affair in Paris with Irina Guadagnini, survived flirtations, survived dalliances—all on his side. In a letter to Vera in 1924 he told her, “In everything enchanted there’s an element of trust.”

 

They have so many questions. About Nabokov and his predilections but equally about the things inside the novel: Why tell Lolita her mother died? Does he rape her? Why does he hit her? Why take her out of school? Why does he throw up? They have sex, right? What exists as love here? Why all the French? Why does he still want Lolita despite that boy at camp? Tommy? Why does he constantly talk about himself in the third person? Why the phrase “celestial vapidity”? What does that mean? How does Lolita die? What is his greatest sin? Does he believe Lolita ever loved him? Why make Quilty’s death so bizarre? Why drive on the wrong side of the road? Who are the children’s voices coming up from the valley? Are they real? What are “aurochs”?

 

Nabokov wrote most of the novel, purportedly, in the car—strange in and of itself, and added to by his inability to drive. Vera would drive down a nondescript country road in Colorado, or Arizona, or Utah, Wyoming, Montana etc. on their lepidoptery trips, and he would write for a few hours, usually on 3x5 cards. One has to wonder what Vera and their teenage son Dmitri did while husband and father sat in the car and gave human breath to the monstrous. Did they just walk around the countryside, and then do the same again after lunch while trailing husband and father sporting a butterfly net? Or did he do all his writing between locations while Vera drove, Dmitri a taciturn cloud in the back seat?

 

Brave. Because it is uncomfortable, especially the first part, the florid descriptions of penises and vaginas and the escapades of Humbert Humbert’s youth. Passages about giving her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion. It’s so obviously not about scepters and all about the obvious something else. So, an alarming passage to read out loud in front of a group of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, especially given that some of the innuendo needs to be foregrounded. She holds the scepter of his passion. For those who missed it first time around, that’s not a literal scepter. So awkward. Even seniors love the sophomoric humor of a teacher saying the word penis out loud. And then fellatio. How are they not supposed to giggle?

 

The word eruption on the whiteboard instead of orgasm reduces them to fits. But that’s how Nabokov refers to it, I say. More fits and general falling about. And it’s Lo-Lee-ta, I tell them, as in lo-lli-pop. Not Low-Lee-ta, but Lo-Lee-ta. I read to them from the Playboy interview: “It should not be pronounced as...most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta, with a heavy, clammy ‘L’ and a long ‘o’. No, the first syllable should be as in ‘lollipop’, the ‘L’ liquid and delicate, the ‘lee’ not too sharp.” Of course it’s a Playboy interview, they say, but what about when he calls her Lo. It’s surely not Lo as in lo-lli-pop? And then toward the end of part two, I play them the recording of Nabokov reading chapter 35 and the murder of Quilty. See, they say, he says “Low” as in “low-nely,” even when he says her name. They’re not wrong. But what about the laughter in his voice?” I say, this a murder and a voice brimming with laughter? Let’s talk about that.

 

The seduction of Lolita brings the most gasps. Highlights before this include the licking of the eyeball, Humbert Humbert getting into Lolita’s bed to re-read Charlotte’s letter professing eternal love in the same breath as asking him to leave. Charlotte and H.H. coupling in Lolita’s bed. The moment on the divan, “divan-gate” as one of the students called it. Humbert Humbert exploding into his perfectly creased slacks. Lolita blissfully unaware. As Humbert Humbert puts it, the conjurer had poured milk, molasses, foaming champagne into a young lady’s new white purse; and lo the purse was intact. Thus had I delicately constructed my ignoble, ardent, sinful dream; and still Lolita was safe—and I was safe. She knows, some of the girls say. She’s thirteen, not nine. How could she not notice the club in his perfectly pleated slacks? The pouring of champagne into the new, white purse has them guffawing because of how heavy-handed, how 1950s, the metaphor is. But the seduction scene invariably brings the conversation to a forceful argument about whether or not it's rape. The debate coming from Lolita’s supposed initiation, from her willingness to partake in the campfire game, the energy with which she manipulates his insensate gadget. Humbert Humbert’s claim that Charlie and his campfire games had thoroughly depraved his fiery opal long before he got to her. But none of that undoing this as an abomination. This, to her, a game, something learned at camp like duck-duck-goose and kumbaya. To him, a reclamation, the apotheosis of a life’s work, a pushing of twenty-four years of delay into a singular moment of jubilation repeated at twenty-minute intervals. No matter how singularly he describes it as if part of the Sistine Chapel, the carefully weaved comparison only more grotesquely unmasks the mechanical reality, the biological, corpuscular reality of flesh on bone. As H.H. himself tells us—The pain that flits across her face, the heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult, the squirrel squashed in the road, the wincing child.

 

I have a twelve-year-old daughter, thirteen in August. The novel becoming harder to teach as she and puberty more closely approach each other, and her own age marks the midpoint of H.H.’s markers for nympheticity and that moment between a beginning of an understanding of her body in the same matrix as constantly picking her nose and unconsciously eating her meals squatting in a chair with her legs akimbo. Wanting to protect her from a predatory world where men, thousands of men, and women, but predominantly men, do unspeakable things to children, children who talk in a strange and remarkable language of a moment just in front of them and out of reach, children who can spend the entirety of twenty-minute car rides describing a playground game involving a ball and a song about kingfishers and goblins that makes no sense without both and less sense with. The fear of a daughter’s body being seen as something to be consumed. The only time Lolita talks about her body is to say it hurts.

 

My wife never finished the novel. She got to within the last third. And this not a woman who leaves things unfinished. She sat through Highlander 2 and read Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch in under a week. “I felt like I was inside a cartoon,” she says. “It so dehumanized Lolita, so undermined her. It turned the rest of the novel grey and sickly.” She missed Mrs. Richard F. Schiller’s letter, Quilty’s murder, the absurdity of it. She missed the car crash, the driving on the wrong side of the road, the hearing of the children’s voices coming up from the toy village at the bottom of the Alpine valley, the final moment of possible reclamation, the final moment of redress. “I got tired,” she says, “of her being a shadow.”

 

My wife’s skeptical when I tell her the end asks us to consider redemption. “For whom,” she says quietly. There’s the money he gives her, of course, tacky in the extreme, and then the murder of Quilty. Quilty, however, being Lolita’s one true love. The act of allowing her to leave might be the arguable first step, and then the act of writing the narrative, of transforming her from flesh into matter more ethereal. The girls in the class balk at such gestures; they see Lolita’s beatification as a carefully manipulated alibi, even the claim that he would have given himself at least thirty-five years for rape and dismissed the rest of the charges. All the work of the ultimate, inveterate Houdini. For most of them the greatest sin is not rape, it’s the refusal, the inability, to see Lolita outside the literary confines he constructs for her. It’s not that he consumes her sexually, abhorrent as that is, it’s that the recounting of the consuming still perceives of her as consumable. He never allows us to see Dolores Haze. Instead, we get Lolita, Lo-lee-ta. Lo, plucked fully formed from his own fear and loathing, his own brow, from his own ridden, preconceived misunderstanding of who girls really are, and, more forcefully, what girls really do.

 

Which brings us back to my own daughter and to the current #MeToo movement documenting so carefully a separate litany of monstrous moments. How to shield her from such a world as long as possible while preparing her for it? A world where sex so often gets presented as something exerted, a mechanized then pulverized event. A coupling in the sense of engines and railway compartments. Here’s what I know: as a boy, raised in a good, middle-class family in the north of England, a family that believed in things like being fair and true and honest, I thought of girls as things. All the other boys I knew thought of girls as things. Girls were strange and other and impenetrable and the product of their bodies. I didn’t understand them, the lure of them, nor the impossibility of the inside of a vagina. I had posters of Charlie’s Angels and models from Cosmo on three of my bedroom walls—all in various states of undress. On the other wall: three posters of The Clash, a huge 36x24 poster of The Sex Pistols playing the Hammersmith Apollo, and a framed portrait of a tawny owl. As boys, all we talked about was football and girls and the two-and-a-half topics in between, such as wanting to do this and that with bits of girls. My mum each night making a dinner for four boys, five years between them, and their father. Then, of course, cleaning up. Women as functional. Functional collections of body parts. An embedded prejudice that uncoiled slowly, painfully slowly, in response to a marriage to a woman who refused to be seen as anything but whole. And, of course, some therapy along the way. But years of carefully unraveling prior years, formative years, of damage—the damage of girls getting written inside the heads of boys as bodies not as beings.

 

At a lunch table in the school cafeteria, the boys’ soccer coach shares some of the things the players talk about when they sit in a circle after practice and stretch out. Suffice to say they’re not talking about how to protect the ball in the midfield and then counter attack down the wings. Instead, apparently, they talk about things like how their chances of getting laid increase exponentially if they beat their crosstown rivals on Friday night. About how x had sex with y in the bathroom across from the science department during first period and then a different x got his fingers inside the same y that same afternoon in the back row of a math class. First off, can that possibly be true? Then, what am I supposed to do with that information? He looks relieved just to share it. So preposterous it undermines fiction. A similar conversation overheard while walking between classes: one tenth-grade boy casually asks another how his date with x went (a different x, mind), and the answer just as casually comes back—a blowjob on the kitchen counter. A pitch for a recent article for the school newspaper wanted to investigate and talk about the connection between the vast amounts of porn teenage boys consume on the internet and the things those teenage boys then want and expect girls to replicate off screen. The pitch, by a girl midway through her junior year, rejected by the editors-in-chief, both senior boys.

 

Lolita not a human being to Humbert Humbert but a reflection of something in his head, something that he translates to his soul, and which calcifies there as amber, as something he never moves beyond. In these girleens he sees himself. Lolita, the novel, in some sense about this, about the human urge, especially the male urge, to harden images of women as certain kinds of possession, and harden those images so deeply into their inner being that to reclaim them as anything else, as something whole and flexible and changing and alive, becomes a lifelong task—a lifelong task that, tragically, so many men fail at. The novel almost too blatantly bringing to life a worry not just for my daughter’s physical self but for the ways in which she will be dismissed as such, reduced to something that boys banter about, then masturbate over. Pulverized.

 

Nabokov claims so vehemently that this is not a moral tale that it almost has to be. Difficult to detach Humbert Humbert from the aftermath of World War II, a war barely mentioned in the novel though less than a decade prior, a war of course that marked out other kinds of atrocity—atrocities thought of as institutionalized though involving the hundreds of thousands of personal moments that makes such atrocities viable. To allow for the possibility of understanding H.H., even the breath of it, given the monumentality of his crime, the crime not just of rape but of consumption, allows for other kinds of understanding, other kinds of forgiveness even, for those things outside the fictional world that terrorize us, terrorize our souls. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. The novel ending where it begins, with Lolita, and the addition of the possessive pronoun. His “immortalizing” of her an act that again pushes Dolores aside, but also reveals Humbert Humbert—a lonely figure casting treacherously against a world rotten at its core, a world where love cannot exist unless redefined in some grotesque manner. This the way to show the world its own corrupt heart. Which in no sense excuses his sin, his transgression, especially as it so stenches the water that it allows for the occupying by so many of a moral high ground as opposed to a brutal self-examination. Well, I could never. Humbert Humbert, ironically, after all this soul-claiming, all this scribbling, all this immortalizing, still caught inside his own calcified being, a self-examination only of the self—as opposed to the kind of examination that allows for others. But in the classroom, at least, a calcification that allows for a discussion of that self, for how it mirrors so many other male selves, how atrocity begins in some sense with an inability to recognize the self outside itself.

 

When the #MeToo movement first began to break, I was shocked by the number of ex-students sharing on facebook the ways men took from them their humanity. The horrifying alongside the horrifyingly banal: the college professor holding the door open for a student then saying to her, “I just wanted to see you from behind.” My wife reels off half-a-dozen incidents without needing a moment to reflect. I think of myself as a good human being, not a predator, not a pig, but, as one colleague put it, I, with so many other “good” men, spent so much of my dating life, “trying to get to a yes.” Predatory thinking. Calcified ways of being. Reading Lolita with high-school students begins a conversation about these things in a space where conversation can happen, where girls can talk, through the lens of Lolita, of the way boys see them, and where boys get to speak, but also to listen. Boys thinking mostly, most of the time, about getting to a yes.

 

Because, despite how uncomfortable teaching Lolita can be, especially as a male, it’s the one book that most students at the end of the year say they read almost cover to cover, the book that generates the most animated discussion, the most carefully thought through and insightful written responses—responses that defraud Humbert Humbert, that argue for Lolita as the only truly heroic figure they’ve come across.

 

Because it’s a novel, yes, about a pedophile, about a monster, but also about how atrocity begins with the personal, about how the monstrous marks where the modern world begins. Because it’s a novel that tries to teach us, all of us, but especially the male of us, about how the body, especially the female body, if not outrightly sacred, belongs, sacredly, only to its own self.

 


 Giles Scott has been teaching high school for over fifteen years, primarily in the Bay area. Recent articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Catapult, Critical Flame, and The Millions, and he’s currently revising a creative nonfiction manuscript about identity, adoption, and parenthood entitled “If In An Echo.”


 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.