When I was a junior in high school, I convinced my English teacher to let me do my big year-end paper on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I can’t remember where I first found the book – certainly my all-girls Catholic school wouldn’t have had a copy in their thinly stocked and highly proper little library – but I fell in love with it on the first page. Never mind that it was pretty inappropriate reading for 16-year-old me (it’s about a pedophile). To my teacher’s great credit, she valued intellectual curiosity more than she valued following the rules, and she agreed.
The writing is exquisite from the first page. It begins,
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. 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.
“The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” The precision of the description thrilled me at sixteen (and it still does today). Who notices that? Who could make the pronunciation of a name so fascinating? I learned everything I could about Nabokov, about how English wasn’t his fist language, but he’d written in it just the same. What talent! Although I speak fluent Spanish (and, arguably, one could call that my first language), I would never take on the discomfort of writing in it. Writing should feel cozy, like a favorite pair of slippers, the words coming back to you from playground conversations and long-ago talks with favorite professors. But not for Nabokov. He took on this alien tongue, with its maddening spellings and sometimes nonsensical phrasing, and he made it a playground. No one can see the foibles of a language quite the same way you do when it’s not your own. I learned that from Nabokov.
Years later, I learned that there was to be an exhibition of his papers at the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue (or, as I like to call it: The Temple. It’s that building you’ve no doubt seen, if just in a movie, with the two iconic lion sculptures flanking its impressive steps). I climbed up and through its doors, and went to the collection. Much about it struck me, but my favorite part was Nabokov’s handwriting. It was crazy and chaotic, full of vim and creativity. So, the other day, when I was putting together a “power board” of images I find inspiring, on went a picture of Nabokov’s scribbles, to remind me that stringing words together is messy and hard, playful and confusing.
Here is the image I printed out. Cool, huh?