May 2010

A Sunburst Above a Receding Road

How I Ruined Lolita for Myself

by Namwali Serpell


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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Namwali Serpell is from Zambia. She is an assistant professor in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She has written for Bidoun. Her story “Muzungu,” originally published in Callaloo, was included in The Best American Short Stories 2009.

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