Famous First Lines: Nabokov’s Lolita

Deep Reading, Famous First Lines, Sonnenuhr und Rondell

Lolita (or, more precisely, Humbert Humbert’s first-person narrative after the “Foreword”) begins with an explosion of imagery, sound, and rhythm:

‚ÄúLolita, 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.”

Is it a love song? An invocation of a spirit? A dissection of a name? The form is simple, but the content is remarkably complex. For example, the first line seems to create both the object of desire, a light that shines outside or above like the sun, and the desire itself, a fire that burns within the narrator’s own body; so “Lolita” seems to be both external and internal, both the other and the self; and similarly, in the second sentence, Lolita both becomes another contradiction: she (or it?) is now both the narrator’s soul – something intricately linked and well-kept within an individual’s body or being – and the corruption of this soul. Pretty confusing this, and just to my taste.

Some of you may be already put off by either its fancy artfulness or its confusing shuffle of ideas, but for those who are intrigued instead or could use a few insights to get going, there’s a fine close reading of the opening chapter on Kit Whitfield’s blog.

If you just want to get into the right mood, listen to Jeremy Irons’ reading of it.

And then there’s also a Lolita site on Genius, which not only lets you profit from other readers’ insights but also allows you to share your own observations on specific words. When I told Inigo about it, he couldn’t resist the temptation to put in a few thoughts of his own. (He is still typing, emitting sounds of both exhilaration and exasperation.) Be warned though: There’s always a slight danger of spoilers in the annotations, and sometimes people are absolutely and blatantly wrong about everything.