How To Read a Taboo Sentence Like a Grown-Up

by Holly Morse-Ellington

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.  -Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita


            I might suffer from a touch of arrested development. I’m from an area where schools glued together textbook pages that explained the big bang theory and parents petitioned to ban Madonna’s coffee table book, Sex, from the public library. (I think parents wanted to ban Madonna altogether.) And most summers, the time for self-selected reading, I went to church camp. It’s not that I couldn’t be rebellious and sneaky, but camp counselors were nosey. Covering known seedy titles like Tropic of Cancer and Lolita with book jackets made from paper grocery bags would have aroused more suspicion. Besides, that Christian guilt thing would have kicked in and I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading them anyway. I’ve discovered, though, that good books come to those who wait.

            I was thirty years old and a graduate student the first time I was introduced to Lolita. My writing professor was indulging our class with a side discussion about the importance of first sentences. Lolita came instantly to mind. He spoke from memory, Lo-lee-ta. My classmates and I leaned forward as he flicked his finger in the air, a conductor ticking off each word with the deliberate precision of a metronome. Tip. Tongue. Taking. Trip. His delivery of the alliteration charmed our ears. He repeated the name, stopping after each syllable as Nabokov’s punctuation instructed. The last isolated syllable drifted across the room like a sigh, taaahh.

            The effect of the language resonated, red, on my cheeks. I didn’t breathe for fear of taking the last trace of the words from the air. But then someone said, “Let’s hear it again.” Apparently I wasn’t alone in my ignorance of Lolita or my awe of Nabokov’s way with words. Having made his point about grabbing the reader’s attention, our professor moved on to his planned lesson. Still, I struggled to get the sentence out of my head and I had to hear more.

            I bought the book the very next day and savored it sentence by sentence. For me this introductory sentence is more cantabile than prose. It’s not even a sentence, but a melodic fragment buttressed by the name that begs to be sung out loud. Nabokov introduces us to narrator Humbert Humbert through his misguided love song. We readers understand immediately that this guy’s got it bad and the odds of good judgment and reason prevailing won’t be as easy as one, two, three.  

            Nabokov packs the dramatic tension we expect to unfold into this assembly of phrases. For one, Nabokov communicates Humbert’s obsession by the way he punctuates the passage. The first styling of Lolita’s name, including the colon afterward, is formatted like a dictionary entry. Lolita is Humbert’s favorite word and he draws great pleasure in the pronunciation alone. He even gains satisfaction, and maybe ownership of his object of desire, from instructing us on the proper technique for saying her name. A name, we discover sentences later, that isn’t hers, but one of his pet name substitutes for Dolores. A name that bears repeating, this time with periods in-between the syllables to show the degree to which Humbert must linger with his fixation. Humbert does eventually describe Lolita’s emotional and physical characteristics—in detail, but he knows better than to provide the picture of a young girl first. Instead, he fixates on a sound of her, enchanting his jury and readers with lyrics of love and lust. A Siren for a narrator, he lures us into accepting his version of events.

            Nabokov also strikes an exhilarating but ominous tone in the phrases, “the tip of the tongue taking a trip.” The tongue is a playful, waggish character we can imagine packs a bag and tap, tap, taps on his companion’s door to start their vacation. As the object of the participial phrase, “trip” is used as a noun with connotations of fun and happiness as opposed to the pain and humiliation associated with the verb. Siren Humbert woos us into drawing a pleasant parallel between the tongue’s trip and the one he and Lolita will take. But by choosing “trip” instead of “journey” or “vacation,” Nabokov prevents Humbert from being too slick. Even as a noun, “trip” holds subtle power because we still anticipate the action. Brace for the possibility of Humbert’s tongue-tied trip or a shattering trip and fall.

            I followed Humbert Humbert’s ill-fated trip in its entirety because Nabokov was behind the wheel. It felt liberating and grown-up to read this book after all these years. Of all the taboo things I’d heard about Lolita, what shocked me most when I saw for myself was that none had spoken of its brilliance. The writing shined like a smile, a sparkle on the teeth.   


I’ve been asleep! What a great awakening - thank you! You are truly talented! Xoxo

By susan paladino on Apr 18 2014

What a great article, reminiscent at times, of Nabokov’s stylings. My appetite’s been whetted, and I will sit for another reading. Thanks for awaken my appreciaton for a timeless work of art.

By Elizabeth on Apr 09 2014

Wow. Now I want to read it.

By Eddie on Apr 09 2014