Vladimir Nabokov once told his students that ‘the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.’ If we were to add another necessary quality to that list, perhaps we’d choose an eye for detail. Nabokov certainly had one: analysing Ulysses, he was astute enough to notice, within the opening pages, that
(1) Joyce had ‘used, throughout the book, a copy of the Dublin newspaper the Evening Telegraph of Thursday, 16 June 1904, price one halfpenny…’
(2) Stephen Dedalus has not had a bath for eight months (October to June)
(3) In Bloom’s mind, ‘the theme of sex is continually mixed and intertwined with the theme of the latrine.’
(4) Stephen’s handkerchief and the sea are both ‘snotgreen.’
(5) ‘The symbol of a forlorn dog will be attached to Stephen throughout the book.’
Nabokov’s readings of classic novels involve maps, diagrams, allusions, extensive reading and (most importantly) extensive rereading. Surely his readers would be doing him an unforgivable disservice if they didn’t examine his own novels in such meticulous detail.
Seeking some respite from their ‘extensive travels all over the States’, Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze ‘move east again’ to Beardsley, a fictional New England town, where Dolores is enrolled in the local school. (To my mind, it’s important to stress that Lolita and Dolores Haze are not the same: Dolores is the girl, Lolita is essentially a figment of Humbert’s desperate imagination.)
In Beardsley, she has a fleeting opportunity to join the ‘concord’ of children her own age (in the final chapter, Humbert realises that ‘the absence of her voice from that concord’ is ‘the hopelessly poignant thing’) –she takes piano lessons, wins a role in Clare Quilty’s play, The Enchanted Hunters, and plays singles ‘at least twice a week…with Linda Hall the school tennis champion.’ Describing Dolores ‘toying with Linda Hall (and being beaten by her)’, Humbert recalls an afternoon ‘in the pure air of Champion, Colorado’. ‘No hereafter is acceptable if it does not produce her as she was then, in that Colorado resort between Snow and Elphinstone, with everything right…’
Passages of great writing about sport are all too rare. Basketball and golf feature prominently in Updike’s Rabbit novels, but no other examples come immediately to mind. Focusing specifically on tennis, perhaps only Nabokov and David Foster Wallace have captured the sport in close-to-perfect prose: in ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, Foster Wallace wrote that
‘Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.’
In Lolita, medium-level tennis becomes a venue for the expression of cruelty, of ugliness, but also of loss. Is there any sports story as compelling as the story of the star who nearly ‘made it’? Figures like Nii Lamptey, the Ghanaian ‘new Pele’ who faded into globe-wandering obscurity, are, more often than not, the ones who catch the writer’s eye.
Nabokov was an extremely competent tennis player, offering coaching sessions during his years in Berlin in order to augment his income, and Dolores Haze is also something of a prodigy. ‘The exquisite clarity of all her movements had its auditory counterpart in the pure ringing sound of her every stroke,’ Humbert tells us, and we remember the ease with which she plays Linda, the school champion. And we remember that she loses.
Her game seems perfect –her serve has ‘beauty, directness, youth, a classical purity of trajectory’, ‘her forehand and backhand drives…were mirror images of one another.’ For a few moments, tennis allows Dolores Haze some measure of control over Humbert. Her life is slipping away into catastrophe and she remains graceful. Humbert sneers that his Lolita is, in reality, ‘a disgustingly conventional little girl’, but her skill as a tennis player reminds the reader that she is capable of being anything but.
And yet, skill alone is never enough. As David Foster Wallace acknowledges, ‘extraordinary mental powers …are required by world-class tennis’. Luck is required too, and Dolores Haze is unlucky. Life is consistently cruel to her, and so is tennis:
‘At match point, her second serve, which –rather typically –was even stronger and more stylish than her first… would strike vibrantly the harp-cord of the net –and ricochet out of the court. The polished gem of her dropshot was snapped up and put away by an opponent who seemed four-legged and wielding a crooked paddle. Her dramatic drives and lovely volleys would candidly fall at his feet.’
How many one-time readers of Lolita even pause to recall the tennis scene? It was omitted entirely from the most recent film version, and it is rarely mentioned in critical responses to the novel, but it contains so much of ‘the hopelessly poignant thing’ in microcosm. We see Dolores Haze’s grace, ‘her effortless sweep’, and we see inelegant Humbert –‘panting me and my old-fashioned lifting drive’ –grind her down.
Late in the scene, ‘an inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.’ A minor detail, perhaps, but a hideous reminder of the proximity of cruelty to beauty –the awful transience of grace.
Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (Harcourt Books, 1980)
Nabokov, Lolita (Penguin Classics, 2000)