I have read Lolita differently at different times in my life. At first I read it flat-footedly, just as an object of dazzling beauty. I must have found it on my parents’ shelves, where I often foraged for reading on nights when I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t grasp much of what I grappled with in my fits of insomnia, both because everything passed through the gauze of my stale exhaustion and because most of my parents’ books described a world I could not yet imagine. I had just survived the seventh grade, and for months the greatest trial in my life had been the weekly bar and bat mitzvahs I dreaded but could not, on pain of rudeness, avoid. Week after week, I shifted in shoes that pinched my feet. On the sole disastrous occasion when I consented to a slow dance, my partner told me I rocked back and forth too violently, as in fact I had. It had yet to occur to me that I could be an object of sexual interest to anyone, probably because I, by dint of my glow-in-the-dark retainer and the attendant spittle I spewed whenever I spoke with enthusiasm, was emphatically not an object of sexual interest to anyone at the time.
Back then I was too naïve to register that Lolita should offend me, and it is a relief to even remember how unreservedly I was able to love it. Maybe the book did not outrage me because its subject matter struck me as the least important thing about it. The point, I felt, was just the breathless, flushed sexuality of it all. I had only lately graduated from crooked teeth and acne. Lolita’s subjectivity may remain a conspicuous omission, but her body glimmers in all its inimitable specificity on close to every page. Humbert Humbert pauses over the unlikeliest parts of her: “the glistening tracery of down on her forearm,” “the little scar on the lower part of her neat calf.” He admires the warm flush of her nape, the taper of her fingers, her “monkeyish feet.” He notices “the crenulated imprint left by the band of her shorts,” “the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs,” “the little bone twitching at the side of her dust-powdered ankle,” her toenails showing their “remnants of cherry-red polish.”
Surviving summer in D.C. is like living in a fever, and I read my contraband copy of Lolita pressed against the kitchen floor, thirsty for the coolness that was stored up in the tiles. The night was cellophane-sticky, and I felt fleshy in a bad, bulbous way. the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs! the glistening tracery of down on her forearm! The bodies around me—most intimately, my own—were beginning to smell sour and sprout hairs in strange places. It was revelatory to me that any body could be so electrically, aesthetically charged. Lolita had lips “as red as licked red candy,” and reading about her physicalized me.