A Sunburst Above a Receding Road


Lolita’s reemergence seems to be the same for me and Humbert – a representation of her monstrous charm and the idea of a complicit chortle. It is a story of luck, beauty, and the continuous and inescapable process of me destroying books.

I remember the afternoon sunlight that shone in the library while I was on my knees reading this Lolita, my very own Lolita, which was the only book I read in college. At that point, my ethics were so dormant that I just could not comprehend what all the clamor was about.

I had no knowledge about Nabokov, the book, the films, or the risqué title. However, I decided to give the novel a chance and read it.

It was the spring of my sophomore year and the Internet had not yet become a thing. There I was, standing outside the Grecian dining hall, with someone and smoking. To our surprise, we saw a book with a long-stemmed red rose lying on top of it.

We both laughed at the cheesy gesture. My first love, let’s call him Gaston, had just broken my heart and I was not in the mood for roses.

The precipitation started while the sun was still out, leaving me without an umbrella. I recall the moment when I noticed the first droplet, feeling the unpredictable nature of the situation. All I could manage to say was, “Oh, we shouldn’t let the book get wet.”

I often tell myself that my protective instincts from my upbringing made me rescue Lolita on this particular day. As if I was to “kiss the book if I dropped it”.

But that was probably just my justification for taking it, this paperback with the pale and dark tones on the cover featuring a girl’s two knees turned inward in a pitiful manner.

I stole Lolita. I shoved the book into my bag. The following day, I was surprised to find it there and I decided to read it.

The red rose I’d left in the rain gave no obvious hint as to its intention. There weren’t any highlighted or underlined sections, except for one page with its corner flipped over.

As I read, I folded the corner of another page, my favorite from chapter 32. Even though I had to write about this book and discuss it in debates with my dad, I never wrote anything in that particular copy.

It eventually became evident to me that Nabokov was extremely averse to the notion of the cover of Lolita displaying anything related to the book’s protagonist. He wished to have a sunburst above a receding road instead.

Regardless, this particular cover, with its billowing black skirt, its lack of a torso, its bent knees, its pristine bobby socks, and it’s ironic Oxfords; my cover, with its glib Vanity Fair citation (“The only convincing love story of our century”), and the stolid-fonted title cascading in white across it, remains my favorite. It was my first defiance of Uncle Vlad.

On my bookshelf sits two copies of The Annotated Lolita. The cover is quite unappealing and the concept behind it is questionable.

Alfred Appel, whose name is oddly similar to Charles Kinbote, a character in Pale Fire, must have been aware of this fact when he became so devoted to annotating the novel.

However, I too understand the urge to delve into the book, even if it takes away from the original intent of the author. This is what happened to me when I tried to read Lolita.

My experience with Lolita began when I wrote an OK paper about it during the spring, and then improved the paper the following fall. By the end of my senior year, I had combined the two papers into a thesis riddled with typos and confusion.

During a graduate-school fellowship interview, I discussed Lolita at length with a professor whose lecture course I had taken in college.

Even though he didn’t recognize me, he seemed excited by my suggestion that Pale Fire creates a split between the poet and the madman.

We continued in our discussion until one of the gray-haired ladies present asked timidly if I had intended to study postcolonial literature, as stated in my application.

Two years later, I gave a lecture at my graduate school. There was a student in the auditorium who was reading the newspaper, but he closed it midway and listened attentively. He even asked a question at the end.

Additionally, another student contacted me via email, asking for a copy of the lecture for studying. Once I was done, the professor running the course approached me and shook my hand with more enthusiasm than I had ever seen before.

I was greatly encouraged by this, and he eventually became my adviser. He then directed me to Richard Rorty’s essay on the barbershop scene that Nabokov apparently gave importance to in his afterword.

I felt a sense of satisfaction, the type of joy that readers of Nabokov usually experience when they miss something and then later catch it.

However, I’m starting to feel my enjoyment ebbing away. I can’t quite make it through my fourth read-through while I’m prepping the lecture. I find myself scolding the latter part of the book for driving home the bizarre degradation of H.H. too severely.

The final chapter, number 32, is the only one that remains untouched. A professor then informs us that this is the pivotal point, Nabokov’s peak, if not Humbert’s. I quickly flip to the page from which he reads and then I realize something.

On the adjacent page is my beloved 285, with the corner still folded over. The blue-striped loveliness of the sentences had enraptured me then. Now, I am overwhelmed with a dual-edged terror:

Humbert’s fear, Humbert’s fear of himself, my fear, and my fear of myself. I am left with this question: how did I not notice the horror? This thought brings forth a new awareness of the satisfaction of missing something only to find it later.

At an academic conference in Spain, I spoke about the philosopher’s belief that one cannot separate ethics from beauty. To back this up, I referred to the opening passage of Lolita. I had previously used this in a lecture two years earlier.

The text reads, Lolita, 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.

It is natural to test Humbert’s passionate description by saying the name and seeing where the tongue actually moves.

When we read the third denotation of the name, as three short sentences, we murmur the phrase, just as the book and Humbert do. In this way, Nabokov has put Lolita in your mouth.

The philosopher was enthralled not just by the thoughts, but also by the words. After the session, he joked that he was going to abscond with my reading as I had presented it twice in a public setting even though it had not been released yet. It was ironic that we were in a symposium focused on morals and literature.

A couple years ago, I decided to Google myself and found out that a philosopher had borrowed my research for an article he was about to publish, but had neglected to include a citation. I was so annoyed that I sent him an email asking for a proper citation.

That night, I was out for drinks with some of my grad school friends and I vented about the philosopher not responding to my email. I was worried that I may have unknowingly stolen someone else’s work and this led to a paranoia of plagiarism.

I couldn’t even remember where I had found the material in the first place, so I was left with a feeling of d eja lu which was amplified by the fear of not having come up with the original idea. All of this was overshadowed by the voice in the back of my head asking “Haven’t I read this before?”

Seven days after I was sent an email from the philosopher, he asked me to verify the final draft of his article. This one had a much bigger footnote. His tone was anxious; it was his second message to me.

Did he think I was mad at him? Why hadn’t I responded to his first email? I scrunched up my face and shook my head; I dug through my emails, my inbox, and my trash.

There was nothing there; I quickly sent back a reply expressing my approval of the new draft and thanking him for it.

This forgotten email stirs up memories of Nabokov’s Pale Fire and its mistaken title, “Life Everlasting”.

Like Pnin in that instance, the whole affair resembles something from the ivory tower, with its redundancy, envy, sycophancy and pomposity. We’re both like Kinbotes in this regard, with no Pninian innocence or pity for the situation and no Shade to be found.


The discovery of Lolita became a form of recompense for the disappearance of Gaston, my former flame. Although, looking back now, it may appear to be a sufficient replacement for my first love, this was not the case.

A year later, I encountered another person and I fell head over heels. He showed up in the summertime when I was attempting to read all of Nabokov’s works, however, I only managed to make it through the beginning of Ada.

For the sake of this story, we shall refer to him as Richard, a name derived from Dolly Schiller’s sweetheart who was also deaf.

The sun shone brightly on Richard, a vibrant and gorgeous lad. I inundated him with books, such as Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Lolita to name a few.

I may have been the one to give him Lolita originally. I recall that he appreciated it and that he referred to it in a letter to me during the first summer we were apart. I didn’t recognize the reference until later and we never did talk about it. In fact, there were a lot of matters we never discussed.

We discussed love endlessly; we composed countless emails about it; we uttered words about love without blame; we crafted puns and anagrams of love.

One anagram of our names in particular, a portmanteau, aided me with a quandary I had: I could not remember his name. That was the motivation for me to write this.

My love for Richard surpassed any other I had ever experienced. Even when things went bad, like when I found out about another girl, I couldn’t stay mad at him.

I was so upset that I remember banging my head against the wall, chucking my cell phone and huddling under my desk in disgrace. But still, I couldn’t remember his name in my state of despair and heartache.

Anyone else, I may have simply shortened his name to a nickname. But I didn’t–nobody did, that I can recall. In fact, people enjoyed extending it to include the whole hyphenated version of his surname.

When the love letters were sent, I joked around with his initials; pages upon pages of the three-letter acronym, the word it luckily spelled, and the amusing phrases it could stand for. Richard joined in. We designed a code.

He clung to a bridge and, upside-down, spray-painted its side with his adoration for me. In code. Oh, my beloved, I only have words to use.

Amidst this passionate connection, which felt as strong as Humbert’s passionate caresses on Lolita’s eyes, we were so close that, in the throes of pleasure, it felt like we were devouring each other.

As I opened my mouth to scream out his name, all that came out was silence. Not his first name, not his last name, not even his initials.

It was like ascending a staircase or trying to count out the toll of bells in the dark; the steady tempo suddenly vanishing–you had made a mistake, the stairway had disappeared, and the bell had ceased to chime–causing an unexpected and unwelcome void.

Richard, in contrast, woke up muttering my name. I unexpectedly arrived at his home one night when we were in a long-distance relationship and snuck in through his door.

I undressed in his hallway and then, completely nude, I leaned over his face while he was still in a dream-like state. I kissed him and he whispered my name as he gradually opened his eyes.

The guest lecture I wrote on Lolita and my analysis of its opening began in Richard’s kitchen. The serenity of a secular Sunday was pervasive, and it was at this New England house, bathed in a tawny light, that I started to foster the opinion that there are few things as pleasing as two people in two different rooms of a house on a Sunday.

Anxiety coursing through me, I sat at the kitchen table, glancing between the blank computer screen and the blank kitchen window.

And then I began typing, getting my thoughts on Lolita out. The train ride home that evening provided the opportunity to edit, with my reflection in the window providing a backdrop.

When the following day had come, I rehearsed in front of the reflection. Initially, I looked directly at it, but after a few words, I directed my words to my profile, and then raced to the lecture room.

After the speech, my bemused university teacher shook my hand with a smile. Another professor embraced me tenderly while a group of graduate student friends voiced their congratulations.

I was ecstatic and emailed Richard a duplicate of the presentation. Unfortunately, he did not read it.

I gifted him with a trio of bright-colored eggs, emptied of their yolk and white, with a narrow strip of paper inserted into each one through a tiny gap. The missives hidden within two of the eggs were odes to love and its beginnings.

The third was encircled by hazard-tape and labeled with a stern message: “Do not break until we are broken.”

I recall asking him repeatedly to break that last egg, which is likely packed away somewhere now that he has relocated to the West Coast with a female who looks strangely like his sister.

I was aware of something that he wasn’t–inside the third egg lay four small pieces of paper, each with a single Garamond eleven-point letter cut out–the words “I Still Love You”.

This is the third, and I hope the final, love of my life. Lo, who is the male equivalent of myself, isn’t necessarily younger than I was when I first met Gaston. The age gap between us is neither extreme nor insignificant. I’m not even focusing on that.

Instead, I’m searching for the same kind of magic that I had before, and it’s not a question of it being too soon, but of it happening again.

To my surprise, I am not as surprised as I should be. I’m taken aback by how readily I let Lo’s young life intertwined with mine.

We are both pleasantly shocked. We follow the traditional steps of courtship (emails, mix tapes), but it feels like destiny has given us something special.

We required an opportunity, of course. During the middle of our written communications, Lo traveled abroad.

On his journey in Africa, he rode a bus through my homeland while playing a song that I had put on a mixtape, a song by an artist who shares his name, an artist who I have had admiration for since… even before I was of his age. When Lo came back, he asked me to join him for coffee.

When he steps into the cafe, my gaze meets his and I notice something about him that has changed. He is apparently much taller than before. I am there, idly working on my dissertation.

Not long after, in the early morning, we discussed love. My head full of rum, I exclaimed, “Oh, it’s like the other person is a source of light!” I leaned my head on his shoulder and sighed his name.

He kissed me, and although I had a cold neither of us seemed to care. We cuddled together in our underwear, like a couple of teenagers. I made sure to remind him that I was very drunk.

He nuzzled my neck, held me close, and was soon snoring softly. In the morning, he tried to make a getaway, but I resisted. He insisted and I eventually gave in, sliding back under the sheets and smiling.

I engage in frantic searching on Google, which is perfectly within the law. However, Lo is still too young based on the “half-your-age-plus-seven-years” rule, which means that they are, in a pornographic and quibbling term, barely legal.

Furthermore, I am on the verge of getting my PhD and have an employment opportunity ready for me. Therefore, I am not going to reach out to them in any way as I do not wish to bring myself any bad luck.

He crafts his words. The opening is his name in a string of three repetitions, resembling ocean swells.

We both admit that we are terrified, but carry on regardless. A month later, we are strolling down a street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, euphoric due to both the inebriation and the fact that the moon is out and it is warm, making the journey relatively short.

We have been holding hands all day, our movements becoming increasingly more peculiar as we attempt to do everything while still clasped together.

As we stand beneath the red awning of a closed bodega, Lo lets out a laugh without a hint of irony, a rippling sound that I can not compare to anything else. “What?” I inquire. “It’s just that I’m madly in love with you,” he responds.

I can’t help but be drawn to him; his strong charisma is a counterpart to her own. His hands working together to explain the world to me. His thick wrists and the way he holds me. The way he grips my hands: firm yet skillful.

His hip bone in my grasp. His lint-filled navel. His fragrant aroma, almost alcoholic. His lips, seemingly thin but curling under when he smiles to create a full, vibrating kiss against mine. What he refers to as his bashful stutter.

The deep pink hue rising up his neck and spreading across his cheeks, outshining the pale moon-like cheekbone there.


Once again, I’m at a loss for words. Where before his name was prominent in my conversations, now that I am in love with Lo, I’m unable to recall it. Not a specific one, anyway.

I’m just getting a list of men’s names, not his, to fill the gap.

It may appear to be a symbol of the distance between us, a deep divide. I am the first for Lo; in a way, my name is the only one that exists for him.

Written three times, almost like the ebb and flow of the ocean, and with commas like docks. But for me, how many names are there now? I must remind myself that this doesn’t happen with my friends, family, or the countless individuals I teach.

It’s simply what takes place when I’m attracted to someone.

The terror! To love again should not be an option. It appears that no one comprehends this. My sister expresses to me in vain: “This is a positive thing come what may; this experience is a lesson that you can still love.”

Others chime in with: “You look so content, I’m so pleased that you perceive now that you do not have to be so distrustful about men.”

I’m passionate about this person! I can’t contain my enthusiasm! The evidence is clear: I can’t remember their name.

Is it even possible to love more than twice? More than once? Love shouldn’t be something you can easily come in and out of. I keep thinking about those 18th century books that use dashes for names that can’t be revealed. Dear ——, I love you.

I am attempting to prevent myself from making comparisons between Lo and the other people. I have forgotten Gaston’s dream. I am extremely relieved to have pulled away from Richard’s dream.

The statement inside the egg is valid from a generous point of view. Although, I still care for you, in that: I hope you are doing well.

My last and greatest love–this Lo! my Lo!–is as tangible as my own hand. I choose to only communicate with him. Even to the point of expressing these words: to him. I am inspired to create a new term for us. Love, as usual, is not the most suitable word.

My siblings, both older than me, got together to meet my new love interest. What was their conclusion? They were in agreement that “he’s definitely your type”.

I have been pondering a re-reading of Lolita. Nabokov stated, “Only the rereading counts. One cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” My theory is that Lolita is meant to encourage re-reading.

I am uncertain in what order these readings should be done, or if they can be done concurrently, but I am confident that there are at least three ways of reading Lolita.

Firstly, the aesthetic reading: the joy of the words, the Flaubertian brilliance that illuminates the world. Secondly, the epistemological reading: the search for clues, the mission to find allusions, the hidden “Qu’il t’y,” and the golden and terrible peace that comes from logically recognizing something.

Lastly, the ethical reading: realizing the thirty-second chapter of part II as the most appalling and cruel self-condemnation that a lover could communicate, and being aware of the wickedness of a love that has not truly been loved.

I shared my theory with Lo, and of course we discussed Lolita. Our conversations covered every topic, and I felt very comfortable with him, yet a bit uneasy about his lack of comparison.

This unease grew and I felt it was necessary for us to be separated by a great distance; he needed to “sow his oats.” Thus, I encouraged him to go spelunking, to which my girlfriend jokingly replied, “Bawdy girl!” But, as I pondered the pragmatic idea of male desire, I realized that comparison was what scared me.

A worrying number of Nabokov’s works have women’s names as titles, making us question Laura, fluffy Lolita, the Vane sisters, Ada who has my eyes. Of course, famously, Humbert discovers Annabel Leigh once more as Dolores Haze.

Was there someone before her? … Lolita started in a mysterious and fateful way with Annabel… the emptiness of my heart was able to draw in each aspect of her radiance, and these I compared to the qualities of my dead partner… she, this contemporary, this Lolita, my Lolita, was going to outshine her originator altogether. _And most distressingly: _Annabel Haze, a.k.a. Dolores Lee, a.k.a. Loleeta.

I do not care that Annabel is overshadowed; the very thought of an alias makes me uneasy. The fear lies in the existence of a precursor. I then contemplate this: the precursor may be simply a reality.

Even though Lo is not very knowledgeable, I too have an alias. There is another lady, ironically older than me, who is trying to pursue him.

He has not revealed to her about me. The explanation for this is not obvious. It could be to safeguard us from the wrath of a scorned woman. It may be to keep his options open.

My envy arises. She is very desired by other guys; she has accrued a good amount of professional success; her beauty is striking. She sends Lo emails with phrases about unreturned love.

She sends him sulky messages. I strongly suggest that he ought to be honest to her about me. I argue that his timidity may even be unethical. But I stop myself; Lo, in comparison, chose me. He dubbed me. Three times, like a charm.

The punishing act of neglecting monikers is the reverse of this lunar suffering. There is a Humbertian necessity for loyalty to my appellation.

Love has a way of making everything personal! Even the phrases I uttered, which appeared to be to him, have been about me the entire time.

I’m embarrassed to admit how much I’m drawn to keeping him all to myself.

I remember a particular instance in the early days of our relationship. After we had been intimate, we were being silly and playful. He was lying on top of me and I had my legs wrapped around him. I kissed him and said, “Hey, let’s go swimming!” We both paused to consider that suggestion.

To my own surprise, I declare “Forever!” There is a momentary hesitation and then we both erupt in laughter. We hadn’t even uttered the words “I love you” yet, since we had only just started.

After weeks of anticipation, Lo and I finally went swimming at a pond. We gave it the grand title of Our Glass Lake (or was it Hourglass?). Just as we were about to leave, I mentioned to him that I had gone swimming there before with Richard.

Lo looked at me with disapproval and asked why I told him that now. I simply replied that it was a terrible experience because Richard had swam away from me.

As we are about to separate, his name is all that I can hear. Its sound is so pleasant and simple. Similarly to Humbert, I try to comprehend the thrill that it gives me, above all the others.

What is it that almost makes me cry? This name has a gentle anonymity to it, a rhythm that signals our parting, like a toll of a death knell.


Right before I depart, Lo presents me with a present. It is a first edition of Vlad’s first novel, a jacketless hardback with its title pressed into the grave matte cover. The pages’ top edges are tinted magenta.

There is no inscription. “I’m not sure if you’re into first editions. I haven’t read it, but it’s about a first love,” he says with caution. I grin. It’s a gift for him and for me. It’s the perfect present. Later, he reveals he was uncertain if he should give it to me; it felt peculiar to give me a book called Mary.

A week after I had read the book, I was overwhelmed with sorrow when the plan to bring the lovers back together was unsuccessful.

Ganin was desperate to relive his and Mary’s old passion during the story. However, after he had intoxicated Mary’s spouse and made grand plans to surprise her at the station, he abruptly gave up. He never saw Mary again.

Ganin had a moment of realization while observing the workers pass tiles over the skeletal roof in the sky. It was a realization of finality for the affair which had only lasted four days, the happiest days of his life, yet the memories had been completely savored.

It was a typical Nabokovian twist that brought relief; at least Ganin changed his mind rather than Mary vanishing, which would have been reminiscent of Lo’s short-lived affections.

The next day, I was deeply distressed to see that my initial interpretation had been wrong. In either the text or the situation, I wasn’t Ganin – the one who was content with his first love and ready to carry on – but Mary.

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