The Daily

Department of Sex Ed

Reading Lolita at Twelve

October 1, 2010 | by

When my dad gave me a stack of his old college paperbacks, I think the education he hoped to foster was aesthetic, not erotic. But one of the books was Lolita, and to a twelve-year-old boy with passable reading comprehension skills, the twelve-year-old girl with the “honey-hued shoulders” and the apple-patterned dress was, above all else, sexy:

There my beauty lay down on her stomach, showing me, showing the thousand eyes wide open in my eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades, and the bloom along the incurvation of her spine, and the swellings of her tense narrow nates clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs.

At least Nabokov was teaching me fresh vocabulary. I had to look up nates, of course, but another new word, nymphet, was helpfully defined throughout the book. Suddenly I saw the world through wiser eyes. Who among my seventh-grade classmates, I wondered with a frisson, was such a creature? What girl had that “soul-shattering, insidious charm” that, while invisible to me, made the antennae of certain adult males tremble?

For much of middle school, I’d been enamored of a smart and introverted girl in my grade. I’ll call her Anna. Red-haired, freckled, and painfully pale, Anna was hardly a dead ringer for Dolores Haze, but I was observant enough to recognize the “ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb”—that marked her as a nymphet.

My imagination required a corresponding nympholept, and the Humbert Humbert of Brunswick Middle School could only be our affable fourth-period teacher, a tall, handsome, offhandedly suave man who was soon slipping in Anna’s bedroom window to ravish her—and be ravished by her—on a nightly basis, as a perturbed cocker spaniel looked on. (I’d once overheard her mention her dog at school.) I loathed and admired him. How could I ever hope to compete?

What Nabokov prettified with a murderer’s fancy prose style, I saw with bracing clarity. This was 1995, and hardcore Internet porn was not yet easily accessible to twelve-year-olds, but my imagination was ambitious. No permutation of heterosexual sex escaped it.

Let me re-emphasize that their trysts took place entirely inside my head. I spent most fourth periods in a daze, playing obscene scenarios on a mental loop. Whenever I tired of one (her parents are sleeping, and Anna and our teacher have to be quiet), another effortlessly assembled itself (our class goes on an overnight field trip, and Anna and our teacher have adjoining rooms). I was like the narrator of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, constructing an elaborate erotic saga that starred two people I hardly knew.

Underneath it all ran a current of guilt. Even if I didn’t quite grasp the nature of my radical misreading of the novel—Humbert’s a predator, not a competitor—I understood that for the majority of readers it didn’t tend to provoke reactions like mine. How weird and fucked-up was I?

Years later, in high school, Anna became my first girlfriend. Occasionally I’d look at her and remember with a jolt of mortification the six weeks or so she spent as one of my mental sex puppets. We had a running game of asking each other, “What are you thinking?” at unexpected moments, and the unspoken rule was that you had to answer honestly. I always did, but she never asked at the right time. That was probably for the best.

Nick Antosca is the author of Fires and Midnight Picnic, which received a Shirley Jackson Award.

24 COMMENTS

21 Comments

  1. john crowley | October 1, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Wonderful. I wonder what Anna was thinking back then. Humbert describes himself in his first encounter with Lolita’s original — “a faunlet in my own right” — so you were likely to have been — and she might have had a set of imaginings of her own, unfueled by high literature, or her fourth-period teacher. Lolita is an utter mystery to Humbert, but not to herself.

  2. Echo S | October 1, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Ha! Department of Sex Ed is killing it lately.

  3. Nancy Gill | October 1, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Men always want to believe that part – that “Lolita” wants it as much or more than they. Where is the voice of an actual 12-year old whose step-father also believed that Humbert was the hero and not the predator? That Nabokov’s writing of the story validated it as a true and blameless quest? How many women my age have the same memories? Damn Nabokov for being a good writer – a less literarily adept rendition of the tale would have fallen out of use and favor long ago.

  4. Kati | October 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    I read Wuthering Heights when I was 13, and it just pissed me off. I feel like age and hormones are so critical in how you respond to a book and how you relate to the characters and relationships therein. I do think it’s unusual, however, that you reimagined Lolita and didn’t put yourself in the H.H. role. Not sure I’ve ever had such flights of fancy that didn’t include a role for myself.

  5. BarbaraK | October 4, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    When I was 12 Lolita was still banned in the U.S., but a friend of my parents smuggled it in from Europe. My mother was reading it and told me not to, so as soon as she was asleep I would go in the living room and read a few chapters. Frankly, most of the sex stuff passed over my head. The next year we saw Nights of Cabiria, and I thought all those ladies standing on street corners were going to pajama parties with men who had black bathroom fixtures. Of course, nowadays kids know a lot more about sex, but basically the level of our information informs what we take out of a book or movie.

  6. j | October 4, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    As far as the 1960s film adaptation goes, Lolita is the true predator. Seducing older men multiple times, using one to find a way to escape with the other, toying with his emotions however she pleased.

    And I’m not saying that as a creepy older guy trying to justify doing little girls either. I’m saying that as a teenage girl.

    I haven’t read the book mainly because the movie was just too hilarious to override with the original book, I don’t want to be disappointed if it is not as amusing.

  7. sydferret | October 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    Nabokov is among the best writers of 20th century.

    This is not opinion, it is fact.

    If you disagree, you are a moron.

  8. Frank and Joe Hardy | October 20, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Total turn-on book: “The Bungalow Mystery” (with nymphet detective Nancy Drew). Think of Nancy Drew and Roman Polanski *in* a bungalow. One with a hot tub. In Paris. Pass the butter!

  9. itnilesh | October 20, 2010 at 11:13 am

    @ Nick Antosca
    Novels, fictions are just to read not to put yourself in that role .
    Please don’t read Kakfka . I see that you are acting like a mad in Kafkaesque manner :)

  10. Ramesh Raghuvanshi | October 20, 2010 at 11:28 am

    We must take care not to give this kind of books to youngsters.Children below 12 are immature till their curiosity is tremandious that may turn in abnormality.

  11. Josh Strike | October 20, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Oh bollocks, Ramesh. Any limit on a child’s education or experience only breeds ignorance and serves to further, for one more generation, the existence of people such as yourself who believe that ignorance is a good thing. Perhaps you’re too immature to handle the book; let’s hope your children aren’t.
    On another note; those of us who came of age between ’90 and ’95 were really the last generation not to be exposed to hardcore porn before puberty. There’s definitely a sociology study to be done about whether that actually makes a difference in a person’s sex life ten, twenty years on.

  12. morris | October 20, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Great article. Radical misreading is common in children (well it was for me). Beyond children – radical misreading also occurs cross culturally.

    http://www.vagablogging.net/from-the-october-2006-issue-of-the-believer.html

  13. Jay Vee | October 20, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    Obviously born in’83. wtf is the Paris Review thinking? Try as the PR might they just can’t “push the envelope” any longer.

  14. Mick | October 21, 2010 at 4:30 am

    If you could run a multi-media show with the minds of a class of 12 to 16 year-old boys portayed on a screen, it would be very similar to your essay.

    Only God knows what a similar cohort of girls would display. I would have been interested. Once.

  15. Ryan McGivern | October 22, 2010 at 4:41 am

    In my reading of “Lolita”, I understood that much of Dolores’ and Humbert’s interactions were themselves figments of Humbert’s imaginations. Can we believe that in the narrative rape did occur? Yes I believe so. However we cannot overlook that Humbert himself is most likely often making Lolita is own ‘puppet’ in his mind.
    As far as what a ‘nymphet’ is and what a ‘Lolita’ is…I get upset when I hear people say of a character or person “oh, she’s a Lolita type.” There is no ‘Lolita type’! There is no ‘nymphet’. Humbert states that his work’s intention is to figure nymphets out, but this designation and Lolita are twisted imaginations by his own telling. He had after all, “completely solipsized” her.
    Your experience reading the book as a young and uninitiated reader is a unique and important one–coming back to what I feel Nabokov wanted to impress: the novel occurs in our interiority, the novel ‘reads us’ as we imprint ourselves upon it through our understanding and ‘translation’ of it.
    Ryan

  16. sarah jones | October 26, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Hmm. I am thinking of writing a novel about say a forty year old woman who fantasizes about a twelve year old boy. and proposing it to the publishing houses and say it is just one huge metaphor for global warming and human’s continued contributions to it. Then fools like “sydferret” will call me a great misunderstood writer, the greatest of the post-post modern era… LOL

  17. Michael Bruce | December 30, 2010 at 3:30 am

    How many of those leaving the comments above have actually read the text?

    There is a too-common tendency to concentrate on the first (sexy) half of the novel which centres on Humbert’s deluded fantasies and his equally transparent self-justifications. In the second half – the breakthrough of reality – Lolita has been wrecked by the experience, has escaped to an even more distorting life, while Humbert is left behind struggling (impossibly) to integrate his fantasy-life with the real situation. The outcome of course is murder.

    Before you try to comment, please read and understand the book: the whole book. It is not pornography; it is a merciless dissection of an imaginatively recreated perverted mind-set. In this view, it is in the tradition of the morality plays or, perhaps better, of Greek tragedy: whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

    Unless he stopped half-way through (and I suspect that many do)a paedophile could find no comfort of any sort in ‘Lolita.’

  18. sachi | February 21, 2011 at 4:13 am

    Really a wonderful account of a twelve year old boy and to his imaginations led by curiosity. Anyway but our society should respect sex in novels and in movies and should give a spiritual touch rather erotic.

  19. Masha | September 19, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Read the book as a twelve year old girl, found Lolita empowering and Humbert amusing, and subsequently imitated Lolita’s antics to see if I could produce the same effects. Which of course led to some trouble, but they were learning experiences nonetheless…

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  2. [...] The Paris Review traz um texto de Nick Antosca sobre os efeitos que ler Lolita aos doze anos teve sobre [...]

  3. [...] By Nick Antosca theparisreview.org [...]

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