Reading Lolita at Twelve
October 1, 2010 | by Nick Antosca
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.