Friday December 18th, 2009

What Happens When You Say “Lolita”?

OK, this is strange. Bear with me.

Inspired by Natalia Antonova’s recent essay about Lolita, I finally read the novel. (I know.) Its language is stunning, even if its plot is not, and I was surprised, among other things, by how funny it is. It reminded me, in a few ways, of another favorite book of mine, Money by Martin Amis. (I realize that if I had read them in the order I should have, I would say that Money reminded me of Lolita, not the other way around.)

Anyway, to continue this circuitous path to a point (of sorts), Maud Newton recently asked readers what lines might best represent their favorite novels. And the first response from a reader was this line from Lolita:

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.

When I was reading the novel, this line tripped me up. It appears in the very first paragraph. (Not a good time to be tripped up.) Naturally, it spurred me to say “Lolita” to myself and feel this “trip of three steps down.” Problem is, when I say “Lolita,” the first two syllables find the tip of my tongue against my teeth, and on the last syllable it moves back to my palate. The exact opposite of what Nabokov describes. L’s are teeth sounds, T’s are palate sounds. In fact, say the word “palate” itself. See?

Or is this just me? Am I deformed? Do I have an undiagnosed speech impediment? Or for a Russian like Nabokov would the physical process of saying the word be different? I’m genuinely confused. I still love the book, but I don’t like when facts are changed for reasons of style. The sentence reads wonderfully, but is it true?