We limped to Boston and back recently in a dying car. For company we had Jeremy Irons reading Lolita. In other words, we were in two grips – the car’s torment and Humbert Humbert’s.
In my twenties Lolita met me in a stubborn mood. I’m often this way, given to impatience and quick to judge. The opening pages were so overwritten, Humbert Humbert so creepy.
Ah, but this time I was captive in a barely functioning car as an unraveling Humbert Humbert covered some of the same ground. At a certain point he was driving through New Hampshire and so were we. Jeremy Irons, let it be said, has the best voice on the face of the earth. No matter what his pace, and sometimes he read very quickly, not a single word was lost. The writing astonished and thrilled me.
There were certain lines about Lolita – insights or summations of her situation delivered by Humbert Humbert – that were so dazzling in their heart-piercing clarity that it stopped my breath. He was certainly a bastard bastard, this Humbert Humbert, but never, not for a moment, uninteresting. What a luminous, hilarious, heartsick book, to steal a phrase from my son.
Our afflicted car shuddered up hills and wobbled a little on its way down – there is nothing but hills between Boston and here – and when we finally pulled into our driveway after midnight it was with a sense of exquisite relief. The next morning I went online and was startled to learn that Nabokov didn’t know how to drive. Yes, he traveled from state to state in search of butterflies, but his wife drove him. Even more remarkable is the weirdly disarming fact that he ruined his eyes studying the genitalia of male butterflies.
Our car is still in the garage, awaiting a new catalytic converter. And I am impatiently waiting for Lolita from the library.