Loving All These Thieves

Posted by @ 4:43 am on April 27th, 2011

This week I noticed a correspondence between the opening sentence to¬†Great Expectations and the opening of Lolita. I’m interested in the idea of Nabokov stealing from Dickens, a writer he admired and about whom he lectured at Cornell.

Here is the opening of Great Expectations:

“My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

Here is the opening to Lolita:

“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.

“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

Note the correspondence between the two openings in terms of wordplay, the repetition of the consonant sound (p- and l-), and the use of the name to show the personas the character inhabits in different places and times and in different relationships. I prefer Nabokov’s opening on grounds of language, but wonder if it would have been possible without its mining of the riches of Dickens.

I also noticed that Philip Roth, in American Pastoral, uses a trick equivalent to Nabokov’s to show how the protagonist’s name is pronounced. Nabokov gives the actual position of the tongue (I didn’t notice this — I read about it in a Brian Boyd biography), which shows that the “t” in Lolita is pronounced with the tongue on the teeth rather than on the roof of the mouth. Roth’s solution to the problem of his protagonist’s name — Swede Levov rhymes with Swede the Love. There is no reason to think that Roth was thinking of Lolita, but it’s interesting to watch two writers find a not-clunky solution to the same clunky problem.

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