The Defense

"In 1594, being then seventeen years of age, I finished my courses of philosophy and was struck with the mockery of taking a degree in arts. I therefore thought it more profitable to examine myself and I perceived that I really knew nothing worth knowing. I had only to talk and wrangle and therefore refused the title of master of arts, there being nothing sound or true that I was a master of. I turned my thoughts to medicine and learned the emptiness of books. I went abroad and found everywhere the same deep-rooted ignorance."

-Van Helmont (1648)

"The new degree of Bachelor of Science does not guarantee that the holder knows any science. It does guarantee that he does not know any Latin."

-Dean Briggs of Harvard College (c. 1900) 

When I was a young man I read Nabokov's The Defense, which, I think, was about a dissertation defense and the protagonist Luzhin's (rhymes with illusions) ensuing mental breakdown. I can't remember that much about it; but the point is that a dissertation defense - to judge from the blogs and article posts written by calm, rational, well-balanced academics without an axe to grind, and who would never, ever exaggerate their experience just for the sake of looking as though they struggle and suffer far more than everybody else - is one of the most arduous, intense, soulcrushing, backbreaking, ballbusting, brutal experiences imaginable, possibly only equaled by 9/11, the entire history of slavery, and the siege of Stalingrad combined. Those who survive it are, somehow, of a different order.

The date has been set; and just like a real date, it will involve awkward stares, nervous laughter, and the sense that you're not quite being listened to - but without the hanky-panky at the end. The defense is in three days, and part of me knows that most of it is done already; having prepared myself well, and having selected a panel of four arbiters who, to the best of my knowledge, when placed in the same room will not attempt to eat each other. ("Oh come on, just a nibble?" "NEIN!")

Wish me luck, comrades. During the defense, the following will be playing in my head:

Andy's Brain Blog Book Club: Lolita

The one non-scandalous image of Lolita I could find

Since its publication over five decades ago, Lolita - one of Nabokov's several masterpieces, and arguably his best - has continued to provoke emotions ranging from awe and admiration to shock and outrage. Indeed, it is difficult to come to grips with the fact that one of the most brilliant examples of English prose should center upon such a sordid subject; to paraphrase a line from the book itself, even the most jaded voyeur would pay a small fortune to see the acts described within those intolerably vivid pages.

You will not be able to tolerate Nabokov at all unless you realize that he is not putting forth a message, or a moral, or using symbolism at any point to convey some deeper meaning. As he writes in his afterword - and we have no reason to doubt his sincerity - the entire point is aesthetic pleasure; to experiment with the rhythm and sonorities and cadence of the language and make it as pleasing as possible to the inner ear. This last point may strike some as odd, as Nabokov deliberately employs a rarefied, sophisticated style involving recondite vocabulary (see, now there I go) copiously interlarded with French turns of phrase (your humble blogger admits to not knowing a lick of French, once responding Trois bien to a French cellist's Ça va). Aside from the conflicting feelings aroused by Humbert's mind (at times achingly beautiful; at others, horribly squalid), many readers find the language itself to be an obstacle; two or three trips to the dictionary per page is not uncommon.

However, this need not deter you; for the first reading, I recommend paying little attention to the words and French you do not understand, and simply immerse yourself in the lyrical, shocking, roller-coaster prose. As you will soon realize (to your delight, I hope), Nabokov has an uncanny gift for constructing sentences and coining words that stick with you long after you have put the book down. After the first reading I could still see inly, projecting onto the silky screen of my retina and vibrating along my optic nerve, some of those odd, charming, gorgeous phrases: Lo-lee-ta; the biscuity odor of his Annabel Lee; nightmarish curlicues; winged gentlemen of the jury; limbless monsters of pain; the bubble of hot poison in one's loins; dim rays of hope before the ultimate sunburst; clawing at each other under the water; a list of names of children enrolled in Lolita's school (Irving Flashman, Viola Miranda, Agnes Sheridan, et alia); purple pills made of summer skies and plums and figs and the grapeblood of emperors; aurochs and angels; Lolita playing tennis; truck taillights gleaming like carbuncles; coffins of coarse female flesh within which nymphets are buried alive; the exquisite caloricity of Lolita's fevered body; the soft crepitation of  flowers; Humbert dehiscing one of Lolita's infected bugbites and gorging himself on her spicy blood; Will Brown, Dolores, Co.; icebergs in paradise; guilty of killing Quilty; drunk on the impossible past; Humbert looking and looking at Lolita - older, married, pregnant, eyes faded to myopic fish, nipples swollen and cracked, her young velvety delicate delta tainted and torn - and knowing that he loves her more than anything he had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.

Most of these I can still recall perfectly from memory; only a few of them did I go back to doublecheck, if not to verify the accuracy of my recollection, then to savor their rereading. (Only someone like Nabokov could have dreamed up something as twisted as Humbert attempting to get parenting advice from a book called Know Your Own Daughter.) These sentences and scenes serve as the nodes and nerves of the novel, checkpoints and touchstones scattered amongst interstitial words and prose for any reader curious or sensitive enough to detect them; and each reader will discover his own words and gems that resonate.

A final note: If you have already read Lolita, reread it. The Foreword, the novel itself, and the Afterword (included, I believe, in all editions after 1955) are rich in literary jokes and self-referential allusions that reward careful rereading, and contain details that, while nearly impossible to detect upon a first reading, enhance the experience after you already know the denouement.