The Flirtation – A Comparison


Vladimir Nabokov & Pia Pera

Comparing excerpts from the books Lo's Diary by Pia Pera and Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov - this contrast was originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 103 in 1999.

Excerpts from Nobokov's Lolita are followed by excerpts from Pia Pera's Lo's Diary, which appear in bold.

I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how careful, how chaste, the whole wine-sweet event is if viewed with what my lawyer has called, in a private talk we have had, "impartial sympathy." So let us get started. I have a difficult job before me.

Main character: Humbert the Hummer. Time: Sunday morning in June. Place: sunlit living room. Props: old, candy-striped davenport, magazines, phonograph, Mexican knickknacks (the late Mr. Harold E. Haze - God bless the good man - had engendered my darling at the siesta hour in a blue-washed room, on a honeymoon trip to Vera Cruz, and mementoes, among these Dolores, were all over the place).

A small revolution and Mom doesn't even realize it: she decided, obviously her own idea, to put off the picnic, because Mary Jo has a temperature. Seize the opportunity: no picnic, no church. Eye for an eye. I've had enough of being the little orphan who goes to church with her checkered pinafore and white patent leather purse. So Plasticmom goes by herself to pray for divine aid in her dubious undertakings, while I stay at home with Hummie.

There had been another row. Mrs. Hamilton had telephoned that her daughter "was running a temperature." Mrs. Haze informed her daughter that the picnic would have to be postponed. Hot little Haze informed big cold Haze that, if so, she would not go with her to church. Mother said very well and left.

I had come out on the landing straight after shaving, soapy-earlobed, still in my white pajamas with the cornflower blue (not the lilac) design on the back; I now wiped off the soap, perfumed my hair and armpits, slipped on a purple silk dressing gown, and, humming nervously, went down the stairs in quest of Lo.

A good chance to put on lipstick. I choose the color myself - I certainly don't go and ask what his favorite is. Dear Hummie, which color seems most exciting to you? That's what the attentive hen would have said, and he would have responded: Dear Isabel, I am past the age where the color of lipstick can arouse me, I am an old scholar of French literature and what little ardor remains to me is devoted to prewar France - that's more or less his line of defense when he scents danger.

When Mom paints her lips, she draws an outline with a pencil first, very carefully puts on the lipstick, and then starts wandering around the house: her lips look like they were cut out of cardboard, like they're detached from the rest of her body, and it's like what she's doing is impersonating "the lady with painted lips" - which usually goes along with "the lady with painted nails," waving her hands in the air so the polish will dry, and also "the lady with her hair in curlers," who with her freshly polished nails and her painted lips stuck out like a fish goes around the house like a kind of walking prayer: want me, want me, want me.

She wore that day a pretty pink dress that I have seen on her once before, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice, short sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pink, and, to complete the color scheme, she had painted her lips…

I do it all the opposite: I put on the lipstick almost carefully, I say almost, and not completely, on purpose, because the guy's eyes should be hooked by uncertainty: was it put on well or badly? Does it ness touching up or not? So his thoughts go around in circles until he forgets the original reason for his curiosity and is simply lost in contemplation of the mouth, the blinding-white teeth, the pink tongue darting between the teeth, redder than the lipstick, until without meaning to he gets closer and closer, and suddenly he's stunned by the blood-hot breath, and doesn't have the strength to pull back … That's how it's done. What possible interest can Mom's lips, so precisely painted they look like plywood, ever have had?

My lips are almost impeccable painted: they're like a piece stripped off me, a tiny lip muscle bared, red blood just veiled by skin too fine to hide the flesh, so in reality two pairs of lips can be seen, superimposed, almost superimposed … a dizzying out-of-focus effect.

… was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple. She was not shod, however, for church. And her white Sunday purse lay discarded by the phonograph.

But lipstick by itself isn't enough: the attack has to come from several directions, otherwise the defense can concentrate on a single point. So a red apple, red plus red, two red spheres in perpetual motion. The principle of hypnosis. Anyway, the apple is essential. How come these hens don't get it? They go to church year after year, they read the Bible, or at least they keep it on their bedside table, and then they forget how the first seduction of the first man occurred? With an apple, that's how. No man can resist a woman who has an apple in her hand, it's theological. A woman with an apple in her hand is the first woman, the only woman in the world, and he's the first man - he stumbles on love and he can't shake it, never ever ever. This isn't in Nora's book; the truth is, a lot of stuff isn't in it, I'll write a new one someday.

My heart beat like a drum as she sat down, cool skirt ballooning, subsiding, on the sofa next to me, and played with her glossy fruit. She tossed it up into the sun-dusted air, and caught it - it made a cupped polished plop.

Humbert Humbert intercepted the apple.

"Give it back," she pleaded, showing the marbled flush of her palms. I produced Delicious. She grasped it and bit into it, and my heart was like snow under thin crimson skin…

Anyway, armed with my two red patches, lips and apple, and wearing my dress with dark and light pink checks, I go and sit on the sofa next to Hummie, who, poor guy, tries not to notice me for a while. And I seem to be there for reasons of my owm, having nothing to do with him. Then I get tired, and start throwing the apple up in the air and catching it, concentrating so it's like I'm not even aware of Hummie sitting there next to me. The apple flies in the air, and I catch it with a thud, skin against peel. Finally he grabs it out of my hand, and I yell at him to give it back. Give it back right now, I yell, hurling myself at him. The action begins! Battle! I grab the apple, I am more alert than he is, stronger and a hundred times more agile. I bite it, and it's like breaking a jar containing a love potion - the air is pierced with fragrance. Acidic apple and blood-sweet mouth warmth.

…and with the monkeyish nimbleness that was so typical of that American nymphet, she snatched out of my abstract grip the magazine I had opened (pity no film had recorded the curious pattern, the monogrammic linkage of our simultaneous or overlapping moves). Rapidly, hardly hampered by the disfigured apple she held, Lo flipped violently through the pages in search of something she wished Humbert to see. Found it at last. I faked interest by bringing my head so close that her hair touched my temple and her arm brushed my cheek as she wiped her lips with her wrist. Because of the burnished mist through which I peered at the picture, I was slow in reacting to it, and her bare knees rubbed and knocked impatiently against each other. Dimly there came into view: a surrealist painter relaxing, supine, on a beach, and near him, likewise supine, a plaster replica of the Venus di Milo, half buried in sand. Picture of the Week, said the legend. I whisked the whole obscene thing away. Next moment, in a sham effort to retrieve it, she was all over me. Caught her by her thin knobby wrist. The magazine escaped to the floor like a flustered fowl. She twisted herself free, recoiled, and lay back in the right-hand corner of the davenport. Then, with perfect simplicity, the impudent child extended her legs across my lap.

But since I can't give him time to be aware of the main frontal attack I take his hand off the magazine (diversionary tactic), and while I'm looking around for something or other for him to look at - to see better I stretch across him - the smell of me stuns him completely. I find a dumb but funny photograph of a naked lady, in marble, so then Hummie, who seems stupid yet very happy to stay in the game, throws the magazine aside. With new protests, I fling myself away to get it back, but he holds on to me, trying to think up something, anything, just to keep my sunburned legs from escaping. It's obvious with every move of the struggle that he's trying to position them against him, and on his lap, under the silk bathrobe that's as if it weren't there, he's all on edge.

By this time I was in a state of excitement bordering on insanity; but I also had the cunning of the insane. Sitting there, on the sofa, I managed to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her guileless limbs. It was no easy matter to divert the little maiden's attention while I performed the obscure adjustments necessary for the success of the trick. Talking fast, lagging behind my own breath, catching up with it, mimicking a sudden toothache to explain the breaks in my patter - and all the while keeping a maniac's inner eye on my distant golden goal, I cautiously increased the magic friction that was doing away, in an illusional, if not factual, sense, with the physically irremovable, by psychologically very friable texture of the material divide (pajamas and robe) between the weight of two sunburnt legs, resting athwart my lap, and the hidden tumor of an unspeakable passion. Having, in the course of my patter, hit upon something nicely mechanical, I recited, garbling them slightly, the words of a foolish song that was then popular - O my Carmen, my little Carmen, something, something, those something nights, and the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen; I kept repeating this automatic stuff and holding her under its special spell (spell because of the garbling), and all the while I was mortally afraid that some act of God might interrupt me, might remove the golden load in the sensation of which all my being seemed concentrated, and this anxiety forced my work, for the first minute or so, more hastily than was consensual with deliberately modulated enjoyment. The stars that sparkled, and the cars that parked, and the bars, and the barmen, were presently taken over by her; her voice stole and corrected the tune I had been mutilating. She was musical and apple-sweet.

His cheeks are fiery, he mutters a pile of nonsense so that I'll stay, he wants me there, whatever the cost. He'd have a heart attack it I were to give in right now. He even starts humming my favorite song, without ever getting to the end - all this so he can keep rubbing against my legs. I feel it swelling, like a trunk. He goes on singing, endlessly, now slow, now fast, very fast, then he turns red and, fighting for breath, mangles the words. It's a waste of time to try and correct him by singing along - by now he's out of time, in the sense that he's all mine. He looks at me as if he hoped to keep me there forever, comes closer and closer but doesn't dare.

Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa - and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty - between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.

Under my glancing finger tips I felt the minute hairs bristle ever so slightly along her shins. I lost myself in the pungent but healthy heat which like summer haze hung about little Haze. Let her stay, let her stay … As she strained to chuck the core of her abolished apple into the fender, her young weight, her shameless innocent shanks and round bottom, shifted in my tense, tortured, surreptitiously laboring lap; and all of a sudden a mysterious change came over my senses. I entered a plane of being where nothing mattered, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body. What had begun as a delicious distension of my innermost roots became a glowing tingle which now had reached that state of absolute security, confidence and reliance not found elsewhere in conscious life.

Then, so he can touch me right at the edge of my underpants, he remembers the bruise I got when I stumbled against the chest of drawers: another hypocritical trick, like the day he stuck his tongue in my eye. But what can you do except put up with these cowards who want to act refined. I just wish I could get him to be a little less dishonest. So he hunts for the bruise, making tremendous faces so that I won't guess how excited he is, while he goes on rubbing my knees against him.

The day before she had collided with the heavy chest in the hall and - "Look, look!" - I gasped - "look what you've done, what you've done to yourself, ah, look"; for there was, I swear, a yellowish-violet bruise on her lovely nymphet thigh which my huge hairy hand massaged and slowly enveloped - and because of her very perfunctory underthings, there seemed to be nothing to prevent my thumb from reaching the hot hollow of her groin - just as you might tickle and caress a giggling child - just that - and: "Oh it's nothing at all," she cried with a sudden shrill note in her voice, and she wiggled, and squirmed, and threw her head back, and her teeth rested on her glistening underlip as she half-turned away, and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.

I'm all hot inside, I'd like to hug him and kiss him without all these pretenses, but I'm going to put it off; for now I pretend nothing's happening, and go on biting my apple.

Within the deep hot sweetness thus established and well on its way to the ultimate convulsion, I felt I could slow down in order to prolong the glow. Lolita had been safely solipsized. The implied sun pulsated in the supplied poplars; we were fantastically and divinely alone; I watched her, rosy, gold-dusted, beyond the veil of my controlled delight, unaware of it, alien to it, and the sun was on her lips, and her lips were apparently still forming the words of the Carmen-barmen ditty that no longer reached my consciousness. Everything was now ready. The nerves of pleasure had been laid bare. The corpuscles of Krause were entering the phase of frenzy. The least pressure would suffice to set all paradise loose. I had ceased to be Humbert the Hound, the sad-eyed degenerate cur clasping the boot that would presently kick him away. I was above the tribulations of ridicule, beyond the possibilities of retribution. In my self-made seraglio, I was a radiant and robust Turk, deliberately, in the full consciousness of his freedom, postponing the movement of actually enjoying the youngest and frailest of his slaves. Suspended on the brink of that voluptuous abyss (a nicety of physiological equipoise comparable to certain techniques in the arts) I kept repeating chance words after her - barmen, alarmin', my charmin', my carmen, ahmen, ahahamen - as one talking and laughing in his sleep while my happy hand crept up her sunny leg as far as the shadow of decency allowed.

With every bite I get under his nose the smell of acid apple is stronger and stronger, and at every crunch he rocks more quickly, throwing his head back as if he's on a swing, and then tries to act normal so I can't tell how excited he is. Finally only the core is left. I feel sorry for him, for not being able to just take what he so desperately wants - to hold me tight against him, crush me - so I throw the core in the fireplace and end up right on top of him, against that hard little stick, and then I start humming along with him again. We're hand in hand, our arms coming close and then moving apart; I fling my head back, and for a second feel his mouth on my throat. I press against him, until he holds me still, interrupts the nursery rhyme, and, all trembling, forgets to keep pretending. I feel weird, too, I relax, and something goes by without me really seeing it, a whirr of soft wings, it disappears in an instant and we sit there looking at each other, all red, not knowing what to do.

I'd like to curl up and wrap myself in his arms. It would be nice but he's scared; I'll put off the courage lesson till another time - you can't insist on everything right away.

Immediately afterward (as if we had been struggling and now my grip had eased) she rolled off the sofa and jumped to her feet - to her foot, rather - in order to attend to the formidably loud telephone that may have been ringing for ages as far as I was concerned. There she stood and blinked, cheeks aflame, hair awry, her eyes passing over me as lightly as they did over the furniture, and as she listened or spoke (to her mother who was telling her to come to lunch with her at the Chatfields - neither Lo nor Hum knew yet what busybody Haze was plotting), she kept tapping the edge of the table with the slipper she held in her hand. Blessed be the Lord, she had noticed nothing!

Luckily the telephone rings, and I run away to answer it. He takes advantage of this to get up and go to the bathroom and when he finally comes out I'm in the garden. He looks around confused and satisfied, maybe he hasn't yet realized what happened to him: that I seduced him. That now he's mine.

Luckily the telephone rings, and I run away to answer it. He takes advantage of this to get up and go to the bathroom and when he finally comes out I'm in the garden. He looks around confused and satisfied, maybe he hasn't yet realized what happened to him: that I seduced him. That now he's mine.