Sunday, 5 August 2012

A small addendum for the los angeles review of books

Sunday 5 August 2012

This morning in the course of my internet rounds I came across a fascinating LA Review of Books article by Matthea Harvey investigating the relationship between tennis and poetry. I was disappointed, however, at the omission of my favourite tennis-related passage in literature, and what I think is one of the most beautiful tracts of prose in all Western literary canon. Continuing in the lazy (busy) man's blogging tradition I started with 'Cloud atlas and the left', I've decided to post this passage as a small redress for the overlooked literary tennisphile, Vladimir Nabokov.

The passage comes from Lolita, when a tennis game as decidedly mundane as the titular character's is transmuted in the eyes of the narrator Humbert Humbert into 'the highest point to which [he] can imagine a young creature bringing the art of make believe':

She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounced the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at home. Her tennis was the highest point to which I can imagine a young creature bringing the art of make believe, although I daresay, for her it was the very geometry of basic reality.

The exquisite clarity of all her movements had its auditory counterpart in the pure ringing sound of her every stroke. The ball when it entered her aura of control became somehow whiter, its resilience somehow richer, and the instrument of precision she used upon it seemed inordinately prehensile and deliberate at the moment of clinging contact. Her form was, indeed, an absolutely perfect imitation of absolutely top-notch tennis -- without any utilitarian results [...] My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip. 

It had, that serve of hers, beauty, directness, youth, a classical purity of trajectory, and was, despite its spanking pace, fairly easy to return, having as it did no twist or stung to its long elegant hop. (262263)

Here we witness Lolita's deification, her ascension up the ranks of ancient mythology from nymphet to deity – the nymphs were, afterall, spawned of the gods  celestial and potent, beautiful and terrible, creator and destroyer of worlds, endowed with, instead of an ordinary tennis racquet, something altogether more divine, like Artemis' silver bow, a golden whip. 

I must say, though, I prefer to imagine Humbert talking about Ana Ivanovic here than little Dolores Haze.

This is, of course, Nabokov, so there's more going on here than just a celebration of tennis, or even the surface-level attraction of the narrator to 'his' Lolita. This ode to the game is wrapped up into the novel and imbued with meaning, like everything else. I think there's something in the way Humbert apotheosises Lolita, the way he immerses her in abstract systems which she manipulates and controls ('white-lined time', 'the very geometry of basic reality', 'her aura of control', 'a vital web of balance', 'the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created', even 'the service cycle' and the almost illicit 'act of serving') that speaks of agency. It's as though by empowering his victim, significantly just before Humbert is called away from the court by a fake phone call, a scheme of Lolita's to aid in effecting her escape, he makes it appear she is more in control of her situation than the we otherwise might think and, therefore, by extension, Humbert becomes less a villain.


Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel Lolita, published by Penguin.

Lucas Dawson's 2009 photograph of Ana Ivanovic.