In celebration of Ed Balls Day, I have altered the first 7000 words of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, replacing Lolita with Ed Balls. I did this last night when I was feeling very sick and sleep-deprived. Yes, I know it is The Silliest Thing.
I hope you enjoy it.
Ed Balls, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Ed-ba-alls: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Ed. Balls.
He was Ed, plain Ed, in the morning, standing five feet eleven in one sock. He was Edward in slacks. He was Mr Balls at parliament. He was E.M. Balls on the dotted line. But in my arms he was always Ed Balls.
Did he have a precursor? He did, indeed he did. In point of fact, there might have been no Ed Balls at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial Labour MP. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Ed Balls was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl, daughter of Jerome Dunn, the alpinist, and granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects–paleopedology and Aeolian harps, respectively. My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.
My mother’s elder sister, Sybil, whom a cousin of my father’s had married and then neglected, served in my immediate family as a kind of unpaid governess and housekeeper. Somebody told me later that she had been in love with my father, and that he had lightheartedly taken advantage of it one rainy day and forgotten it by the time the weather cleared. I was extremely fond of her, despite the rigidity–the fatal rigidity–of some of her rules. Perhaps she wanted to make of me, in the fullness of time, a better widower than my father. Aunt Sybil had pink-rimmed azure eyes and a waxen complexion. She wrote poetry. She was poetically superstitious. She said she knew she would die soon after my sixteenth birthday, and did. Her husband, a great traveler in perfumes, spent most of his time in America, where eventually he founded a firm and acquired a bit of real estate.
I grew, a happy, healthy child in a bright would of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces. Around me the splendid Hotel Mirana revolved as a kind of private universe, a whitewashed cosmos within the blue greater one that blazed outside. From the aproned pot-scrubber to the flanneled potentate, everybody liked me, everybody petted me. Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed towards me like towers of Pisa. Ruined Russian princesses who could not pay my father, bought me expensive bonbons. He, mon cher petit papa, took me out boating and biking, taught me to swim and dive and water-ski, read to me Don Quixote and Les Miserables, and I adored and respected him and felt glad for him whenever I overheard the servants discuss his various lady-friends, beautiful and kind beings who made much of me and cooed and shed precious tears over my cheerful motherlessness.
I attended an English day school a few miles from home, and there I played rackets and fives, and got excellent marks, and was on perfect terms with schoolmates and teachers alike. The only definite sexual events that I can remember as having occurred before my thirteenth birthday (that is, before I first saw my little Alan Johnson) were: a solemn, decorous and purely theoretical talk about pubertal surprises in the rose garden of the school with an American kid, the son of a then celebrated motion-picture actress whom he seldom saw in the three-dimensional world; and some interesting reactions on the part of my organism to certain photographs, pearl and umbra, with infinitely soft partings, in Pichon’s sumptuous La Beautи Humaine that that I had filched from under a mountain of marble-bound Graphics in the hotel library. Later, in his delightful debonair manner, my father gave me all the information he thought I needed about sex; this was just before sending me, in the autumn of 1923, to a lycиe in Lyon (where we were to spend three winters); but alas, in the summer of that year, he was touring Italy with Mme de R. and her daughter, and I had nobody to complain to, nobody to consult.
I remember Alan Johnson’s features far less distinctly today than I did a few years ago, before I knew Ed Balls. There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open (and then I see Alan Johnson in such general terms as: “milk-colored skin,” “strong arms,” “swept grey hair,” “long ears,” “big bright mouth”); and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark inner side of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Ed Balls).
Let me therefore primly limit myself, in describing Alan Johnson, to saying he was a lovely man a few months my junior. At first, Alan Johnson and I talked of peripheral affairs. He kept lifting handfuls of fine sand and letting it pour through his fingers. Our brains were turned the way those of intelligent European preadolescents were in our day and set, and I doubt if much individual genius should be assigned to our interest in the plurality of inhabited worlds, the intricacies of New Labour power politics, infinity, solipsism and so on. The softness and fragility of baby animals caused us the same intense pain. He wanted to be the leader of the Labour Party; I wanted to be a famous spy.
All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do. After one wild attempt we made to meet at night in his garden (of which more later), the only privacy we were allowed was to be out of earshot but not out of sight on the populous part of the plage.
There, on the soft sand, a few feet away from our elders, we would sprawl all morning, in a petrified paroxysm of desire, and take advantage of every blessed quirk in space and time to touch each other: his hand, half-hidden in the sand, would creep toward me, his slender pale fingers sleepwalking nearer and nearer; then, his opalescent knee would start on a long cautious journey; sometimes a chance rampart built by younger children granted us sufficient concealment to graze each other’s salty lips; these incomplete contacts drove our healthy and inexperienced young bodies to such a state of exasperation that not even the cold blue water, under which we still clawed at each other, could bring relief.
Among some treasures I lost during the wanderings of my adult years, there was a snapshot taken by my aunt which showed Alan Johnson and the staid, elderly, lame gentleman, a Dr. Cooper, who that same summer courted my aunt, grouped around a table in a sidewalk cafe. Alan Johnson did not come out well, caught as he was in the act of bending over his chocolat glacи, and his broad shoulders and the parting in his hair were about all that could be identified (as I remember that picture) amid the sunny blur into which his lost loveliness graded; but I, sitting somewhat apart from the rest, came out with a kind of dramatic conspicuousness: a moody, beetle-browed boy in a dark sport shirt and well-tailored white shorts, his legs crossed, sitting in profile, looking away. That photograph was taken on the last day of our fatal summer and just a few minutes before we made our second and final attempt to thwart fate. Under the flimsiest of pretexts (this was our very last chance, and nothing really mattered) we escaped from the cafe to the beach, and found a desolate stretch of sand, and there, in the violet shadow of some red rocks forming a kind of cave, had a brief session of avid caresses, with somebody’s lost pair of sunglasses for only witness. I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later Alan Johnson resigned as Shadow Chancellor, citing personal reasons.
I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that Labour Shadow Chancellor only the first evidence of an inherent singularity? When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past. I am convinced, however, that in a certain magic and fateful way Ed Balls began with Alan Johnson.
I also know that the shock of Alan Johnson’s resignation consolidated the frustration of that nightmare summer, made of it a permanent obstacle to any further romance throughout the cold years of my youth. The spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today. Long after his resignation I felt his thoughts floating through mine. Long before we met we had had the same dreams. We compared notes. We found strange affinities. The same June of the same year (1919) a stray canary had fluttered into her house and mine, in two widely separated countries. Oh, Ed Balls, had you loved me thus!
I have reserved for the conclusion of my “Alan Johnson” phase the account of our unsuccessful first tryst. In a nervous and slender-leaved mimosa grove at the back of his villa we found a perch on the ruins of a low stone wall. Through the darkness and the tender trees we could see the arabesques of lighted windows which, touched up by the colored inks of sensitive memory, appear to me now like playing cards. He trembled and twitched as I kissed the corner of his parted lips and the hot lobe of his ear. A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves; that vibrant sky seemed as naked as he was under his business suit. I saw his face in the sky, strangely distinct, as if it emitted a faint radiance of its own. His legs, his lovely live legs, were not too close together, and when my hand located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure, half-pain, came over his politician’s features. He sat a little higher than I, and whenever in his solitary ecstasy he was led to kiss me, his head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and his bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and his quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face. He would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing his dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of his hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on his open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer his everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I have him to hold in his awkward fist the scepter of my passion.
I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder – a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingled with his own biscuity odor, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing–and as we drew away from each other. But that mimosa grove–the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that Labour Shadow Chancellor with his seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since – until at last I broke his spell by incarnating him in another. His successor.
The days of my youth, as I look back on them, seem to fly away from me in a flurry of pale repetitive scraps like those morning snow storms of used tissue paper that a train passenger sees whirling in the wake of the observation car. In my sanitary relations with women I was practical, ironical and brisk. While a college student, in London and Paris, paid ladies sufficed me. My studies were meticulous and intense, although not particularly fruitful. At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry and many manquи talents do; but I was even more manquи than that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds. Paris suited me. I discussed Soviet movies with expatriates. I sat with uranists in the Deux Magots. I published tortuous essays in obscure journals. I composed pastiches:
...Frдulen von Kulp may turn,
her hand upon the door;
I will not follow her.
Nor Fresca. Northat Gull.
A paper of mine entitled “The Proustian theme in a letter from Keats to Benjamin Bailey” was chuckled over by the six or seven scholars who read it. I launched upon an “Histoire abregиe de la poиsie anglaise” for a prominent publishing firm, and then started to compile that manual of French literature for English-speaking students (with comparisons drawn from English writers) which was to occupy me throughout the forties–and the last volume of which was almost ready for press by the time of my arrest.
I found a job–teaching English to a group of adults in Auteuil. Then a school for boys employed me for a couple of winters. Now and then I took advantage of the acquaintances I had formed among social workers and psychotherapists to visit in their company various institutions, such as orphanages and reform schools, where pale pubescent girls with matted eyelashes could be stared at in perfect impunity remindful of that granted one in dreams.
Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of forty and sixty there occur men who, to certain bewitched travelers, the same age as they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but incubic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “numpties.”
It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see “forty” and “sixty” as the boundaries – the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks – of an enchanted island haunted by those numpties of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea. Between those age limits, are all men numpties? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we numptolepts, would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the numptie from such coevals of his as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Ed Balls plays with his likes. Within the same age limits the number of true numpties is trickingly inferior to that of provisionally fat and bald, or just nice, or “handsome,” or even “sweet” and “attractive,” ordinary, greying, formless, clammy-skinned, essentially human middle-aged men, with beer bellies and bald spots. A normal man given a group photograph of Labour MPs or Lib Dems and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the numptie among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs–the slightly feline outline of a side-parting, the smirk of a man who learned his trade under Blair, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate – the little deadly demon among the wholesome MPs; he stands unrecognized by them and unconscious himself of his fantastic power.
No wonder, then, that my adult life during the European period of my existence proved monstrously twofold. Overtly, I had so-called normal relationships with a number of terrestrial women having pumpkins or pears for breasts; inly, I was consumed by a hell furnace of localized lust for every passing numptie whom as a law-abiding poltroon I never dared approach. The human females I was allowed to wield were but palliative agents. I am ready to believe that the sensations I derived from natural fornication were much the same as those known to normal big males consorting with their normal big mates in that routine rhythm which shakes the world. The trouble was that those gentlemen had not, and I had, caught glimpses of an incomparably more poignant bliss. The dimmest of my pollutive dreams was a thousand times more dazzling than all the adultery the most virile writer of genius or the most talented impotent might imagine. My world was split. I was aware of not one but two sexes, neither of which was mine; only one would be termed female by the anatomist. But to me, through the prism of my senses, “they were as different as mist and mast.” All this I rationalize now. In my twenties and early thirties, I did not understand my throes quite so clearly. While my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body’s every plea. One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimistic. Taboos strangulated me. Psychoanalysts wooed me with pseudoliberations of pseudolibidoes. The fact that to me the only object of amorous tremor were colleagues of Alan Johnson’s, his backbenchers and lickspittles, appeared to me at times as a forerunner of insanity. At other times I would tell myself that it was all a question of attitude, that there was really nothing wrong in being moved to distraction by centre-left politicians. Let me remind my reader that in England, according to a quick search on Wikipedia, the term “Member of Parliament” is defined as “the representative of the voters to a parliament.“
This is all very interesting, and I daresay you see me already frothing at the mouth in a fit; but no, I am not; I am just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup. Here are some more pictures. Here is Virgil who could the numptie sing in a single tone, but probably preferred a lad’s perineum. Here are two of King Akhnaten’s and Queen Nefertiti’s elderly advisors (that royal couple had a whole cohort of greybeards), wearing nothing but many necklaces of bright beads, relaxed on cushions, intact after three thousand years, with their hairy grey rhinoceros bodies, wild hair and long ebony eyes.
But let us be prim and civilized. Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did. He had the utmost respect for ordinary politicians, with their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances would he have interfered with the innocence of a politician, if there was the least risk of a row. But how his heart beat when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon MP, “politico charmante et fourbe,” dim eyes, bright lips, ten years in the tabloids if you only show him you are looking at him. So life went. Humbert was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Solomon he longed for. My little cup brims with tiddles.
A shipwreck. An atoll. Alone with a shivering politician. Darling, this is only a game! How marvelous were my fancied adventures as I sat on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book. Around the quiet scholar, numpties commuted freely, as if he were a familiar statue or part of an old tree’s shadow and sheen. Once a perfect old boy in a tartan coat, with a clatter put his heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip his slim hairy arms into me and righten the laces of his shiny black shoe, and I dissolved in the sun, with my book for fig leaf, as he brushed back his hair, greying at the temples, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on his radiant limb next to my chameleonic cheek. Another time a red-haired MP hung over me in the metro, and a revelation of axillary russet I obtained remained in my blood for weeks. I could list a great number of these one-sided diminutive romances. Some of them ended in a rich flavor of hell.
It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what looked like a numptie in the act of undressing before a co-operative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed toward my lone gratification. But abruptly, fiendishly, the tender pattern of overweight middle-aged nudity I had adored would be transformed into the disgusting lamp-lit breasts of a slim young lady in her underclothes reading her paper by the open window in the hot, damp, hopeless summer night.
Debating, booing each other wantonly. That old woman in black who sat down next to me on my bench, on my rack of joy (a numptie was groping under me for a lost briefcase), and asked if I had stomachache, the insolent hag. Ah, leave me alone in my middle-aged park, in my mossy garden. Let them walk briskly around me forever.
A propos: I have often wondered what became of those numpties later? In this wrought-iron would of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future? I had possessed him – and he never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not somehow tampered with his fate by involving his image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.
For my own safety, I decided to marry. It occurred to me that regular hours, home-cooked meals, all the conventions of marriage, the prophylactic routine of its bedroom activities and, who knows, the eventual flowering of certain moral values, of certain spiritual substitutes, might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and dangerous desires, at least to keep them under pacific control. A little money that had come my way after my father’s death (nothing very grand—the Mirana had been sold long before), in addition to my striking if somewhat brutal good looks, allowed me to enter upon my quest with equanimity. After considerable deliberation, my choice fell on the daughter of a Polish doctor: the good man happened to be treating me for spells of dizziness and tachycardia. We played chess; his daughter watched me from behind her easel, and inserted eyes or knuckles borrowed from me into the cubistic trash that accomplished misses then painted instead of lilacs and lambs. Let me repeat with quiet force: I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal. And this was my case. Well did I know, alas, that I could obtain at the snap of my fingers any adult female I chose; in fact, it had become quite a habit with me of not being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap. Had I been a franгais moyen with a taste for flashy ladies, I might have easily found, among the many crazed beauties that lashed my grim rock, creatures far more fascinating than Valeria. My choice, however, was prompted by considerations whose essence was, as I realized too late, a piteous compromise. All of which goes to show how dreadfully stupid poor Humbert always was in matters of sex.
Although I told myself I was looking merely for a soothing presence, a glorified pot-au-feu, an animated merkin, what really attracted me to Valeria was the imitation she gave of a stodgy middle-aged male politician. She gave it not because she had divined something about me; it was just her style – and I fell for it. Actually, she was only in her late twenties (I never established her exact age for even her passport lied) and had mislaid her virginity under circumstances that changed with her reminiscent moods. I, on my part, was as naive as only a pervert can be. She looked fluffy and frolicsome, dressed a la gamine, showed a generous amount of smooth leg, knew how to stress the white of a bare instep by the black of a velvet slipper, and pouted, and dimpled, and romped, and dirndled, and shook her short curly blond hair in the cutest and tritest fashion imaginable.
After a brief ceremony at the mairie, I took her to the new apartment I had rented and, somewhat to her surprise, had her wear, before I touched her, a full business suit complete with loud tie that I had managed to filch from a local laundromat. I derived some fun from that nuptial night and had the idiot in hysterics by sunrise. But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the stubble turned to smooth skin; the mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love, disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding part in a treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama; and presently, instead of a prestigious Member of Parliament, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.
Her only asset was a muted nature which did help to produce an odd sense of comfort in our small squalid flat: two rooms, a hazy view in one window, a brick wall in the other, a tiny kitchen, a shoe-shaped bath tub, within which I felt like Marat but with no white-necked maiden to stab me. We had quite a few cozy evenings together, she deep in her Paris-Soir, I working at a rickety table. We went to movies, bicycle races and boxing matches. I appealed to her stale flesh very seldom, only in cases of great urgency and despair. The grocer opposite had a ex-MP father whose shadow drove me mad; but with Valeria’s help I did find after all some legal outlets to my fantastic predicament. As to cooking, we tacitly dismissed the pot-au-feu and had most of our meals at a crowded place in rue Bonaparte where there were wine stains on the table cloth and a good deal of foreign babble. And next door, an art dealer displayed in his cluttered window a splendid, flamboyant, green, red, golden and inky blue, ancient American estampe—a locomotive with a gigantic smokestack, great baroque lamps and a tremendous cowcatcher, hauling its mauve coaches through the stormy prairie night and mixing a lot of spark-studded black smoke with the furry thunder clouds.
These burst. In the summer mon oncle d’Amиrique died bequeathing me an annual income of a few thousand dollars on condition I came to live in London and show some interest in his business. This prospect was most welcome to me. I felt my life needed a shake-up. There was another thing, too: moth holes had appeared in the plush of matrimonial comfort. During the last weeks I had kept noticing that my fat Valeria was not her usual self; had acquired a queer restlessness; even showed something like irritation at times, which was quite out of keeping with the stock character she was supposed to impersonate. When I informed her we were shortly to hop on the train to London, she looked distressed and bewildered. There were some tedious difficulties with her papers. She had a Nansen, or better say Nonsense, ticket which for some reason a share in her husband’s solid Swiss citizenship could not easily transcend; and I decided it was the necessity of queuing in the prиfecture, and other formalities, that had made her so listless, despite my patiently describing to her London, the city of the grand House of Commons and great red buses, where life would be such an improvement on dull dingy Scunthorpe.
We were coming out of some office building one morning, with her papers almost in order, when Valeria, as she waddled by my side, began to shake her poodle head vigorously without saying a word. I let her go on for a while and then asked if she thought she had something inside. She answered (I translate from her French which was, I imagine, a translation in its turn of some Slavic platitude): “There is another man in my life.” Now, these are ugly words for a husband to hear. They dazed me, I confess. To beat her up in the street, there and then, as an honest vulgarian might have done, was not feasible. Years of secret sufferings had taught me superhuman self-control. So I ushered her into a taxi which had been invitingly creeping along the curb for some time, and in this comparative privacy I quietly suggested she comment her wild talk. A mounting fury was suffocating me–not because I had any particular fondness for that figure of fun, Mme Humbert, but because matters of legal and illegal conjunction were for me alone to decide, and here she was, Valeria, the comedy wife, brazenly preparing to dispose in her own way of my comfort and fate. I demanded her lover’s name. I repeated my question; but she kept up a burlesque babble, discoursing on her unhappiness with me and announcing plans for an immediate divorce. “Mais qui est-ce?” I shouted at last, striking her on the knee with my fist; and she, without even wincing, stared at me as if the answer were too simple for words, then gave a quick shrug and pointed at the thick neck of the taxi driver. He pulled up at a small cafи and introduced himself. I do not remember his ridiculous name but after all those years I still see him quite clearly–a stocky White Russian ex-colonel with a bushy mustache and a crew cut; there were thousands of them plying that fool’s trade in Paris. We sat down at a table; the Tsarist ordered wine, and Valeria, after applying a wet napkin to her knee, went on talking–into me rather than to me; she poured words into this dignified receptacle with a volubility I had never suspected she had in her.
And every now and then she would volley a burst of Slavic at her stolid lover. The situation was preposterous and became even more so when the taxi-colonel, stopping Valeria with a possessive smile, began to unfold his views and plans. With an atrocious accent to his careful French, he delineated the world of love and work into which he proposed to enter hand in hand with his child-wife Valeria. She by now was preening herself, between him and me, rouging her pursed lips, tripling her chin to pick at her blouse-bosom and so forth, and he spoke of her as if she were absent, and also as if she were a kind of little ward that was in the act of being transferred, for her own good, from one wise guardian to another even wiser one; and although my helpless wrath may have exaggerated and disfigured certain impressions, I can swear that he actually consulted me on such things as her diet, her periods, her wardrobe and the books she had read or should read. “I think,” – he said, “She will like Jean Christophe?” Oh, he was quite a scholar, Mr. Taxovich.
I put an end to this gibberish by suggesting Valeria pack up her few belongings immediately, upon which the platitudinous colonel gallantly offered to carry them into the car. Reverting to his professional state, he drove the Humberts to their residence and all the way Valeria talked, and Humbert the Terrible deliberated with Humbert the Small whether Humbert Humbert should kill her or her lover, or both, or neither. I remember once handling an automatic belonging to a fellow student, in the days (I have not spoken of them, I think, but never mind) when I toyed with the idea of enjoying his father, a most duplicitous numptie with a black monobrow, and then shooting myself. I now wondered if Valechka (as the colonel called her) was really worth shooting, or strangling, or drowning. She had very vulnerable legs, and I decided I would limit myself to hurting her very horribly as soon as we were alone.
But we never were. Valechka–by now shedding torrents of tears tinged with the mess of her rainbow make-up,–started to fill anyhow a trunk, and two suitcases, and a bursting carton, and visions of putting on my mountain boots and taking a running kick at her rump were of course impossible to put into execution with the cursed colonel hovering around all the time. I cannot say he behaved insolently or anything like that; on the contrary, he displayed, as a small sideshow in the theatricals I had been inveigled in, a discreet old-world civility, punctuating his movements with all sorts of mispronounced apologies (j’ai demande pardonne–excuse me—est-ce que j’ai puis–may I–and so forth), and turning away tactfully when Valechka took down with a flourish her pink panties from the clothesline above the tub; but he seemed to be all over the place at once, le gredin, agreeing his frame with the anatomy of the flat, reading in my chair my newspaper, untying a knotted string, rolling a cigarette, counting the teaspoons, visiting the bathroom, helping his moll to wrap up the electric fan her father had given her, and carrying streetward her luggage.
I sat with arms folded, one hip on the window sill, dying of hate and boredom. At last both were out of the quivering apartment–the vibration of the door I had slammed after them still rang in my every nerve, a poor substitute for the backhand slap with which I ought to have hit her across the cheekbone according to the rules of the movies. Clumsily playing my part, I stomped to the bathroom to check if they had taken my English toilet water; they had not; but I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the former Counselor of the Tsar, after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I wildly looked around for a weapon. Actually I daresay it was nothing but middle-class Russian courtesy (with an oriental tang, perhaps) that had prompted the good colonel (Maximovich! his name suddenly taxies back to me), a very formal person as they all are, to muffle his private need in decorous silence so as not to underscore the small size of his host’s domicile with the rush of a gross cascade on top of his own hushed trickle. But this did not enter my mind at the moment, as groaning with rage I ransacked the kitchen for something better than a broom. Then, canceling my search, I dashed out of the house with the heroic decision of attacking him barefisted; despite my natural vigor, I am no pugilist, while the short but broad-shouldered Maximovich seemed made of pig iron. The void of the street, revealing nothing of my wife’s departure except a rhinestone button that she had dropped in the mud after preserving it for three unnecessary years in a broken box, may have spared me a bloody nose. But no matter. I had my little revenge in due time. A man from Pasadena told me one day that Mrs. Maximovich ne Zborovski had died in childbirth around 1945; the couple had somehow got over to California and had been used there, for an excellent salary, in a year-long experiment conducted by a distinguished American ethnologist. The experiment dealt with human and racial reactions to a diet of bananas and dates in a constant position on all fours. My informant, a doctor, swore he had seen with his own eyes obese Valechka and her colonel, by then gray-haired and also quite corpulent, diligently crawling about the well-swept floors of a brightly lit set of rooms (fruit in one, water in another, mats in a third and so on) in the company of several other hired quadrupeds, selected from indigent and helpless groups. I tried to find the results of these tests in the Review of Anthropology; but they appear not to have been published yet. These scientific products take of course some time to fructuate. I hope they will be illustrated with photographs when they do get printed, although it is not very likely that a prison library will harbor such erudite works. The one to which I am restricted these days, despite my lawyer’s favors, is a good example of the inane eclecticism governing the selection of books in prison libraries. They have the Bible, of course, and Dickens (an ancient set, N.Y., G.W. Dillingham, Publisher, MDCCCLXXXVII); and the Encyclopedia Britannica (with some nice photographs of Victorian Whigs), and A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie; but they also have such coruscating trifles as A vagabond in Italy by Percy Elphinstone, author of Venice Revisited, Boston, 1868, and a comparatively recent (1946) Who’s Who in the Limelight–actors, producers, playwrights, and shots of static scenes. In looking through the latter volume, I was treated last night to one of those dazzling coincidences that logicians loathe and poets love. I transcribe most of the page:
Pym, Roland. Born in Lundy, Mass., 1982. Received stage training at Elsinore Playhouse, Derby, N.Y. Made debut in Sunburst. Among his many appearances are Two Blocks from Here, The Girl in Green, Scrambled Husbands, The Strange Mushroom, Touch and Go, John Lovely, I Was Dreaming of You.
Quilty, Clare, American dramatist. Born in Ocean City, N.J., 1991. Educated at Columbia University. Started on a commercial career but turned to playwriting. Author of The Little Nymph, The Lady Who Loved Lightning (in collaboration with Vivian Darkbloom), Dark Age, The strange Mushroom, Fatherly Love, and others. His many plays for children are notable. Little Nymph (1940) traveled 14,000 miles and played 280 performances on the road during the winter before ending in New York. Hobbies: fast cars, photography, pets.
Burns, Ed. Born in 1972, in Dayton, Ohio. Studied for stage at American Academy. First played in Ottawa in 1900. Made New York debut in 1904 in Never Talk to Strangers. Has disappeared since in [a list of some thirty plays follows].
How the look of my dear love’s name even affixed to some old lump of an actor, still makes me rock with helpless pain! Perhaps, he might have been an actor too. Oh, my Ed Balls, I have only words to play with!—
There you go. The first 7000 words of Lolita by way of Ed Balls. If Lolita was out of copyright, I’d do the whole thing, and sell it in Waterstone’s in the “weird literary humour” section next to Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Alas, this is not the case. If you think Ed Balls, Light of my Life, Fire of my Loins, is a project worth continuing, do let me know, as I can probably keep doing this for free on my blog without getting into trouble (?).
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed me destroying this beautiful literary classic with a Twitter meme!