Lolita's still risky, but a little bit wiser

Love in a Dead Language
May 12, 2000

Ever since The Name of the Rose , many academics must have pondered the potential of literary genre-switching. Practices of irony and intertextuality previously articulated for the benefit of a handful of professional colleagues would, for many Eco-fuelled fantasists, be a starting point for the novel that is struggling to get out of most scholars.

The same fantasists might convincingly argue that royalty cheques would be a subsidiary issue set against the benefits of the freedom of escape from the inescapable linguistic-philosophical closure of most analytical writing. For them, analysis might (as I. A. Richards said) be "like slitting the throat of a nightingale to see what makes it sing"; they might feel increasingly trapped by the professional need to produce forms of scholarly knowledge that (to recall Foucault) insists on an "absolute eye that cadaverises life".

Lee Siegel, perhaps the world's most effervescent Sanskritist, adopts the genre of fiction not as rebellion, but for its unbroken horizons and the possibility of keeping the nightingale alive. The seductive danger that such a strategy involves is evident in this book, which, when the formidable cleverness of the multiple framing of the text has been overcome, captures the reader with its comic brilliance, fusing Sterne and Roth (Philip, not Leopold Roth, Seigel's hero) with Salman Rushdie as he might be paraphrased by Malcolm Bradbury.

Numerous overlapping narratives, including a translation of the Kama Sutra , (Leopold) Roth's memoirs, Roth's literary executor's annotations and an ill-fated Hollywood movie, interlock in an elaborate structure through which the reader is lead by a horrified desire to follow Roth's tragic infatuation with an Indian student - Lalita Gupta.

Lalita ("like Lolita but with an 'a'") becomes the medium through which Roth can achieve potential embodiment, someone on whom he can physically perform his love of India. ("While I have had the oral pleasure of eating Indian food and endured the gastrointestinal torment of Indian dysentery, my psycho-sexo-Indological development has been arrested.") But this desire to fuse knowledge and practice through Lalita ends in Roth's murder - he is struck in the face with a copy of Monier-Williams's weighty Sanskrit-English dictionary. That body of knowledge (without which as Roth had earlier noted "I'd be dead as a scholar") becomes an absolute orientalist knowledge that cadaverises Roth's life. The issue of performance and embodiment - the whole phenomenology of knowledge that can provoke many arid theoretical treatises - is here treated with a dry (and sometimes brutal) wit.

As Jock Newhouse, the second most unlikeable character in the book, suggests in his consideration of a carnal practice whose nearest Sanskrit equivalent would be samprayoga , descriptions of it always "fall flat" and he urges the reader to provide their own corporeal performative accompaniment to heighten the effect.

The most unlikeable character is Francis White of the Bengal Lancers, whose regrettable appearance halfway through the book will doubtless encourage many readers to cease reading.

Readers who persist are treated to a Kama Sutra board game, facsimiles of crucial correspondence, sample pages from a promising-looking CD version of the text (courtesy of Seedy-Rom-Antics) and an all-too-short fragment of an excellent essay by Roth's most promising student.

However, this avalanche of information in such diverse media together with Love in a Dead Language 's encyclopedic listings of engorgings and detumescence conjures up an almost unbearable excess. The difference between scholarship and fiction, one of Siegel's characters notes, is that "scholarly books have foreign words, footnotes, a bibliography and an index". Siegel helpfully provides all of these in his book.

Christopher Pinney is senior lecturer in material culture, University College London.

Love in a Dead Language

Author - Lee Siegel
ISBN - 0 226 75697 1
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 375

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