About Lee Siegel: Born in Los Angeles California in 1945, Siegel is an Emeritus Professor of Religion at the University of Hawaii and has published eight novels, four nonfiction books, and a translation of Sanskrit love poetry (Deuxmers). Siegel’s writing has earned him a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, two Residency awards at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, a Visiting Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, and the Elliot Cades Award for Literature.
I wonder, wonder who, mmbadoo-ooh, who, who wrote the Book Of Love? Wonder no more, for the answer is Lee Siegel, that’s who, the seagull whose wing is a lee for love!
Love in a Dead Language belongs to what I’m calling a perversity trinity of age-gapped intellectual horndog novels in love with both language and illegal labium, the other two being the popular Lolita and the invisible Darconville’s Cat (in an email, Alexander Theroux told me, “I bought and read Love in a Dead Language the day it was published and rate it as one of my favorite books!”). Even more, this book is a lovechild of Lolita and Pale Fire, about the coitus that produced itself no less, “an anatomy of passion” of the worst and lowest type of love: “Rakshasa: A deviant (hyperpredacitic) form of rape, as practiced by demons, in derision of the Veda, in which a man kidnaps a girl.”
The anti-hero is Leopold Roth, a name that echoes the hero of Ulysses and the author of Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth is a Sanskrit scholar who has steeped himself in everything India, but for as deep as he’s gone, he’s never gone balls-deep. That is, he’s never consummated his obsession by sleeping with an Indian woman, “an erotic spanning of East and West.” Despite being a father and married to a woman he loves, his Indophilia causes him to fall for a student of Indian descent, Lalita Gupta, “Lewd-Lee-ta,” “All-eat-a” (Lalita being an obvious echo of Nabokov’s nymphet but it’s also the name of a Hindu goddess of beauty and, ironically, pure perception). His lust is less for the nubile than for some intellectual if not metaphysical notion of fully integrating (or dominating) the cuntry he’s spent his life studying.
While she may look like an exotic Indian girl, she is completely Americanized and about as tuned into her ancestry as Kelly Kapoor from The Office. In fact, Lalita loathes anything traditionally Indian because it evokes her overbearing parents who hope that she’ll reconnect with her roots even though they emigrated to America for an ostensibly better life, and she tells as much to Roth after their first kiss: “‘I was born in California. I’m an American. And I’m not typical of anything, Indian or American, except myself. I’ve never had an Indian lover. I’ve never even kissed an Indian either, except my mother and father and once or twice my uncle Shyam. Get it straight: I don’t exist just to be your fuckin’ fantasy. Try to take me a little more seriously. Me. Not India. Me!’”
This is why Roth decides early on to translate the Kamasutra, “to bring close something distant in time and space and to substantiate [for her] a delicate dream of what might have been, the inconstant subcontinent of my incontinent subconscious,” even though the ancient work has already been (mis)translated by Sir Richard Burton (it’s even suggested that Roth is Burton reincarnated, finally recreating the truest version of his labors): Roth hopes to use his project as a teaching tool—tumescent tool too, for he thinks the work will help seduce her. This is where Pale Fire comes in because the entire novel is written as his translation of the Kamasutra, with heavy and digressive commentary from Roth and even footnotes from his literary executor and former teacher’s assistant, Anang Saighal. Indeed, the metafictional deposits are as deep and diverse as they are delightful: a Kamasutra game board with instructions, cunnilingus sheet music (“‘The clitoris is the reed…in the mouth of the instrument of pleasure.”), screenplay excerpts from an unfinished film called Taj Mahal that featured Roth’s late father in the lead role, panels from a graphic novel adaption of the Kamasutra, CD-ROM web-like pages from an interactive and multimedia Kamasutra (“…a text that is like a woman, to provide an experience of that text that is more like making love than reading.”), upside-down text written in “kumkum” ink instead of the usual “kohl,” a pieced-together letter retrieved from a trash bin, among other clever ideas that predate the publication of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves by a little under a revolution of the earth ‘round the sun.
Roth is so love-drunk and ego-driven that the commentary serves as the meat of the narrative and equals if not rivals Charles Kinbote’s digressions—a pandemic of the academic between the two, and the latter is even referenced twice in the bibliography, as well as quoted in an epigraph: “For better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.”
Like hubba-hubba Humbert Humbert, Roth connives and prevaricates till the fruition of his pernicious plot, which is to go on an extended ‘educational trip’ to India, making it so that the only student who is accepted into the ‘program’ is Lalita, the light of his life, the fire of his loins, “…Imperial Lalita, begging begum of the lunatic fringe, maharanical mystress of the house performing acts of congress…O concupiscent Lalita of Konarka—prurient priestess of the Black Pagoda, devastating devadasi and noumenal nautch girl, subaltern subject of my subtext.” By the time we get to book III of the Kamasutra, under the title of “Seduction”, Roth has arrived in India with his ‘napped kid, his spiritual child bride, Lalita Gupta, whom he’ll gulp down. As the chapter title suggests, rather than clear-cut rape, Roth does what he can to seduce his victim, using the tips outlined in the Kamasutra and more. That they cum closer together in India is inevitable, he being her rock in an alien land (as explained in a footnote, Roth’s depiction of the ghastly funeral pyres they come across on the trip is plagiarized from Lee Siegel’s own City of Dreadful Night, a novel published almost 5 years before Roth’s unfinished Kamasutra translation/commentary). Whether out of some Stockholm syndrome or that combined with pity and the like, Roth indeed succeeds, and the consummation scene isn’t as carnal as one might expect; rather, much like the scene in the Darconville’s Cat, it is hyperbolically romantic: “In making love there were no fixed centers, no edges either, no ends nor boundaries. All lines vanished into the erotic landscape of an exitless maze, with beginnings, middles, and ends no longer part of the immediate display of love. We explored all the possibilities that love provides to human beings.” [Roth’s emphasis]
There are other similarities to the Cat that are worth mentioning (even if Siegel’s amazing effort is at times more clever than Theroux’s is earnest, as Steven Moore briefly mentions in his My Back Pages): They both feature essays written by the maturing nymphets in question, except Dead Language gives the full paper in all its poorly-written glory rather than just a précis, with comments from the TA and Roth, each paper of course receiving high marks from their concupiscent professors. Both novels adapt Tristram Shandy’s mourning page, but Siegel takes it further and includes a blank white page before it, which “replicates…the Emperor’s architectural dream of two Taj Mahals.” And while few if any books can rival the range of vocabulary in Alexander Theroux’s masterpiece, Siegel still offers readers a generous dose of the archaic, medical, and all-out sesquipedalian, including osculatory, paronomastically, mentula, coloratura, phatically, catachresis, hetaera, scotoma, manumitting, coir, vellicate, peccavi, persiflage, lingam, velar, asterisms, geste, alimentary, malovulturine, verbocracy, demulcent, lixiviation, and one of my personal favorites, formicating (which is not the same as fornicating, you pervert!). Last but not beast, not quite, a lovely symmetry that is almost certainly coincidental involves what other animal but felines? Whereas the cat in the Cat goes missing at the climax of love forlorn, a cat comes into Roth’s office as if having pounced from one novel into another: “…a black stray with irregular orange spots and white blotches, which he named [not Spellvexit but] Mayavati. Within the first twenty-four hours of their cohabitation, Roth discovered that he was allergic to cat fur…but refused to evict the animal. ‘How can I throw Mayavati out?’ Roth asked with a sneeze and a smile. ‘She loves me.’”
This is essentially the only love Roth receives in his exile upon returning to India, his plot having been made public, which results in “a leave of absence without pay for the semester” as sexual harassment investigations are conducted. While Roth is mostly disenchanted with it all (“…I know all too well that India is not Lalita. I know that I know very little about India.”), he still persists in some, shall we say, antiquated views, as explained in an interview with the Western Crier: “‘Love, and I mean sexual love for all its power and sanctity, is essential to effective pedagogy.’” He goes on to cite the possible pederast Socrates and others.
Along with everything else that’s going on in this layered novel, there’s also a light mystery element because early on we learn that Roth was murdered, struck in the head by the almost 8-pound Sanskrit-English Dictionary which then caused him to fracture his skull on the edge of his desk. One suspects various possibilities, especially Roth’s own love-insane stalker, Maya Blackwell, till the truth is revealed at the very end and I laughed out loud, a fitting conclusion to a romance of pleasurable reading.
Despite its tight focus, Dead Language manages to be richly peopled, giving us a relatively diverse number of voices and opinions, from Lalita’s boyfriend, the basketball player Leroy Lovelace, to a feminist author who changes her name with each book she writes (in typical metafictional fashion, there’s also a character named Lee Siegel who gets along with Roth about as well as John Self does with Martin Amis in Money). Unlike Lolita (which is not a criticism but merely an observation), we get some of Lalita’s perspective on the situation. This occurs mostly near the last quarter of the novel when many of the characters’ endings are explicated in almost Dickensian fashion, except, in the context of an academic document, it’s made more natural and necessary.
In sooth, Love in a Dead Language is some of the most fun I’ve ever had between a book’s splayed and eager pages, and it also has a lot of substance to it, filled as it is with facts, speculation, and overall intriguing erotology. Among other things, it makes for an ultimate example of how not to love, even if love sometimes or alltimes feels synonymous with obsequious obsession. Aye, ponder the following: “Is it that we do and can love only because we have language, and that eloquence is actually a state of the heart? Do words stand between us and our beloved, or are they the only bridge?”
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George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.
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