menu Language Is A Virus

Donna Tartt - Lolita

Green-eyed, petite, smartly but androgynously dressed, Tartt read Nietzsche alone in the refectory and cultivated an air of erudite self-possession.

Despite her towering literary reputation, Donna Tartt is physically very small. As a baby, she was so tiny that her mother dressed her in doll's clothes.

In person, sharing a sofa in The Heathman Hotel lobby, Tartt is a reticent slip of a woman, dressed in sleek black slacks and a sweater. Her white collar and cuffs peek out at her neck and wrists, the same way her sense of humor peeks out of her answers. A hint of her native Mississippi softens her voice.

Yet here she is, part Lazarus, part Lolita, all in black. Five feet tall and 38 years old: Donna Louise Tartt, the word made flesh.

With her Delta drawl clipped by schooling to a precision RP, Tartt reminds me very much of Clarice Starling from Silence Of The Lambs. And she is extremely pale. If this were an opera instead of an interview she would die of consumption before the end.

People who meet the tiny Tartt (1.52 metres, "same size as Lolita") get a different impression, of a lively, mannered woman who eats expensive food and dresses with androgynous chic.

She is petite and very chic: barely 5ft tall, dressed in a blue silk shirt, black trousers and black loafers. She loves clothes. A saving grace of being small, she says, is that she can't go into really expensive shops and buy clothes off the rack.

"But vintage clothes work well on me. People used to be smaller. In vintage shops they always say, "Gosh we're glad someone's come along who fits this jacket.""

Tartt is pretty in an unorthodox way - pale-faced and sharp-featured, her hair styled in a severe Louise Brooks bob, penetrating grey-green eyes which she screws tightly closed in concentration when talking.

Now 38, she really is tiny, startlingly so; she still has that famous shiny Louise Brooks bob, still wears boys' clothes from Gap Kids, would rather not say from where she bought the stern black jacket and plain white shirt with crocheted buttons. Her skin is white and clear. Her appearance is all neatness and cuteness, in fact, until she opens her mouth: there's a very un-American overcrowded clash of teeth inside her perfect lips. Her voice is perky, still bearing the twang of her Mississippi youth, and she is friendly on arrival, peering over her round sunglasses to say, "I'm so excited to meet you I can hardly speak!" I'm not sure if this was said with warmth or irony.

Donna Tartt, who is going to be very famous very soon - conceivably the moment you read this - also happens to be exceedingly small. Teeny, even. "I'm the exact same size as Lolita," she says. "Do you remember that poem from the novel?" She recites,

Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze
Her dream-gray gaze never flinches.
Ninety pounds is all she weighs
With a height of sixty inches.

Tartt taps her Marlboro Gold on the ashtray. She is kind of girl-boy-woman in her lineaments, with lunar-pale skin, spooky light-green eyes, a good-size triangular nose, a high, pixieish voice. With her Norma Desmond sunglasses propped on her dark bobbed hair, her striped boy's shirt and shorts from Gap Kids (the only store whose ready-to-wear fits her), and her ever-present cigarette, she is, somehow, a character of her own fictive creation: precocious sprite from a Cunard Line cruise ship, circa 1920-something. A Wise Child out of Salinger.

+ + + Comments + + +