20 October 2012
…to the first – what? – consummation? This is about a fifth of the way through the novel and, although light of Humbert Humbert’s life Lolita is unaware of it, she has just helped him to a glorious orgasm. He doesn’t call it that, of course, because it isn’t stylistically hyperbolic enough. But for the first time in his 40-odd years he has reached a kind of sexual satisfaction with one of the ‘nymphets’ he has obsessed about since adolescence.
So far the book is a tour de force. I’m re-reading it partly because I remember being impressed with it the first time, and partly because Britain is in the middle of a scandal surrounding the sexual activities of a recently dead celebrity, Jimmy Savile, who seems to have had sex with dozens of under-age girls. I remembered how plausible Nabokov made his narrator, and I’m assuming that this is the challenge he set himself: how to make the outpourings of a monster seem, well, not monstrous at all? Answer: don’t even try. Humbert is self-centred, self-justifying, snobbish – I’ll come back to that – and refers to himself as a pervert. There’s nothing at all to like about him – so why has Nabokov been able to make him and his story so engaging?
I wonder if it’s Humbert’s ability to present himself in starkly opposing lights at the same time. He has the arrogant self-assurance of someone who is entirely convinced of his own value and, more particularly, of the value of his connoisseur-like taste. But he knows that society at large does not see the world as he does. He calls himself a pervert not necessarily because this is how he sees himself, but because it is how society would see him if his innermost thoughts were known. Sometimes he makes this distinction quite overtly: this is what the world at large thinks of men like him. But often it is as though there are invisible inverted commas, and an unwritten subtext. Not a pervert, then, but a ‘pervert’ (as society would have it).
It goes alongside a lot of other self-deprecating features. He knows how clever he is, but refers to his English editions of French poetry that have taken years of work as proof of his own failure as a writer. He knows how strikingly handsome he is, complacently remarks how his looks could have brought him a string of conventional adult lovers… but this is of no use to him, and his sexual life has been a string of embarrassments and failures. Ok. But on some territory he is entirely certain of himself. His taste in reading, clothes – in fact, all the trappings of an upper middle-class European – is something he takes for granted. His snobbishness stems from it. For him it’s a given that the woman he marries out of a kind of desperation in Paris, the conventional lower middle-class Mrs Haze and, especially, the dull conventionality of her house are torture for his sense of good taste.
There is an almost imperceptible blurring of this finely-tuned sensibility into the thing that really interests him: the attractiveness of his ‘nymphets’. He gives long and unselfconsciously detailed definitions of what kind of girl does – and, equally importantly, does not – fall into this category. A lot of his definitions of every aspect of his taste contain a lot of elements defining exactly what isn’t included. His insistence on this kind of exclusivity becomes a part of his self-assurance. This far into the novel we are as aware of who and what does not come up to scratch for this man as we are of the objects of his desire. It’s one of the things that makes the tone so successful: the reader can find this cool assurance so alluring that it’s possible to be taken surreptitiously into some very doubtful territory. It’s extraordinary how reasonable he makes his perversions sound.
There are other things, like the framing device in which we are told by a kind of editor that we are reading the memoir of a man who has died in prison. Humbert himself tells us that some of what we are reading is based on diaries he wrote at the time – and that it doesn’t matter that the diaries are now lost because he is able to rely on his photographic memory. (The original diaries, he tells us, were written in a two-part process: drafted notes and a more careful final copy.) These devices ring alarm bells, obviously. As does the long preamble concerning his first love, Annabel, when he was the same age as the girl who was to become the prototype of all his nymphets. When he sees Lolita for the first time he wants us to believe it’s exactly as though he’s seeing Annabel all over again – and he’s fourteen years old again. Believe that if you want to.
Chapter 14 to part-way through Chapter 27…
…to the arrival at The Enchanted Hunter, about another fifth of the way through. As the narrator has recently reminded us, only about ten weeks have passed since he arrived at the Haze household in the early summer. It seems a lot longer because Nabokov has presented us with so many twists of the plot since then – to the extent that I became convinced that he was playing an authorial game of ‘dare’ with the reader: if he dares to present us with an outrageously implausible series of events, do we dare to disbelieve them?
This isn’t the real point, of course. There’s a string of literary devices throughout the novel, and I’m convinced that Nabokov wants us to recognise them as such. The first is the framing device of the editorial introduction, followed quickly by Humbert’s explanation of the layers of narrative distance that lie between the events and the confession we’re reading. Nabokov, by continually reminding us that we are in a novel, introduces games for us to play along with. At one stage Humbert writes that what he is having to do, reminding the reader of the effect of his own good looks on women like one of their friends, Jean, is ‘much as a professional novelist’ routinely has to do. Humbert likes to show off about his literary abilities.
But I’ve been thinking about that series of plot twists. Humbert thinks that his first orgasm with Lolita – he later describes how ‘a bubble of paradise had once burst in slow motion’ – is to be the first of many. Except ‘Haze’ – the name he uses to refer to Lolita’s mother – has other plans: Lolita is to go early to summer camp, and the adults will be left to have candle-lit dinners together. There is no repetition of his sublime experience with Lolita. Instead Haze, Christian name Charlotte, confesses her infatuation with him in a note that she expects will lead to nothing. It gives Humbert an idea – or, if we believe him, it chimes with an idea he’s already had – and they marry almost immediately. All he will need to do now is wait… except Haze, again, has other plans. Lolita – aka Dolores or Dolly – is to go straight to boarding school from the camp: her all-round sloppiness needs to be sorted out. (Are you believing any of this? As if it matters.)
Next. Lolita won’t be going to boarding school after all, as applications are closed until January. So Humbert hatches a plot: he goes to the doctor complaining of insomnia, and is prescribed sleeping-pills which he tests on Haze. They only make her sleep for four hours, which isn’t enough for him, so he demands a more powerful prescription. His plan is to drug both the daughter and the mother so that he will be able to do whatever he likes with Lolita and nobody will know…. He arrives home in triumph with the bottle of 40 pills – only to discover that his plans have been thwarted by another pastiche of a Victorian plot-twist: Haze has found the key to the locked drawer where he keeps his diary, and has read it. She calls him a monster and he has to think his way out of it. Got it: she’s discovered – guess – the plot of a novel he’s writing, that’s all. He goes downstairs to prepare some whiskey on the rocks, returns to discover that she isn’t there any more – and gets a telephone call telling him that she’s just been run over. Reader, she’s dead.
Long before this, Humbert has made a joke of the way things happen to him, ascribing the turns of events to a character he names ‘McFate’. Now he has the chance to shake hands with a real personification of fate, the man who ran her over when he tried to avoid a dog in the road. I’ve recently re-read novels by two 19th Century writers who routinely incorporate extravagant coincidences and twists of fate into their plots, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, and it’s like being in their company all over again. I’ve suggested that Nabokov is daring us not to believe it, but really I think he’s simply inviting us to enjoy the ride.
The important thread running through these chapters is Humbert’s transformation. Before Chapter 13 he routinely describes himself as a pathetic figure, and he reverts to that kind of description later, when explaining why he is unable to carry out a plan he’s been contemplating to drown Haze at their swimming-lake. He is proud that he has had his moment of ecstasy ‘without impairing the morals of a minor’ and that ‘absolutely no harm was done’. But long before the accident that kills his new wife he has begun to prepare for a life in which his sexual activities with Lolita won’t be accidental like the first, but carefully planned for. He might still refer scornfully to his ‘so-called aberrant behaviour’, but even he must know by now that he has crossed a line.
He is writing the confession in prison, and sometimes appeals to the ‘gentlemen of the jury’. I can’t see such appeals cutting a lot of ice when he gets to how he has planned the next stage of his seduction of Lolita after her mother’s death. She is still at the camp, and he keeps news of the accident from her. When he picks her up her mother is, he says, in a country hospital and they are going to spend a day or two driving there. He has bought her new clothes, which he doesn’t show her until the point I’ve just reached in Chapter 27: the twin-bedded room he’d booked is not available, and they are in a hotel room with a giant double bed, endlessly reflected in the room’s many mirrors. He plays a kind of game, reminding her that he is effectively now her father, and that it is his job to look after her – whilst knowing that she has something of a crush on him, and had been happy to kiss him in the car. In his presentation of her – and it’s the only version we’ve got – there is something very knowing about Lolita. As he searches for the word to describe the situation in the hotel room she says, ‘The word is incest.’
One last thing, for now: names. Humbert tells us at the beginning that all of them have been changed, so we can expect a few games. I’ve already mentioned Lolita’s and her mother’s different names. Humbert has his own. Self-deprecatingly he is ‘Homburg’, Humbug’, or ‘HH’. In a letter Lolita writes, he and Haze are ‘Hummy and Mummy’. But as their trip begins she cheekily tries out a new name: ‘Dad’. Dangerous.
Chapter 27 (end) to 33 – to the end of Part 1
I’ve had another thought about the plausibility of the events in the novel. I’ve been focusing on the author rather than the narrator, thinking of reasons why Nabokov might be deliberately stretching the reader’s credibility both as an alienation device to remind us that this is a fiction and in order to create an entertaining ride. But Humbert has an agenda too. The persona he needs to present is rather pathetic, harmless and, therefore, essentially innocent. It’s those pesky fates – or McFate and his various agents –conspiring to drop into his lap, as it were, the opportunity to carry out what until that moment had only ever been a fantasy. In his presentation of events – which, by definition is the only one we’ve got – it isn’t his fault.
We need to watch this narrator. Fate seems to run like clockwork for him, taking him to places he wouldn’t have gone otherwise – and also taking the reader’s attention away from the part he himself plays. If the dog hadn’t run in front of the car, Haze would not have been killed. He would never have taken Lolita away and started a full-blown sexual relationship with her… etc. But Humbert didn’t have to decide to marry Haze, isn’t forced to plot the drugging of both of them… and so on. The game that Nabokov plays is to offer his main character a series of get-out clauses – which we are able to recognise for what they are.
It becomes clearer in these last few chapters of Part 1. For many pages Humbert’s thwarted attempts to carry out his plan in the Enchanted Hunter – and you can imagine the games both author and narrator can play with the hotel’s name – descend into a kind of farce. The super-strength sedatives turn out to be no such thing, and Humbert briefly wonders whether the doctor had his suspicions about what they were for. They make Lolita sleepy and groggy, but they don’t knock her out. There are grim jokes, as he ponders the question of ‘nympholepsy’ and how safe he is, sharing a bed like this. The hotel is full of the noises of clanking lifts and toilets that flush like cataracts, and Humbert has a sleepless night making sure he doesn’t touch Lolita and provoke – what? Screams? Cries of rape? It’s a disaster, presented as comedy.
And then the tone takes a lurch. And another. And Humbert is off and away into a new life with his nymphet…. The first lurch, straight after the fiasco of the first night, is Lolita’s surprising readiness to become, in effect, Humbert’s lover. We find out later, despite Humbert’s insistence that he isn’t going to go into any details, that they make love three times. Instead, we get the story of her previous sexual experiences. Reader, Humbert hasn’t corrupted her, because she’s lived the ‘depraved’ childhood of a typical American kid, culminating in a threesome with another girl and a 13-year-old boy at the summer camp. Every day. He reports the details she tells him of the contraceptives the boy used, as though lining up the evidence that this is in no way a made-up or exaggerated story. That’s what he always does.
Meanwhile, he is living in an entirely different realm. He is the hunter, obviously, and he describes the enchantment. He is a predatory middle-aged man successfully grooming a pubescent girl, right? No, he insists, she’s the one who has seduced him – I’m not making this up – and he isn’t the 40-something Humbert, he’s in a ‘dream world’ and he now has ‘a kind of dream identity. Later, in a different context, he pleads with the reader: ‘Try to imagine me. I shall not exist if you don’t imagine me.’ What level is he working on now? Does he really believe that he is the person he can invent in this narrative, the ‘poet’, not some kind of criminal.
The next lurch comes right at the end of Part 1. Humbert is feeling highly insecure, hears – mistakenly, surely? – a fellow hotel guest making lecherous remarks about what he has been doing. And in the car Lolita complains of the pains she’s feeling, tells him that he’s been a ‘brute’, and calls him other bad names. She even threatens to call the police and report that he has raped her. What’s a man to do? He decides to show her that the power she thinks she has is an illusion. When she demands the telephone number of the hospital they are supposedly driving towards, he tells her straight out that her mother is dead. He reports absolutely nothing of the girl’s reaction, but she doesn’t make any more threats. They are now in a world of ‘shared secrecy and shared guilt’ and she has to stick with him. As he puts it right at the end: ‘You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.’
Part 2, Chapters 1-15
The year they spend driving around America, in a kind of parody of bourgeois tourism, demonstrates Humbert’s creepy manipulativeness. The hold he has over Lolita is based on the threat, carefully embellished by him, that if she reports him or runs away she will find herself in some seedy, authoritarian state-run orphanage. Where there will be no more treats for her for years to come. That keeps her quiet, and to keep her compliant he continues the routine bribery he began with the new clothes in the hotel room. She’s a 13-year-old kid, so he dangles candy, comic-books and trips to the movies before her – or threatens to withdraw them if she doesn’t co-operate. So she does.
This isn’t how Humbert presents it. He pretends, in one of his appeals to the ‘gentlemen of the jury’, that he is providing her with a valuable education. He is able to offer her experiences – and he isn’t talking about the sex – that are, he insists, the best that any child could hope for. He buys her improving books and tennis lessons, eulogises the landscape, introduces her to art. None of it works, of course. His finely-tuned European sensibility is constantly repelled – that isn’t too strong a word – by the philistinism of the typical American teenager she is. It’s a running thread that a big part of his sense of his own superiority is his conviction that everything American is vulgar and second-rate. The tourist traps, the anonymous hotels and the endless movies – which he divides into the three genres that Lolita likes and caricatures in turn in a few dismissive lines – are all ultimately forgettable. Even the landscape is a disappointment.
Whilst he is arrogantly self-assured in his sense of his own good taste, he is riddled with insecurities with regard to Lolita. His default setting is jealousy: he never, ever feels safe, knows that she does not feel for him what he feels for her. So he keeps a constant watch over her, and is always on the lookout for men eyeing her up. He wants to know where she is and who she’s talking to at all times. He presents it as an aspect of his dependence on her – she is, as he likes to tell us, ‘the love of my life’ – but it’s as though he’s hiding the truth of his own mistreatment of her from himself. Why should she care for him? Why shouldn’t she be giving him good cause for jealousy?
The truth comes out in one particularly shocking admission, almost lost amongst his usual pretence that she has as much effective power in the relationship as he does. He mentions ‘her sobs in the night – every night? – every night, the moment I feigned sleep.’ I guess Nabokov needs to give us these occasional reminders of the effect of the lifestyle his narrator has inflicted on the girl. (There’s a reminder of a different kind at the school she attends after their wanderings, when the Head-teacher calls him in for a little talk about her. I’ll come back to that.) But maybe the most shocking thing is Humbert’s apparent conviction that their life together is more or less conventional. He tries ‘to be a good father’, is concerned for her education and welfare. This, among important other things, is why he decides to put an end to their travelling and enrol her in a girls’ school….
I mentioned at the beginning of this the ongoing Jimmy Savile scandal in Britain, still all over the front pages some weeks after the news has broken. One of the things that is keeping that story alive is the shock that a celebrity who did genuinely good works raising millions of pounds for health charities was also capable of having sex with, apparently, hundreds of under-age girls. He was both a dedicated fund-raiser and a paedophile. You can see where I’m going with this: we have to assume that in Jimmy Savile’s view of himself there is nothing at all inconsistent. Likewise, if we believe him, Humbert Humbert is a loving father who wants the best for his step-daughter. But that little phrase, ‘if we believe him’, contains everything important about this narrative. However he presents his own paternal concern for her, we know that he knows she does not love him, know that he has to bribe and blackmail her for sex, know – because he’s told us – that she cries herself to sleep every night. He may or may not understand what a monster he is – I have my doubts – but he judges himself, and only wants to be judged by others, for his efforts to do the right thing.
Moving to Beardsley, in his presentation of it, is an example of him doing the right thing – although he does also mention that the year-long trip around America has cost him at least $8,000 – probably ten or twenty times that figure in modern terms – and he needs to rein in his spending. More importantly, perhaps, is his need to give Lolita something to do all day, to prevent her becoming bored with everything, including him.
The name of Beardsley sounds like a play on words. He’s previously made a joke about a woman with the unfortunate surname ‘Beard’, and there’s been a joking reference to a bearded lady in an advertising jingle. The hairiness of adult women seems to hold a particular horror for him, but it isn’t the only thing. A contemplation of an all-girl school staffed by women leads to a surge of misogynistic disgust: ‘There are few physiques I loathe more than the low-sung pelvis, thick calves and deplorable complexion of the average co-ed, in whom I see, maybe, a coffin of coarse flesh within which my nymphets are buried alive….’ And fairly soon, as he notices Lolita using makeup for the first time, growing in height and girth, he muses about the future. He knows she will soon be too old for him, but fantasises a perfect solution: he will marry her and produce a new Lolita – he will still be active enough by then, he tells us, to need such a nymphet – and so on down to the third generation. Ok.
Beardsley is also, of course, the name of an iconic gay figure of the late 19th Century, and Humbert’s connection to the town is one Gaston Godin. He is another European paedophile, who fills his house with boys and portraits of famous gay artists and writers. Humbert is resentful to the point of rage about this incompetent, unattractive, unintelligent man – he always loses their games of chess – who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the Beardsley residents. Later, Humbert tells us, Godin will be enmeshed in some sordid sexual business in Italy – and yet he gets away with it. It’s one of those moments when Humbert seems unable to recognise how pitiful his attempts at special pleading can be.
But the most important thing about the autumn, winter and spring spent in Beardsley is the slow shift in the power relationship between Humbert and Lolita. However controlling he tries to be, however sarcastic about her friends and teachers – he loves to pastiche the faux-liberal jargon of the head-teacher who, to add to her sins, never gets either of their names right – the growing girl is able to assert her independence. An ominous opening sentence concerning Humbert’s disappointment at ‘a definite drop in Lolita’s morals’ leads only to a description of his annoyance at how much he now has to pay for his pleasures. Her friends are no fun, because the only one with any trace of nymphethood (or whatever his latest word is) is now definitely too old. This is Mona Dahl, and she seems to be a real friend – and therefore arouses his suspicions that she is covering for Lolita somehow. Humbert’s consolation is that Lolita is contemptuous of the boys she meets, and that the one party he allows her is a failure.
But… he is called in to the school because Lolita is not thriving. The meeting is a torture for him not only, as he implies, because of the head-teacher’s tortured language and Freudian take on child psychology, but because he is in constant fear of having been found out. He hasn’t, but agrees to cut Lolita some slack. Yes, she may join the drama group – a move he later regrets because it seems to have taught her how to dissemble. The play – and I’m not sure what point either Humbert or Nabokov is making concerning the title – is The Enchanted Hunters and Lolita has a starring role. It is about – bear with me for a moment – the shifting borderlines between truth and fantasy whenever love is concerned, as Lolita hypnotises one hunter after another to make them realise that reality is not what they think it is. (Its author’s name – by coincidence, surely? – is Quilty, also the name of the dentist in the town where Humbert first met Lolita.
Humbert is as dismissive of the play as he is of everything else, but he should be paying more attention. Lolita is growing less and less and less amenable, and there have been incidents to arouse his suspicion. She has missed piano lessons for supposed meetings with Mona Dahl, which the other girl corroborates. And she hangs up in a phone-booth when Humbert chases after her following their worst ever row and pretends she was calling him. This is an obvious lie, but when Lolita suddenly tells him she wants to move away from Beardsley he takes it for a sign of their reconciliation. She insists on planning the route of their next trip and, blinded by whatever it is that motivates him, he agrees. As they wait at traffic lights, the drama teacher calls across that the author of the play is disappointed that Lolita is leaving. Alarm bells ring for Humbert, but the girl hurriedly tells him that the author is an old and unattractive woman. Oh yeah?
Part 2, Chapters 14-23
This is it. This is when, despite Humbert himself misleading us into thinking that his suspicions are no doubt groundless, we discover that Lolita really is in contact with another man. And by Chapter 22 she has run off with him.
How much more do I need to tell you about this? The journey is dreary. Humbert remembers a pictorial map of the Appalachians from his childhood and expects a kind of Switzerland or Tibetan land of glittering mountains. What he gets is ‘a lawn with incinerators’. And it becomes clear in these chapters that Nabokov wants to start reminding us again – if he ever stopped – that we are reading a novel by an author who likes to play games. Humbert himself, while dismissing the genre of thriller novels and the deliberate clues their authors sprinkle through them, adopts the form of the thriller here. He himself is the detective, but in denial about the blatant clues that fill the chapters describing their journey from town to town. They are being followed, but first he chooses to believe that the pursuer is a detective, and then that he is imagining the whole thing.
He can’t keep it up. Lolita disappears for long enough to make telephone calls, speaks animatedly with a man on a forecourt. There is a man in a swimming pool, another – or is it the same man? – playing doubles with when he returns after being called away for a non-existent telephone call. In one town she escapes for a full ’28 minutes’, offering explanations that she is clearly making up as she goes along. Only now, more and more desperate, does Humbert slap her hard across the face – and still he makes excuses for her. He blames the drama lessons given by those women for teaching her the art of deceit.
Only in these chapters does he tell us about the small pistol he has always had with him. It’s another game. If we’ve heard a single pronouncement about dramatic writing, it’s the one by Anton Chekhov that if a loaded gun is seen onstage, it will definitely be used later. Thanks, Humbert, we get it. But the intended use of this gun is hedged around with a wonderful face-saving formula: Humbert would not use the gun now – he has often told us what a coward he is – but he is beginning to fear for his own sanity. He gets the gun ready so that his future insane self will have a weapon to hand.
By the time he’s reached this point, he knows he is losing Lolita. Everything about her behaviour tells him she has no interest in him, and if he does catch a look of happiness on her face he knows it is in connection with some other man. The crisis comes in the town of Elphinstone, about which Humbert has already dropped some dark hints concerning the planning that has gone on between Lolita and the other man. Lolita becomes ill, not for the first time – I wonder if these illnesses represent a different kind of damage she’s suffering – and has to stay in hospital for a few days. She is clearly getting notes from the other man, and this time it’s a nurse who covers for her by explaining away an opened envelope. Humbert takes her gifts she doesn’t want – the flowers are a ‘funeral bouquet’ to her – and, after he himself has spent a day ill in a motel bed, he telephones the hospital to discover that she checked out the previous day. She left with a man posing as his brother Gustave – a name Humbert himself has used because the other man looks like an old relative of his with that name. (The relative’s surname, perfect in a novel like this one, is Trapp.)
Her contemptuous use of this secret name makes him realise he has lost her. He decides to give her up, a sadder and wiser man. As if. What he decides to do instead is to follow their trail, with his loaded pistol, from July to November. Not for the first time – I’m thinking of the night at the Enchanted Hunter hotel – a period of heightened emotion is presented as comedy. Humbert learns quickly how to make up plausible reasons to examine the registers in different hotels and motels, and his rival has left him a trail of absurd puzzles and taunts. These are Nabokov’s games as much as the other man’s or Humbert’s. We find out that he sees 342 registers – a number that has come up twice before, and can have no significance beyond reminding us that some author is making this up. There are anagrams, including one of Nabokov’s own name. And there is a comic moment when, two years later according to Humbert, the private detective he hires finds that there really is a person with one of the made-up names, in his eighties, living near a town called Delores.
It almost reaches another crisis as Humbert meanders his way back to Beardsley. All the clues we’ve had point to the name of Quilty. (I forgot to mention another one, in a letter Mona sends to Lolita. She quotes a French phrase in which the words ‘Qu’il t’y’ appear. Humbert notices it, but doesn’t take the hint.) What does Humbert do? He lies in wait for a Beardsley man with the most tenuous of possible threads linking him to Lolita but, apparently, isn’t insane enough to shoot anybody yet. Besides, the man he had suspected is completely unfamiliar to him.
Part 2, Chapter 24 to the end
These last few chapters are difficult to read. To some extent, it’s all been difficult to read. I wasn’t really surprised the other day when I suggested it as a shared read for a book group, and people who had read it before asked me to choose something else. (Humbert, at some point when he is on the road with Lolita for the first time, writes about getting back to his ‘miserable little story’. We are aware enough of his style to take his self-deprecation with a pinch of salt, and both he and Nabokov always keep it sparkling, at least at the level of vocabulary and sentence-formation… but he isn’t wrong. It is a miserable story.)
Nabokov covers a whole life in this novel, but not evenly. The first few chapters gallop through about forty years until the moment when everything slows right down. From Humbert’s first cataclysmic glimpse of Lolita to his abduction of her covers a mere ten weeks, but takes up all the rest of Part 1. Then things accelerate, with only occasional pauses while he describes a typical afternoon or evening, or focuses on a single stand-out event. The year-long road trip is covered in a few chapters, as is the residence of nine or so months in Beardsley. Now, having forewarned us through the mention of that ludicrous investigator and his two-year search for links, Humbert tells us of three years of emptiness. (He returns to that idea at the very end… but I’m not there yet.) He spends most of it with Rita, aged about 30, and the mere chapter or so it takes for him to depict his life with her tells us all we need to know about how much she means to him. As soon as he finds what he’s looking for he leaves her, taping a note to her navel to make sure she finds it. That’s our Humbert.
We know what he’s searching for: Lolita and the man who abducted her. The motive is revenge, and at this point we are wrong-footed. He confirms that by the time we are reading this Lolita is dead, and there have been other dark hints about a terrible fight. Which, it turns out, has nothing to do with Lolita. When he finally tracks her down – that is, after she’s sent him a letter in which the greeting is ‘Dear Dad’, she is 17, pregnant and married. Her mandatory shelf-life is long past but, if we are to believe him, she is still the love of his life. Her tan has disappeared, her armpits – we are not at all surprised that he notices them – are ‘unkempt’ and she carries her pregnancy heavily before her… but he asks her, knowing the inevitable response, to leave everything and get into the car with him. She isn’t angry, merely disappointed that he wants to bring all that up again. As he leaves, he gives her money. In her letter she had asked, as though he’s a typical middle-class father, for $400 to help pay for a move to where her new husband has a job. What he gives her, as though he’s a typical middle-class father, is 4,000.
So Lolita isn’t dead as he writes this. But he later explains that he has stipulated that his confession must not be published until after she is. Later, as he describes the fight we always knew was coming, there’s a very Humbert-like conceit. He warns the reader, who must be living in the early 21st Century, that it’s nothing like the fight scenes in the western movies they might recall from their childhood.
But, so to speak, I’m jumping the gun. He tracks down the man Lolita ran off with three years before. In Humbert’s presentation Quilty – for it is he, the successful playwright son of the dentist back in the town where he met Lolita – is some kind of voyeuristic deviant. He assembles groups of young people for sex parties, first at his ranch and later at the big house he’s inherited. In fact, when we meet him Quilty seems like a kind of alter-ego. We know about the fascination with language and word-play from the false clues he laid in the hotels. And the way he reacts to the threat posed by Humbert, in his house and wielding his pistol, are what we might expect from Humbert himself. He simply can’t believe that this man, whoever he is, can be significant enough to pose a real threat. Even after their almost farcical struggles, when Humbert retrieves his dropped pistol and wounds Quilty, his responses are a flippant-sounding pastiche: ‘Oh, I say!’ or something of the kind.
The death is horrible. Humbert is inept, Quilty crawls around, bleeding, until he climbs on to the bed. Through the blankets Humbert delivers a coup de grace which, he later tells us, blows away a quarter of Quilty’s face.
Have you had enough of this yet? The murder seems to confirm that everything about Humbert’s life is squalid and, essentially, second-rate. His final defiant gesture is to drive deliberately on the wrong side of the road, and he pretends that his unwillingness to struggle when the police arrest him is another rebellion. It’s no such thing, of course, and in fact his treatment in jail is soft. I don’t know if it’s part of Nabokov’s satirical purpose to have his monster treated with the seriousness he seems to think he deserves, but I suspect that the psychoanalytical tests he undergoes are to be ranked along with the psychobabble of the Head teacher at Beardsley. Whatever….
In the end, I wonder whether Nabokov lets off his monster too lightly. Sure, he’s been shown to be self-indulgent, self-deceiving and arrogant; but he is left with the last word on the affair, and… and what? He seems to have the glimmering of an understanding of what he’s done. There’s no sense of anything so corny as a moment of redemption, but he describes an experience shortly after beginning his three-year pursuit of Lolita and Quilty. He has had to stop the car to be sick, and he can hear something. It turns out to be the voices of children, and he realises that what he misses is Lolita’s voice. But, reader, her voice belongs not with him in the car, but with the other children. The implication is that, just as he has always understood that she only went along with his plan because she had to, he knows that he has taken her away her childhood. Well, maybe.
Or maybe something less appealing is going on. Humbert’s motivation throughout these last chapters has nothing to do with what was taken away from Lolita, and all to do with what was taken away from him. Quilty took away his little playmate, his sex toy, and that’s why he spends three years criss-crossing America, again, to avenge the crime. Sure, he might choose to finish with a moment of contemplation of what he has done to her, but that was early on, and it hasn’t stopped him. Nabokov allows him to slip in this episode at the end, and works hard to ensure that the terms of endearment Humbert uses are as tender as all those others we’ve heard from him throughout the novel… but now it strikes me as Nabokov’s final move in the game I first mentioned in the second paragraph of this diary: ‘how to make the outpourings of a monster seem, well, not monstrous at all?’ We get some very moving descriptions of deep and never-ending love – and, if we’re not careful, we’re entirely carried along.
For three weeks now I’ve been telling people that they should read (or re-read) this novel – because what Nabokov does is nothing short of brilliant.