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Reading: The First Throb of Lolita

The Enchanter, Nabokov's early sketch for Lolita, proves above all how perfectly the master later developed his theme.



Imagine yourself, if you can, browsing through an X-rated bookstore in Europe in 1956. You pick up a book called Lolita, written by a Russian; it seems to be about a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old girl. Without scrutinizing it too carefully, you buy it. In the privacy of your own home you leaf through it, and then leaf through it again, and with simultaneous disappointment and elation you realize that the book isn't what you thought it was. You're disappointed because it's not pornographic. On the other hand, you've just discovered Vladimir Nabokov.

This actually happened to a friend of mine who, instead of taking the book back and complaining, went on to read most of Nabokov's books. The first appearance of Lolita through Olympia Press, on adults-only shelves, amused Nabokov even though he felt they "lacked the means to launch Lolita properly--a book that differed so utterly in vocabulary, structure, and purpose (or rather, absence of purpose) from their other much simpler commercial ventures, such as Debby's Bidet or Tender Thighs." Nabokov acknowledged chance readers like my friend in his note "On a Book Entitled Lolita": "Certain techniques in the beginning of Lolita . . . misled some of my first readers into assuming that this was going to be a lewd book. They expected the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped too, and felt bored or let down." Nabokov endured endless rejections and frustrations before finally getting the book considered by a "reputable" publisher.

Earlier in the same note, Nabokov talks about his novel's origins: "The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris, at a time when I was laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia. . . . I wrote it in Russian. . . . The man was a Central European, the anonymous nymphet was French, and the loci were Paris and Provence. I had him marry the little girl's sick mother who soon died, and after a thwarted attempt to take advantage of the orphan in a hotel room, Arthur (for that was his name) threw himself under the wheels of a truck. . . . I was not pleased with the thing and destroyed it sometime after moving to America in 1940. Around 1949, in Ithaca, upstate New York, the throbbing, which had never quite ceased, began to plague me again. Combination joined inspiration with fresh zest and involved me in a new treatment of the theme, this time in English . . . the thing was new and had grown in secret the claws and wings of a novel."

The early version, it turns out, had not been destroyed. In 1959, four years after the publication of Lolita, Nabokov discovered a copy of "that first little throb" among his papers. He wrote to his publisher suggesting that it be published:

"I have reread Volshebnik ['The Enchanter'] with considerably more pleasure than I experienced when recalling it as a dead scrap during my work on Lolita. It is a beautiful piece of Russian prose, precise and lucid, and with a little care could be done into English by the Nabokovs."

The publisher wrote back enthusiastically, but Nabokov was apparently too busy with other projects at the time. Now, a decade after Nabokov's death, his son, Dmitri, has translated The Enchanter and has added his own lengthy notes.

The Enchanter may be beautiful, precise, and lucid, but it's not Nabokov at his best, and it could never be favorably compared to the later work. Its value is mostly historical; as an early sketch for Lolita, it proves above all how perfectly Nabokov later developed his theme. The Enchanter is not a bad book, it's simply a foil for Lolita's diamond.

Lolita is erotic, not because of its subject or its explicitness but because of its language. Nabokov's concentrated vocabulary, describing the most innocent scene, can provoke as much sensual pleasure as any blatant erotica:

"Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background."

This, to me, is sexy writing; its melodies elicit a visceral response. But if Lolita's language is seductive, it also hides from us (as seducers do) its horrible secrets. We're distracted from the miserable, sad plot of the book by Nabokov's stylistic bravado, and by Humbert Humbert's cavalierly sophisticated narration. It's so much fun to read that we're almost shocked to realize, when the pair is traveling around the country, that Lolita cries every night before she goes to sleep. We're jolted back from the dreamlike charm of Humbert's loving words into the nightmare of child abuse.

The Enchanter, on the other hand, is pure, unrelenting nightmare. Written in the dark, brooding, surrealistic tone of Nabokov's earlier Russian novels, it has none of Lolita's stylistic disguise: the ugly theme is laid bare. Like a sketch for a painting, in which the flat, solid outlines are later blurred, contoured, and masked, The Enchanter exposes the obvious elements that we don't want to see. Just as the suggestiveness of Lolita is so tantalizing, the overt explanation in The Enchanter is repulsive:

"It was worth it, yes--no matter how long he would have to drag this cumbersome behemoth through the quagmire of marriage; it was worth it even if she outlived everybody; it was worth it for the sake of making his presence natural and of his license as future stepfather."

The only purpose this overtelling serves is again in relation to Lolita, offering us more angles from which to study Nabokov's vision--not enough, however, for The Enchanter to stand on its own as the achievement Dmitri Nabokov would like us to think it is. There is, for instance, no real relationship between the nameless, faceless protagonist in The Enchanter and the poor nameless, faceless girl, a victim in every sense, who is about as sensually compelling as the portraits of missing children on milk cartons and bus posters. Because we get the impression that Lolita can fend for herself (in very similar motel scenes, the nameless girl cowers and screams at the man looming above her, while Lolita takes matters into her own hands and says "Okay, here is where we start"), there's a sense of human interaction in Lolita, a dialogue--albeit a perverse one; but in The Enchanter there are only the "eight tentacles affixed to every detail of her nudity."

The first sentences of both books set their very different moods. The beginning of The Enchanter plunges us into the tormented pedophile's anguish, in a voice as demoniac and paranoic as any persona of Poe's: "'How can I come to terms with myself?' he thought, when he did any thinking at all. 'This cannot be lechery. Coarse carnality is omnivorous; the subtle kind promises eventual satiation.'"

On the other hand, the celebrated rhapsodic opening of Lolita promises a playful manipulation of names and words, and lyrical focus: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

Already Nabokov has our tongues working in our mouths. This starts off what he called "the record of my love affair with the English language." It's no coincidence that poems are present at the two great climaxes of the book, one literal and the other literary. There is the scene where Lolita stretches her legs across Humbert's lap while he lies on the sofa and, unknown to her, rubs himself against her while repeating a little nonsense rhyme; its rhythms, as clipped and constant as those of Lewis Carroll (Nabokov had translated Alice's Adventures in Wonderland into Russian) are synchronized with Humbert's own: "Suspended on the brink of that voluptuous abyss . . . I kept repeating chance words after her--barmen, alarmin', my charmin', my carmen, ahmen, ahahamen--as one talking and laughing in his sleep." The absurd "death sentence" poem that Humbert has Quilty read similarly transforms a gruesome murder into what Nabokov himself considered the high point of reading--"aesthetic bliss." The Enchanter, lacking these literary devices (I don't think they're simply lost in the translation), presents its scenario as the abusive, morbid tragedy that it really is, and nothing more.

Dmitri Nabokov's 30-page commentary on The Enchanter reveals as much about the son as it does of the father. Although the fiercely protective Dmitri was Nabokov's primary translator (as Nabokov's wife Vera was his "first reader and typist"), he seems strangely deluded about much of his father's work. While a few of his notes are helpful, others will only mislead the reader. At one point in the text, Nabokov has "some black salad devouring a green rabbit." Nabokov Jr. says that this kind of detail gives the work a "surreal, enchanted aura" as well as "describing with utmost economy and directness how a character's perception of reality is momentarily distorted by a state of being (in this case, the protagonist's overpowering, thwarted, barely concealed excitement)." I would assume, without having seen the Russian original, that Nabokov Sr. simply made a mistake that he would have corrected later. He had too precise a control over his surrealistic descriptions to have to resort to subject-object inversions and rabbit-eating salads.

When he's not taking defensive, tangential stabs at other Nabokov scholars, Dmitri Nabokov attempts an analysis of The Enchanter. Unfortunately, much of it reads like the kind of freshman English essay that uses tangled logic to distort and confuse a simple passage into a complicated mess. In this, there's an odd echo of Nabokov Sr.'s Pale Fire, in which the narrator, in the process of explaining the book's poem, leads the reader further and further down his own winding interpretative trails, and away from the poem's straight road. Dmitri actually waylays the reader. But most importantly, there's a particular filial sin he commits against his father.

Nabokov has said over and over how much he "detests symbolism" and despises Freud. He makes vicious fun of critics who find Freudian clues in his novels, even though he teases them by planting little gems: in The Enchanter, for instance, the protagonist holds his walking stick, "--a very valuable, antique thing with a thick coral head--between his legs." In Lolita, he wryly cautions us to "remember that a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Urfather's central forelimb." In one interview he argues, "Why should I tolerate a perfect stranger at the bedside of my mind? I've no intention to dream the drab middle-class dreams of an Austrian crank with a shabby umbrella." In another interview he says, "Freudism and all it has tainted with its grotesque implications and methods appears to me to be one of the vilest deceits practised by people on themselves and on others." And in a third interview: "Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts. I really do not care."

Nevertheless, what does Dmitri Nabokov, the rebellious son, do with this strange image in The Enchanter: "He had suddenly recognized the outlying destination silently indicated to him by what looked like a strange, nailless finger (scrawled on a fence)"? God forbid he should take it literally:

"The imagined graffito on the fence is a hybrid of the forefinger pointing the way on old-fashioned signs and of some joker's phallic doodle that the digit's stylized, nailless shape simultaneously suggests to a mind bent, basically, on depravity, but not devoid of self-reproaching flashes of objectivity. This ambiguous finger simultaneously indicates, in the fleeting image, the path of courtship (of the mother), the secret parts of the yearned-for girl, and the protagonist's own vulgarity that no amount of rationalization can explain away."

Does this sound like clarification? Nabokov himself would, I'm sure, have had an acerbic rebuttal ready.

The publication of The Enchanter has prompted a lot of academic murmuring and lit-crit detective work. Opinions range from high praise to complete disinterest. The reviewer for the Nation, Steven Kallman, suggested that Dmitri Nabokov actually forged the book and is trying to pass it off as the lost 1939 work; but Kallman's case isn't very convincing. It is fun, in a way, to try to figure out how The Enchanter relates to other Nabokov works, and even to his life. Frankly, one can't expect to derive a lot more pleasure than that from the book.

For instance: The enchanter first spots his nymphet while he's sitting on a park bench and she's rollerskating. A widow, dressed in black, sits on the same bench. Sixteen years later, Nabokov tucked a small vestigial tribute into the beginning of Lolita:

"Once a perfect little beauty in a tartan frock, with a clatter put her heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip her slim bare arms into me book for fig leaf, as her auburn ringlets fell all over her skinned knee, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on her radiant limb next to my chameleonic cheek. . . . That old woman in black who sat down next to me on my bench, on my rack of joy . . ."

And what would Dmitri and the gaggle of Freudian critics say to the passage in Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory, where it is while escorting the baby Dmitri to parks in Europe ("Never in my life have I sat on so many benches and park chairs") that he encounters the "federation of light and shade through which bare-kneed, graceful children drift on whirring roller skates"?

If we go back still further, to 1937, we will be rewarded by discovering the synopsis of the plot of both Lolita and The Enchanter in another of his Russian novels, The Gift:

"Imagine this kind of thing: an old dog . . . gets to know a widow, and she had a daughter, still quite a little girl . . . when nothing is formed yet but already she has a way of walking that drives you out of your mind . . . and of course she doesn't even look at the old goat. What to do? Well, not long thinking, he ups and marries the widow."

One could go on forever making comparisons and connections among Nabokov's works, but this kind of reading becomes dangerous. Dmitri Nabokov warns us against lumping Lolita and The Enchanter too much together: "The differences between the two," he says, "are clearly greater than the similarities." On this point he may be right; but the similarities are still enough to bind the two inextricably. The Enchanter doesn't contribute anything extraordinary to the Nabokov oeuvre; it won't make us reevaluate Lolita. Against Dmitri Nabokov's wishes, it is destined to be the loser in a "before and after" picture. To use an analogy from Nabokov's beloved lepidoptera, we will always think of Lolita as the startling butterfly, and The Enchanter as the chrysalis that was prematurely cut open, revealing only the half-formed pupa.

The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov, Putnam, $16.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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