Wednesday, 10 April 2019

From The Enchanter to Lolita

Enough of octopuses, I’m now going back to writing about literature. 
I’ve read The Enchanter, which I’ve called the proto-Lolita. Comparison is unavoidable, so let’s look at how Humbert Humbert describes the 1st time he meets Lolita: 
“I was still walking behind Mrs. Haze through the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery — “the piazza,” sang out my leader, and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses. 
It was the same child — the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. A polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest hid from my aging ape eyes, but not from the gaze of young memory, the juvenile breasts I had fondled one immortal day. And, as if I were the fairy-tale nurse of some little princess (lost, kidnaped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the king and his hounds), I recognized the tiny dark-brown mole on her side. With awe and delight (the king crying for joy, the trumpets blaring, the nurse drunk) I saw again her lovely indrawn abdomen where my southbound mouth had briefly paused; and those puerile hips on which I had kissed the crenulated imprint left by the band of her shorts— that last triad immortal day behind the “Roches Roses.” The twenty-five years I had lived since then tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished. 
I find it most difficult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition. In the course of the sun-shot moment that my glance slithered over the kneeling child (her eyes blinking over those stem dark spectacles— the little Herr Doktor who was to cure me of all my aches) while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these checked against the features of my dead bride. A little later, of course, she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype.”   
Humbert Humbert, in case you don’t know the story, is looking for an apartment, and has no interest in this place, until he sees Lolita. The situation in The Enchanter is completely different—the unnamed paedophile sees the little girl, also unnamed, in a park, and finds ways to get closer to her. He approaches the woman who accompanies the girl, then gets to the ailing mother, purchases furniture from her and then seduces her. 
Another thing to note is that Nabokov writes in the 1st person in Lolita; for The Enchanter, he chooses the 3rd-person narrator but employs free indirect speech.
Now let’s look at the way the 1st meeting is described in The Enchanter
“A violet-clad girl of 12 (he never erred), was treading rapidly and firmly on skates that did not roll but crunched on the gravel as she raised and lowered them with little Japanese steps and approached his bench through the variable luck of the sunlight. Subsequently (for as long as the sequel lasted), it seemed to him that right away, at that very moment, he had appreciated all of her from tip to toe: the liveliness of her russet curls (recently trimmed); the radiance of her large, slightly vacuous eyes, somehow suggesting translucent gooseberries; her merry, warm complexion; her pink mouth, slightly open so that 2 large front teeth barely rested on the protuberance of the lower lip; the summery tint of her bare arms with the sleek little fox-like hairs running along the forearms; the indistinct tenderness of her still narrow but already not quite flat chest; the way the folds of her skirt moved; their succinctness and soft concavities; the slenderness and glow of her uncaring legs; the coarse straps of the skates.” 
The difference is obvious: the writing in The Enchanter is more explicit, and a lot cruder. 
Another passage from The Enchanter
“The girl’s arrival, her breathing, her legs, her hair, everything that she did, whether it was scratching a shin and leaving white marks on it, or throwing a small black ball high in the air, or brushing against him with a bare elbow as she seated herself on the bench—all of it (while he appeared engrossed in pleasant conversation) evoked an intolerable sensation of sanguine, dermal, multivascular communion with her, as if the monstrous bisector pumping all the juices from the depths of his being extended into her like a pulsating dotted line, as if this girl were growing out of him, as if, with every carefree movement she tugged and shook her vital roots implanted in the bowels of his being, so that, when she abruptly changed position or rushed off, he felt a yank, a barbarous pluck, a momentary loss of equilibrium: suddenly you are traveling through the dust on your back, banging the back of your head, on your way to being strung up by your insides.” 
It is very crude, indeed, vulgar, and gross. 
“She might be a little introverted, livelier of movement than of conversation, neither bashful nor forward, with a soul that seemed submerged, but in a radiant moistness.” 
Notice the choice of words. I shall not type out the hotel scene. 
The narrative voice of The Enchanter has none of the beauty and elegance of Lolita, but of course, that is the trap of Lolita—Humbert Humbert is much worse than the character of this book, he abducts and rapes Lolita, and manipulates everyone. As Nabokov came back to the idea, reused the basic plot, and developed the story, he went further and created a work that is a lot more complicated—I don’t mean in terms of technique, which is needless to say, I mean the novel becomes a lot trickier and full of traps. Humbert Humbert is much wittier and more interesting than his unnamed equivalent—he has charm and writes to manipulate, to ask for empathy. He tries to justify, romanticise, and mythicise his obsession with little girls, and because he doesn’t describe things as explicitly as in The Enchanter, he easily fools unsuspecting readers. 
There are 2 main misinterpretations of Lolita. The 1st is to believe that the author condones paedophilia, or worse, he himself is a paedophile (because why else would the book feel so true and convincing?). The 2nd is to treat it as a love story and not see Humbert Humbert as a villain, rapist, and criminal. 
The 1st kind of misunderstanding is the fault of a bad reader, who either sees only the surface or doesn’t understand literature and literary criticism.  
The 2nd kind of misunderstanding comes from bad reading and the failure to notice Lolita’s suffering, but it has more to do with moral values. How can you justify the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl? Not 16. Not 15. 12. How can you put the blame on her? 
As Nabokov went from The Enchanter to Lolita, he made the matter trickier and more complex by making the girl sexually precocious. The girl in the Russian novella is a pure, innocent child—“sexually unawakened and physically immature”, in Dmitri Nabokov’s words. It is plain and clear: a paedophile and an innocent child. Lolita is much more subtle and nuanced, and not so black and white. 
The moral stance is the same, though: it doesn’t matter that Lolita is sexually precocious and sexually experienced, it doesn’t matter even if Lolita seduces Humbert Humbert—nothing justifies his actions, and he himself knows it.  


A motif in The Enchanter
“… he would lie supine and evoke the one and only image, entwine his smiling victim with 8 hands, which turned into 8 tentacles affixed to every detail of her nudity, and at last he would dissolve in a black mist and lose her in the blackness, and the blackness spread everywhere, and was but the blackness of the night in his solitary bedroom.” 
That’s an octopus. 
Didn’t I say I stopped writing about octopuses? But there it is.  
The octopus appears once before in the book: 
“He had forgotten the rest of his sentence, but improvised most adroitly, as he was beginning to feel at home with the artificial style of the still not fully comprehensible, many-ringed dream with which he was already so indistinctly but so firmly entwined that, for instance, he no longer knew what this thing was, and whose: part of his own leg or part of an octopus.”


  1. i don't get why you think Lolita is a great work... it just seems rather sick to me... remember, i'm old.

    1. That would require a proper essay-long blog post, but I'm quite busy now, so I'm giving you this one: