Further Annotations to Nabokov and Appel’s “Annotated Lolita”

Sure this is pedantic, but Nabokovists are supposed to be pedantic. I should note that an anonymous but presumably eminent Nabokov scholar has wearily baptized my comments with his hatred and contempt. (See also my piece on The American Girl here).

I wish that Appel had asked Nabokov about Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Chodorlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. For all their differences, Daisy Miller and Dolores Haze are classic American Girls ™, 70 years (and not many miles) apart —  Lolita’s mom Charlotte even calls herself an America girl. In Les Liaisons Dangereuses the innocent 14 year old convent girl Cécile Volanges is seduced (by an evil seducer, natch) but ends up liking it and wearing out the seducer, though of course her life is ultimately ruined. (Times change: she would have been married off at age 15 anyway.)

Laclos and Nabokov both get the teeny-bopper language down perfectly, which in the case of Laclos was quite an amazing accomplishment given the fictional and literary conventions of that era.  He got as much flak for Cécile’s illiterate French as he did for the evil of the plot.

113: “No, don’t slow down, you dull bulb…” (Lolita speaking)

“Dim bulb” or “dimbub” is what I’ve always heard. One wonders whether Nabokov might have heard wrong or misremembered.

Lolita, p. 121: And so to the elevator, daughter swinging her old white purse, father walking in front (nota bene: never behind, she is not a lady)…

Here and in a couple of other places Nabokov misses a chance to introduce the “that wasn’t a lady, that was my wife” joke. The word “lady” is a good one to use when teaching ESL students sociolinguistics.

p 148: I still hear the nasal voices of those invisibles serenading her, people with names like Sammy and Jo and Eddy and Tony and Peggy and Guy and Patti and Rex, and sentimental song hits, all of them as similar to my ear as her various candies were to my palate.  

Appel (pp. 386-7) identifies these musicians as Sammy Kaye, Jo Stafford, Eddie Fisher, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Guy Mitchell, and Patti Page and then says:  But this information isn’t campy if you don’t know who these invisibles are, and that their sentimental songs of love and romance were very corny, and backed by ludicrously fulsome string arrangements.

Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett at least were jazz singers who don’t deserve that shit. Nabokov has confessed to having a tin ear for music, and Appel (p. 389) might be guilty of that too. Zoot Sims was not “great”:

Zoot, the saxophone playing puppet in the Muppets, is not a tribute to fashion [zoot suits] but to John Haley (Zoot) Sims (1925-1985), the great tenor saxophonist.

p. 156: … a last rufous mountain with a rich rug of lucerne at its foot…

Appel note, p. 390: lucerne: a deep-rooted European herb with bluish-purple flowers; in the US usually called alfalfa

Alfalfa has been a major American crop since the mid-19th century and is more important in America than in Europe; if you insist on an ethnic identification, alfalfa came originally from Persia. Lucern” is one of several European names for alfalfa, and alfalfa is another.

p. 174. …bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on singularly lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.

Certainly a reference to Victor Hugo’s 1877 L’art d’être Grand-Père. Hugo was a highly affectionate grandfather who once told his four-year-old granddaughter that she had a cute ass. He was also one of the horniest bastards who ever lived; his preference in women was “the first one who comes along”. (Source: Robb biography). Another horny bastard was Theophile Gautier, who confessed to an unconsummated preference for nymphets. (Source: Goncourt diaries).

p. 177: Miss Pratt tells Humbert that Dolores Haze …is already involved in a whole system of social life which consists, whether we like it or not, of hot-dog stands, corner drugstores, malts and cokes, movies, square-dancing, blanket parties on beaches, and even hair-fixing parties!

I’m only 11 years younger than Miss Haze, who would be approaching 90 by now (as is Phoebe Caulfield), and I cannot believe that square-dancing was any more part of youth culture during the jitterbug era than it was during the rock’n’roll era.

p. 259: …her slow languorous columbine kisses kept me from mischief…

French kisses. The term “columbine kisses” is used in Huysmans’ book Au rebours (which was once quintessentially decadent, but now pretty much white bread). According to Huysmans, columbine kisses were condemned by the Church.

p. 302:  Feu. This time I hit something hard…

Could the french word “feu”, literally “fire”, also be weakly onomatopoeic for the gunshot, which was sort of fizzly and ineffective? And might an (etymologically unrelated) meaning  of this word also be in play: “deceased”, as in feu mon père. I don’t know whether this word would be used with a proper name (“feu Clare Quilty”) but maybe the idea was lurking in there somewhere. (In French this would not be true, but Lolita is written in English).

Dolores Haze was normal, poor Dora was sick

Nabakov had a virulent dislike for the works of Sigmund Freud. You have to wonder whether he might have had this passage in mind when he planned the book:

He then came back, and, instead of going out by the open door, suddenly clasped the girl to him and pressed a kiss upon her lips. This was surely a situation to call up a distinct feeling of sexual excitement in  a girl of fourteen who had never been approached. But Dora had at that moment a violent feeling of disgust…. In this scene,…. the behavior of this child of fourteen was already entirely and completely hysterical. I should without question consider a person hysterical in whom an occasion of sexual excitement elicited feelings that were preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable.

Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Collier, 1963, pp. 43-44.

Humberto Saba: the real Humbert Humbert?

There is no attempt to identify a model for Humbert Humbert in the Annotated Lolita.  The novel often echoes Poe (who married a fourteen-year-old cousin), and sometimes Lewis Carroll, whose peculiar interest in young girls would land him in jail today. The annotated version was produced with Nabokov’s cooperation, and in his gentlemanly way Nabokov was careful not to reveal information which might embarrass living people. (In the case of a certain kinky tennis player, though, enough information was given to make it easy enough to track him down).

There is, however, a plausible candidate to be the “original Humbert”. Umberto Saba was an Italian poet from Trieste, where he was a neighbor of  James Joyce. He wrote personal, unmodernist poems in pure classical Italian, and has come to be regarded as one of the three great Italian poets of the first half of the twentieth century, along with Ungaretti and Montale.

Saba, the genteel proprietor of a bookshop, was the most mild-mannered of men, but in the words of a friend, “he loved the girls and he loved the boys; he loved the men and he loved the women.” Among his poems are a number of erotic poems about boys and girls which tend not to be translated into English.1

I am less able to fake it in Italian than in several other languages, but “È mezza bambina e mezza bestia. Eppure l’ami” (“She’s half baby girl and half animal – and yet I love her”) and “Maria ti guarda con gli occhi un poco come Venere loschi” (“The Virgin Mary watches you with the sleazy eyes of Venus”) seem explicit enough.

In Lolita, Humbert’s origins were on the French Riviera, and in an earlier sketch which Nabokov discarded, the Humbert-figure was vaguely Eastern European. Saba’s Trieste is probably as close as you can get to an Eastern European / Riviera cross. Saba died in 1957, and Lolita was published in 19542 , so Nabokov’s rule about not embarrassing the living would have required him not to mention Saba directly, while still allowing him to leave us some clues. The fact that Saba was almost unknown in the English-speaking world at that time, and is hardly famous here now, further protected him.

Saba did some of the things that William Burroughs and other avant-garde heroes did, but he didn’t aspire to be a Satanic figure the way Burroughs and the others did. He was just an example of a kind of snuffy kinkiness which seems to have been fairly common in pre-WWII Europe, and perhaps even today, but which has always been shocking to Americans. Nabokov was careful to dissociate himself from Humbert, and he made sure that Humbert died miserably, but I doubt that he found him shocking in the same way that most of his American readers did.

The terrible thing that Nabokov shows us was that Lolita was Humbert’s captive and had nowhere else to go. As for the purity of childhood, however, she was already not a virgin when Humbert seduced her,  having done a bit of experimentation the summer before with the boy at the lake.3


1. The Italian words are fanciullo “boy” (plural fanciulli, which can also just mean “children”) and fanciulla “girl” (plural fanciulle). For me, with my limited knowledge of Italian, there’s quite a bit of ambiguity in these poems. Sometimes it seems that Saba, like Proust, is pretending that a boy is a girl, and other times I wonder whether he was sexualizing actual children, or whether he was just  role-playing childish fantasies with legal young adults. There probably are answers to these questions, but I don’t have them.

I’d also like to file a complaint here about the bilingual dictionaries of the world, most of which stubbornly refuse to list plurals and other inflected forms separately, even in a case like fanciulli, which has the additional meaning, “children”, and is not just the plural of the singular “boy”.

In Lolita, Humbert Humbert points out that the age of consent for girls in Roman law, Church law, and American law has been as low as twelve, and seldom higher than fifteen – though only within marriage, and with the consent of the parents. He also makes snarky remarks about the Mann Act (which has to do mostly with women)  and is fully aware of the American “Children and Young Persons Act of 1933”, according to which a “child” is younger than fourteen, and a “young person” is between fourteen and seventeen.

2. Lolita was published three years before Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, making it the first great  American  “road novel”. Travel through Colorado (where Neal Cassidy lived) is featured in both novels, as it was in the lives of their authors. Someone should put the timelines on a map to see whether Nabokov, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Humbert Humbert, Sal Paradise, and Dean Moriarty, were ever at the same place at the same (real or fictional) time. I have a personal interest in this question, because my parents passed through Denver in 1946, only a few months before I was born.

3. We are in a most peculiar place these days with respect to juvenile sexuality. The whole public space is intensely sexualized, adult sexual mores are free and easy, and few parents really expect chastity from their teenagers.   Yet there’s a constant uproar about child abuse, and the threshold of childhood has been raised to eighteen in most states.  It seems to be assumed now, even by the liberated, that any relationship between an older and a younger partner is sick, even if both are adults.

Against this, there is plenty of testimony (e.g. Margeurite Duras’s The Lover) about May-September romances which were positive for both partners – granted that almost all love affairs end more or less badly. Many of the medieval romances I have studied have heroines  who are thirteen to fifteen years old: Menina e Moça, Aucassin et Nicolette, Romeo and Juliet, and also some of the stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron. In all these stories the young lady is portrayed as hot to trot — though in most cases the boy is about the same age as the girl.

In my own college experience, back in the early sixties when the Sexual Revolution was not yet quite rampant, “don’t ask / don’t tell” faculty-student relationships, both gay and straight, were quite common. At least two girls in my high school and at least two college classmates married faculty members immediately after graduation. My sisters are in touch with two of them and I still see one of the the college classmates occasionally. She’s still married to the same guy, who’s only eight years older than she is. When I met her at a recent reunion I suggested that her marriage be annulled, and she laughed.