NaNoReMo 2008: Lolita Part I, Chapters 23-33

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Status Report: Nabokov has broadly hinted that Humbert Humbert’s obsession with “nymphets” is a result of his abortive relationship with his childhood sweetheart Annabel. As corroborating evidence, I would point to this moment in chapter 26, when HH picks up Lolita from camp:

I felt the blood rush to my head as I heard her respiration and voice behind me. She arrived dragging and bumping her heavy suitcase. "Hi!" she said, and stood still, looking at me with sly, glad eyes, her soft lips parted in a slightly foolish but wonderfully endearing smile.

She was thinner and taller, and for a second it seemed to me her face was less pretty than the mental imprint I had cherished for more than a month: her cheeks looked hollowed and too much lentigo camouflaged her rosy rustic features; and that first impression (a very narrow human interval between two tiger heartbeats) carried the clear implication that all widower Humbert had to do, wanted to do, or would do, was to give this wan-looking though sun-colored little orphan au yeux battus (and even those plumbaceous umbrae under her eyes bore freckles) a sound education, a healthy and happy girlhood, a clean home, nice girl-friends of her age among whom (if the fates deigned to repay me) I might find, perhaps, a pretty little Magdlein for Herr Doktor Humbert alone. But "in a wink," as the Germans say, the angelic line of conduct was erased, and I overtook my prey (time moves ahead of our fancies!), and she was my Lolita again--in fact, more of my Lolita than ever.

You can almost see HH sculpting the the actual (and inevitably disappointing) girl into the chimeric object of his desire, chipping away at those things that don’t fit his vision, slapping on more clay and frantically molding incongruities until they are subsumed by his fantasy.

Earlier HH provided a fairly convolution rationale for why he calls Dolores something that has only a passing resemblance to her real name; passages like this provide a far more convincing explanation: because Dolores and Lolita happen to be two entirely different girls, one real, the other ideal.

Later, I found myself almost unable to begin chapter 28. And then again chapter 29, when Nabokov strung us along for 5 pages. So great was the tension, the “oh god, where is he going to go with this”, that I found the scene that followed–Lolita fitfully sleeping in bed, HH beside her, terrified to move–to be laugh out loud funny. That’s a little something the French call the douche ecossaise: the sudden shift between horror and humor–two opposing emotional “temperatures”–each heightening the effect of the other.

Favorite passage:

I had another visitor--friend Beale, the fellow who eliminated my wife. Stodgy and solemn, looking like a kind of assistant executioner, with his bulldog jowls, small black eyes, thickly rimmed glasses and conspicuous nostrils, he was ushered in by John who then left us, closing the door upon us, with the utmost tact. Suavely saying he had twins in my stepdaughter's class, my grotesque visitor unrolled a large diagram he had made of the accident. It was, as my stepdaughter would have put it, "a beaut," with all kinds of impressive arrows and dotted lines in varicolored inks...

With his hummingbird pencil deftly and delicately flying from one point to another, Frederick demonstrated his absolute innocence and the recklessness of my wife: while he was in the act of avoiding the dog, she slipped on the freshly watered asphalt and plunged forward whereas she should have flung herself not forward but backward (Fred showed how by a jerk of his padded shoulder). I said it was certainly not his fault, and the inquest upheld my view. Breathing violently though jet-black tense nostrils, he shook his head and my hand; then, with an air of perfect savoir vivre and gentlemanly generosity, he offered to pay the funeral-home expenses. He expected me to refuse his offer. With a drunken sob of gratitude I accepted it. This took him aback. Slowly, incredulously, he repeated what he had said. I thanked him again, even more profusely than before.

Words Looked Up: Lost my word list. :(

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14 comments.

  1. I always wonder how he got to name her Lolita…

  2. Words I had to look up, just from the passages you quoted:

    lentigo: a flat, brownish pigmented spot on the skin due to increased deposition of melanin and an increased number of melanocytes; a freckle.

    plumbaceous: lead like, or lead coloured (from http://msgboard.snopes.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=95;t=000431;p=1)

    umbrae: A dark area, especially the blackest part of a shadow from which all light is cut off. See synonyms at

  3. Interesting insight on the real vs. ideal girl thing. It seems clear that H.H. has no real interest in an actual girl, he wants something he can take out and play with a then lock away for safe keeping (esp. apparent during part two). I thought the relationship between H.H. was sick, even ignoring the pedophilia.

  4. I love the 2nd paragraph of the first passage you quoted — especially that his first impression is of the real girl, and that real girl is someone that he has an impulse to protect and to raise correctly and normally. I think Nabokov’s saying that HH really does have a choice to act morally, that HH prefers to live in his fantasy world and chooses to dwell there — he’s not a slave to impulses he has no control over, but at many moments he has a choice between duelling impulses.

    I think Nabokov implies in that paragraph that HH deliberately turns his thoughts away from protecting and caring for the real girl so that he can indulge in his fantasy with the imaginary girl. I think Nabokov there is saying that HH has free will but chooses evil.

  5. Sorry, I just have to ask…

  6. My impression was that Charlotte WAS a pretty crappy mother, and this probably had significant bearing on Lo’s appeal to Humbert. (Lo being the pet name Charlotte gave, which Hum fleshed to Lolita.)

    Lo is at the age where most girls don’t get along well with their mothers anyway. You can tell that Charlotte is irritated with her willfulness and burgeoning attraction, especially since she isn’t overflowing with self-confidence. Lo is tickled pink that her mother’s handsome friend takes an interest in her, and even more that this interest visibly irritates her mother. Of COURSE she’d encourage it. Lolita *does* encourage Humbert’s line of thought, but she has no idea what she’s getting herself into. How could she?

  7. Douche ecossaise…Scottish shower? Never heard that figure of speech before, but I will remember it now. Thanks!

  8. My favorite sentence from this section:
    “The key, with its numbered dangler of carved wood, became forthwith the weighty sesame to a rapturous and formidable future.”

    Close second:
    “I sensed strange thoughts form in the minds of the languid ladies that escorted me from counter to counter, from rock ledge to seaweed, and the belts and the bracelets I chose seemed to fall from siren hands into transparent water.”

  9. One thing to keep in mind in re Charlotte as bad mother: all the evidence for “bad motherness” comes from HH. I re-read Lolita this summer, and it struck me that Charlotte’s many (but not all) putatively mean or shallow comments could also be interpreted as neutral or even loving; i.e., Charlotte’s actual quoted words don’t reveal her to be nearly as bad a mother as HH wants us to believe. The “brat” comment above, for instance, could be taken as Charlotte sarcastically quoting HH’s diary that she’s just read.

  10. I remember where I was sitting when I read this section, though I read this book across several states on a recent vacation, and I remember very vividly the highwire scenes to which you refer. I got perhaps too much of a laugh out of Humbert’s word “nympholepsy,” HH’s art of drugging young girls which, with his inexperience, he was finding to be an inexact science.

  11. Denise- “Douche ecossaise…Scottish shower?”

    Aha! It makes some sense now, I didn’t know ecossaise was Scottish! It’s a “cheap Scotsman” reference. See, they won’t pay for hot water, so they take cold showers, so a Scottish shower can be quite a shock. Ah, racial stereotyping, where would we be without you?

  12. Re: Scottish shower — According to the best half-assed google translation I could find, it refers to some kind of quack 19th century medical practice originating in Scotland, to wit:

    “This expression dating from the nineteenth century refers to a hydrotherapy which is practiced in Scotland, and like the sauna that is still practiced in northern Europe.

    Literally, the Scottish shower consists of alternating jets of water very cold and very hot jet, which is supposed to activate blood circulation.

    By analogy, the term has taken the figurative meaning of “conduct very mixed”.

    Thus, we can say a person takes a Scottish shower when someone behaves with her in a very warm and frigid the next.”

    And in French:
    “Au sens propre, la douche

  13. Have you seen this link? It’s Nabakov reading the first part of Lolita and talking about some of his interests:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3fsSL4Bw9w