It begins when a match is struck on a darkened hotel porch, and a soft voice rasps “th’ equivocations of the fiend.”
“Where the devil did you get her?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said: the weather is getting better.”
“Who’s the lassie?”
“You lie—she’s not.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said: July was hot. Where’s her mother?”
Humbert Humbert knew, without knowing it, that McFate would speak in time—“Aubrey McFate,” the obscure thwarter hovering somewhere. Even when this private devil acquires a face (and endless cars), there is nothing to call him, for a long time, but McFate. Only when clues jumble near each other for a long time do they, clair-obscurely, finally spell out in patches this devil’s name: Clare Quilty.
Nabokov’s Lolita is (at last estimate) two thousand or so things—prominent among the rest, a detective story. (McFate is sometimes called Lieutenant Trapp.) As in Crime and Punishment, the detective is also the criminal; but Dostoyevsky makes Raskolnikov play this double role, back and forth, through a policeman essentially outside the crime: he must stalk the man who stalks him. Humbert and Quilty, by contrast, track in on each other as mutual accuser-criminals, growing toward each other’s destruction, Humbert in terror and Quilty with a leer. Not only Humbert, but Lolita herself, is possessed by Quilty, who can only be exorcised at last by murder. This detective story does not solve a crime, but is solved by one.
It is also, of course, a love story, as many have realized. All the clinical talk of girls half-nymphed into womanhood—time’s mermaids, amphibious, belonging fully to neither world—is in the long run misleading. Lolita does not fulfill Humbert’s obsession with nymphets she destroys it. His concern had been for a type, cocooned outside of time in a frozen moment of becoming. The mounted butterfly cannot decay, because it cannot (any longer) live. Humbert, with a thousand such butterfly slides to view, in his poise of remote satisfaction, meets Lolita at just her moment of chrysalus—loss and descent from nymphethood—and he follows her down. The two years of his life with her, and the two years after, are all post-nymphet years. He sees her last in a splayed and cowlike pregnancy, and never loved her more. By his own fastidious measure, cultivated half a lifeless lifetime, she represents his fall from an aesthetic state of grace. He dies into time with every sag of her flesh. Having flirted with her in his Eden of the mind, he loves her outside the fiery gates—now his and her flesh darken together back toward earth. He is redeemed by his fall, made capable of loving. And so capable of damning her.
She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past; an echo on the brink of …