When Vladimir Nabokov was questioned in America about the impulse that had led him to write his sensational novel Lolita, he half-evaded the question. He said he had felt an early “throb” of interest in the subject of nymphets when he was a refugee in Paris in 1939 and was working on a short novel called The Enchanter. Like a great many distinguished Russian writers he had fled to Berlin after the Russian Revolution and, in 1939, was faced by the threat of the Nazi invasion of France. His liberal father, an important advisory political figure under the czar, had already been assassinated by a right-wing group. The novelist packed his papers and the manuscript of the novel in the family luggage and fled to the United States. There The Enchanter lay unpublished until 1986, well after his death. He had revised it and his son Dmitri has now done a very fine translation with a commentary.
Not surprisingly the gifted son has inherited something of his father’s petulance, partly at the expense of Andrew Field’s rightly valued VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov.* Field did not accept the general European view that the nineteenth-century Russians were Victorian puritans on the subject of sex and marital relations. We have taken the official severity of the censors too seriously: landowners in remote provinces or in the capital were a law to themselves on matters of sex as indeed we know, for example, from Turgenev’s life and especially his mother’s. There were unexplained “orphans” and even hints of incest.
Family loyalty has stirred Dmitri Nabokov to attack Field’s “overblown claptrap” about family matters. It does seem that the son is right in one instance: Vladimir did not call his mother Lolita; Field misread the Cyrillic script. More interestingly, on the subject of literary influences, Dmitri says, “I shall not venture to assess the importance…of Lewis Carroll,” on whom the father wrote an important essay, or that of the arguments he had drawn upon Havelock Ellis’s study of the confessions of a Ukrainian pedophile. The excellent Chekhov scholar Donald Rayfield had discussed Havelock Ellis’s find and Edmund Wilson had sent the transcript to the novelist in 1948—too late for The Enchanter but well in time for Lolita.
Academic speculations are one thing, the practice of art is quite another. I am with Dmitri Nabokov when he says the arts in general pulsate with “throbs” and that Lolita was “unquestionably the product of very new and different artistic stimuli.” In The Enchanter the seducer is presented as a dismal man of forty, lonely by choice, finical by nature, without friends, who has vague bookish intellectual employment. He has something of the nature of a magician or conjurer in him. One hint of this is that he wears a pretty watch in which the hands are concealed—a draw to any child.
In the opening scenes we see him sitting with two plain, commonplace, middleaged women on a park bench in Paris, listening to their flat complaining talk. One is a worried widow whose ten-year-old daughter is running about on crunching roller skates which make her take “little Japanese steps.” The “enchanter” is entranced by her childish movements. Desire is born and the girl is amazed by that watch while he listens to the widow talking about her stomach troubles. She has been in the hospital. The other woman has been looking after the child in another district. How can he contrive daily closeness to the child? His mind fills with what he calls scenarios—film language, we notice—that will meet his end. The suburban woman is short of money; she is tired of looking after the widow’s child: she is going to sell her furniture and leave the district. So he begins by buying her furniture: a point gained. The child will have to return to the widowed mother.
This hardly advances matters: the girl is closely protected. New scenarios are needed. We realize that the seducer has the isolating mentality of the mad, for he will reach the point where to get the girl he will have to marry the widow. This is a horrifying prospect, for her repellent body is scarred by operations: still, he plays the part of a suitor. Clearly she will soon be dead. Here we see how well Nabokov has caught the anxious, desperate mind of the woman, a touching victim of illness and bad luck in life, indeed almost a simple heroine. The marriage takes place. She perceives that he will be horrified by her scarred body and we are touched by her honest warning to him and her concern for the future of the child. She has no notion that he is banking on her death and that he is mad.
It will be worth it, he reflects, “no matter how long [I have] to drag this cumber-some behemoth through the quagmire of marriage.” This does not take long. She dies. New scenario. He will take the thrilled child—now his stepdaughter—to the seaside, not by train, but by hired car. The journey provides one of the almost lyrical scenes in the story. He has one small but significant shock: the child prefers to sit in front with the chauffeur—an excellent perception. There are clever glances at the countryside:
On we go. He looked at the forest that kept approaching in undulating hops from hillside to hillside until it slid down an incline and tripped over the road, where it was counted and stored away. “Shall we take a break here?” he wondered.
(Note the camera-crew “break”; Nabokov had worked on films in his Berlin days.)
“We could have a short walk, sit for a while on the moss among the mushrooms and the butterflies….” But he could not bring himself to stop the chauffeur: there was something unbearable about the idea of a suspicious car standing idle on the highway.
Food on the road, wine to drink; they get at night to a dubious country hotel.
Here film technique takes over in a short scene. An incompetent or idle desk clerk shows them to a room with a double bed. There are nasty hotel noises—a woman screaming from one room. The enchanter locks the door but is presently called down to confront a gendarme. The enchanter protests very much de haut en bas. False alarm: the clerk has written the wrong name in the register: the gendarme is after someone else. Unfortunately for his nerves the enchanter has now forgotten the number of his room, tries one door after another. This brings out the angry guests. This scene is masterly for now the man is no longer anonymous. He begins to lose his head.
When he finds his room he is soon caressing the half-asleep girl on the bed. She is puzzled until she sees him opening his pajamas.
For an instant, in the hiatus of a syncope, he also saw how it appeared to her: some monstrosity, some ghastly disease—or else she already knew, or was it all of that together. She was looking and screaming, but the enchanter did not yet hear her screams; he was deafened by his own horror.
There is a struggle in the room.
Like a child in a screen drama, she shielded herself with her sharp little elbow, tearing from his grasp and still yelling senselessly, and somebody was pounding on the wall, demanding inconceivable silence.
Half-naked he races out of the room and is chased down the stairs by the disturbed guests. He rushes barefoot out of the hotel, crossing the garden in the darkness:
His desperate need for a torrent, a precipice, a railroad track…made him appeal for the very last time to the topography of his past.
On the main road he is run down by a truck—“this thundering iron thing, this instantaneous cinema of dismemberment…. The film of life had burst.”
No language—and Nabokov the trilinguist is a dictionary—like this is to be found in Lolita.
Nabokov is of course a master of allusive images: in his few scenes with the girl he is closely and naturally observant and allusive. She is not an idealized innocent: she is her natural, incompletely formed self; but the man is given all the muddled metaphors of hysteria and his obsessions. He has the fantasies of a vulgar muddler, a magician who fails in his trick.
Nabokov’s language is equal to the evocation of his case. Clearly his skills are close to those of an imagist exploring the commonplace. No doubt the influence of the Futurists and Symbolists affected him at once in hysterical Berlin. We see that the story is a mere throb when we compare it to the plain realism of Lolita. We put his scenario down and we are oddly more aware of the passing talk of the “real” defenseless women on the park bench with their common woes. Nabokov was right to see that, as it stood, and despite its suspense, the story is no more than a brilliant reel of celluloid. On the other hand, his son Dmitri is simply stunning as a translator.