The Magician’s Trick

The Enchanter

by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Dmitri Nabokov
Putnam's, 127 pp., $16.95

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 There The Enchanter lay unpublished until 1986, well after his death.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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.