The Tale of Two Stories

To some, Lolita is a story about a heaving, vulgar pedophile lusting for the fruits of an innocent and helpless child. Please forgive them: the public-school system is soon due for reform. Nonetheless, any way one ogles at it, the novel is certainly amorous in tone. But, nearly completely naked of any description of true fornication, the book subtly presents to the reader a beautiful moral dilemma: we understand Humbert; we are sympathetic towards him; we are also hot and bothered. But that’s wrong, right? 

One way of many Nabokov gets us petting heavy at otherwise commonplace scenes regarding quotidian endeavors is through Connotation. In today’s highly poetic world, with such understated masterpieces as the horizontal boogie, or checking the plumbing, in order to clean the pipes, innuendo and double-entendre have obviously reached levels of an almost perfect art. Yet, despite the odds of ever becoming any more subtle than the aforementioned, Nabokov erects connotation to a new climax. Engorged senses become “full to the brim,” and sudden commotions “prevent() them from overflowing,” after which there are “aching veins.” “Gay dogs…unload…career girls” onto the dashing Humbert. Humbert is “moved” by Lolita’s slangy speech. And when Humbert plays with the idea of becoming Lolita’s father, he is certain that “if all of (his) troubles would be expelled, (he) would be a healthy man.” It is almost as if Nabokov planned those words to be where they are, as if he were trying to say two things at once.

Whether we like it or not, our names have a lot to do with our identity. Joshes are good at breaking down walls. Davids are good with slings. Smiths make our tools. Bakers make us fat. Geoffrey Chaucer is widely credited with the first use of meaningful names in English literature insofar as the names he devised for his characters referred, whether satirically or not, to some occupation, dominant personality trait, or connection he or she might have with the budding Western Literary Canon. Nabokov continues this tradition. Consider Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann, a name Nabokov uses to satirize the standard psychologist; here, Nabokov reminds us that modern psychology retains a myopically black (German: Schwarz) and white (French: blanche) assertion towards the meaning to consciousness and all the contents pertaining thereto. And what about Nabokov’s creation in Ms. Phalen (failing), the “old spinster.” Choosing the right name for a character is as important as the words chosen to describe them thereafter.

The God of all double storytelling: Allusion. The allusion is an immensely powerful tool for the lexically inclined and is indeed the king of subtle wit, as it requires a deep understanding of not only the text at hand, but of various other texts and their many relations to that same text at hand; this is the beautiful bower to which all writers and readers should strive. Nabokov, much like one of his favorite writers, James Joyce, writes much of his books almost entirely in allusion. There can be, by using this method, two, three, four, perhaps infinite stories happening at once. Lolita’s phony foreword by the phony professor John Ray refers to Humbert Humbert: “he is not a gentleman,” an allusion to James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the character Buck Mulligan’s wrongful instigation of Stephen Daedalus. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet takes the stage with the staging of Humbert’s childhood romance with Annabel in “a kind of cave” by the beach, after which failed encounter she dies, and so does childhood and the feeling of love for Humbert; he is forever in love with that child(hood); Humbert’s a Romantic. What about the frequent comparisons of Lolita to that Mother of Humanity, Eve? Nabokov compares Lolita to Annabel and his childhood beach romance as that “immortal” day. Lolita eats “Eden-red apple(s)” and “immemorial fruit.” When canoodling with Lolita on the couch he states that the interaction “would suffice to set all paradise loose,” which is also a nice usage of innuendo, whereupon Humbert goes upstairs to shower in a “deluge of steaming water,” nicely intimating the diluvial flood, and thus the baptism, and furthermore the Rebirth; Humbert has been reborn into Eden.

Indeed, Lolita isfor those interested in lexical beauty,an attractive work to behold, perhaps, in the world of aesthetics, a perfect ten. Words are at their most beautiful when they have many stories to tell. Nabokov is a master linguist who leaves his prose prodding, pinging, and prickling around in the minds of all appreciative readers. Humbert, condemned to a psychiatric ward, asks us, pleads us to “look at this tangle of thorns.”

Vera Nabokov

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