Nabokov's Cosmic World of Mirrors
"Tum-te-tum. And once more - TUM! I have not gone mad. I am merely producing gleeful little sounds. The kind of glee one experiences upon making an April fool of someone. And a damned good fool I have made of someone. Who is he? Gentle reader look at yourself in the mirror."
Vladimir Nabokov (1936) Despair
In Chapter Two of Solving Nabokov's Lolita Riddle (2005) I express staunch criticism of Nabokov's literary scholars and biographers for failing to attend to the author's life-long preoccupation with the Reverend Charles Dodgson whose literary persona, Lewis Carroll, brought us the enchanted underground world of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-glass (1871). Nabokov developed a very early and intense interest in Lewis Carroll's nonsensical and often menacing 'Wonderland' and his looking-glass world where the rules of logic, space and time were often reversed. Nabokov's Russian translation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Anya v stranye chudes) was published by the Berlin-based émigré press, Gamayun, in 1923. The action in Nabokov's early Russian novel, Invitation to a Beheading (1938), revolves around a hilarious, magnificent parody of the Dodgson/Carroll double act.
Through the Looking-glass became a particular preoccupation of Nabokov's due in part to how its storyline was centered upon a game of chess which involved animated chess pieces. Solving Nabokov's Lolita Riddle explores the tantalizing and relatively concrete evidence that Nabokov engaged in a life-long, biographical chase of Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll which started during his student days at Cambridge University in 1919-1922. Nabokov held a very dim opinion indeed of Dodgson's character, being amongst those who considered Dodgson to be a pedophile. This assessment was largely driven by Nabokov's understanding of the aesthetic sensibilities which drove this aberrant sexual orientation. Nabokov was well aware of Dodgson's questionable interest in taking romanticized, but at times also overly 'erotic' portraits of nude, or semi-nude prepubescent girls, long before this information became widely available to the public. In his 1967 interview with Alfred Appel Jr. for the Wisconsin Studies literary journal, for example, Nabokov unambiguously stated:
"Some odd scruple prevented me from alluding in Lolita to his [Carroll's] wretched perversion and to those ambiguous photographs he took in dim rooms. He got away with it, as so many other Victorians got away with pederasty and nympholepsy. His were sad scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-undressed, or rather semi-undraped, as if participating in some dusty and dreadful charade" (Wisconsin Studies 1967, 142-143).
Nabokov's hitherto hidden 'moral project' - which seeks to demonstrate the terrible reality of incest for children - involves a two pronged attack against both Lewis Carroll and Sigmund Freud. Nabokov's assault on the underworld of incest/child rape and prostitution pivots on a strategy of reversal. Hence, when pitting himself against Freud's Oedipus complex theory Nabokov reversed Freud's fantasy or mythic-based construction of incest to demonstrate the brutal reality of incest behind his 'fictional' prose piece, Lolita (1955). With respect to Lewis Carroll, as I have argued in my book and the website section 'Nabokov's chess duel with Lewis Carroll' Nabokov set out to reverse the phallic imbued trajectory of the opening move made by the Red Queen in Through the Looking-glass (1871).
Nabokov's preoccupation with reversals and mirrors is made patently clear by his fantastic description of Room 342 at The Enchanted Hunter's Hotel where Humbert Humbert and Lolita spend their first incestuous night together:
"There was a double bed, a mirror, a double bed in the mirror, a closet door with mirror, a bathroom door ditto, a blue-dark window, a reflected bed there, the same in the closet mirror, two chairs, a glass-topped table, two bedtables, a double bed…" (Lolita, 119).
One area where Nabokov's interest in repeating patterns and cosmic numbers overlapped with his interest in mirrors and reversals is in relation to the 'magic key' number 342. In Lolita Nabokov attached special significance to the number 342 and built several patterns around it. Hence, the number 342 is not only the number of Dolores Haze's (Lolita's) home on Lawn Street, Ramsdale, it is also the number of the room at The Enchanted Hunter's Hotel where Lolita is debauched by Humbert. After Lolita has escaped, Humbert checks the hotel registers of 342 hotels in a vain attempt to track down the identity of his usurping rival, Clare Quilty.
In his 1964 Playboy magazine interview with Alvin Toffler Nabokov clearly instructed that Lolita contained a puzzle that was imbued with mirrored properties. Solving Nabokov's Lolita Riddle pays particular attention to Nabokov's paranormal fascination with the number 342 and its mirrored reversal, 243. Nabokov was, I believe, highly amused by the cosmic 'coincidence' that saw his most earnest attempt within Lolita to identify his French-speaking, code-obsessed Uncle Ruka as his sexual abuser fall on pages 243-244 of the 1959 first edition brought out by UK publishers, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
click on the thumbnails below to view the scanned pages
It is even possible that Nabokov somehow managed to orchestrate this little 'coincidence' as he did make some alterations to the text prior to Lolita's publication in single volume format by Putnam in 1958 and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1959 (see the assertion made by Nabokov which is quoted in Girodias' Evergreen Review article of 1965). At present, we simply do not know. What is clear, however, it that Nabokov himself continued to play with this 342/243 mirror in his later writings. For example, as we can see in Pale Fire (1962), Charles's Kinbote's annotation on John Shade's poetic mention of hurricane Lolita falls on page 243.
Nabokov also played with his cosmic 342/243 mirror within his greatly esteemed autobiography. In the first edition of his memoirs Speak, Memory: A Memoir (1951) the author discussed an exquisite cane he owned which he indicates once belonged to a great-great-uncle. In this edition the discussion falls on page 178. However, in the revised 1966/1967 edition of his memoirs, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (which added some 70 extra pages of extra discussion) Nabokov ensured that this narrative tale fell on page 243. In doing so he also altered the text to clarify that the cane had been bequeathed to him as a boy by his Uncle Ruka!
Nabokov's Reversed Truths
Nabokov propped a mirror up against Freud's theories and reversed the phallic symbolism vested in Carroll's Through the Looking-glass chess game (see Nabokov's Otherworldly Chess Problems and Solutions). Even more controversially, Nabokov also adopted a strategy of reversal in some of his interviews and letters. This means that on occasion he would say exactly the opposite of what was true. This highly unusual strategy has contributed heavily to the catastrophic misunderstanding of Nabokov's real intentions by his biographers and literary critics. Key instances where I firmly believe Nabokov was telling a 'reversed' truth include:
- In the postscript article "On a Book Entitled Lolita" where Nabokov nonchalantly stated that "despite John Ray's assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow" (Lolita, 314). (Given the intense effort and long term planning involved in implanting his Lolita riddle, this statement cannot possibly be true. In effect, Nabokov wrote Lolita precisely because there was a moral lesson in tow.)
- The letter sent to British author Graham Greene in 1956 where Nabokov wrote "the pity is that if I had made her a boy, or a cow, or a bicycle, Philistines might never have flinched" (Selected Letters, 1989 p.197).
- The interview with Time magazine reporters Martha Duffy and R.Z. Sheppard (issue May 23, 1969) who asked the author: "Is incest one of the different possible roads to happiness?" This question prompted Nabokov to respond scornfully: "If I had used incest for the purpose of representing a possible road to happiness or misfortune, I would have been a best-selling didactician dealing in general ideas. Actually I don't give a damn for incest one way or another. I merely like the 'bl' sound in siblings, bloom, blue, bliss, sable."
- The interview granted to Swiss Broadcast in 1972 where Nabokov
indicated he considered that Lewis Carroll's fictional world suggested "by
humorous juxtaposition, the presence of a quite solid, and rather sentimental,
world, behind the semi-detached dream". The phallic deflating solution Nabokov
devised to Carroll's looking-glass chess game suggests he regarded Charles
Dodgson's 'Alice in Wonderland' world, complete with its EAT ME cake, the
DRINK ME bottle and the bee's proboscis that sticks into a flower before
suddenly metamorphosing into an elephant's trunk as unconsciously 'leaking'
information about Charles Dodgson's familiarity with the sordid underground of
child prostitution. During the Victorian era chloroform was sometimes used to
render children unconscious prior to their sexual assault. (Pedophiles today
continue to use drugs such as alcohol as well as modern pharmaceutical
products to achieve sexual contacts, up to and including penetrative sex, with