perfect-crime parable & Peter Krestovski in Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 01/03/2019 - 03:56

Describing his plans to drown his wife Charlotte (Lolita’s mother) in Hourglass Lake, Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Lolita, 1955) mentions the point of his perfect-crime parable:

 

Nonetheless it was a very close shave, speaking quite objectively. And now comes the point of my perfect-crime parable.

We sat down on our towels in the thirsty sun. She looked around, loosened her bra, and turned over on her stomach to give her back a chance to be feasted upon. She said she loved me. She sighed deeply. She extended one arm and groped in the pocket of her robe for her cigarettes. She sat up and smoked. She examined her right shoulder. She kissed me heavily with open smoky mouth. Suddenly, down the sand bank behind us, from under the bushes and pines, a stone rolled, then another.

“Those disgusting prying kids,” said Charlotte, holding up her big bra to her breast and turning prone again. “I shall have to speak about that to Peter Krestovski.”

From the debouchment of the trail came a rustle, a footfall, and Jean Farlow marched down with her easel and things.

“You scared us,” said Charlotte.

Jean said she had been up there, in a place of green concealment, spying on nature (spies are generally shot), trying to finish a lakescape, but it was no good, she had no talent whatever (which was quite true)”And have you ever tried painting, Humbert?” Charlotte, who was a little jealous of Jean, wanted to know if John was coming.

He was. He was coming home for lunch today. He had dropped her on the way to Parkington and should be picking her up any time now. It was a grand morning. She always felt a traitor to Cavall and Melampus for leaving them roped on such gorgeous days. She sat down on the white sand between Charlotte and me. She wore shorts. Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as those of a chestnut mare. She showed her gums when she smiled.

“I almost put both of you into my lake,” she said. “I even noticed something you overlooked. You [addressing Humbert] had your wrist watch on in, yes, sir, you had.”

“Waterproof,” said Charlotte softly, making a fish mouth.

Jean took my wrist upon her knee and examined Charlotte’s gift, then put back Humbert’s hand on the sand, palm up.

“You could see anything that way,” remarked Charlotte coquettishly.

Jean sighed. “I once saw,” she said, “two children, male and female, at sunset, right here, making love. Their shadows were giants. And I told you about Mr. Tomson at daybreak. Next time I expect to see fat old Ivor in the ivory. He is really a freak, that man. Last time he told me a completely indecent story about his nephew. It appears - ”

“Hullo there,” said John’s voice. (1.20)

 

A burley ex-policeman, Peter Krestovski has the same surname as the novelist Vsevolod Krestovski (1840-95), the author of Peterburgskie trushchoby (“The Slums of St. Petersburg,” 1867). In a letter of March 10, 1895, to A. Zhirkevich (who asked Chekhov’s opinion about his poem Kartinki detstva, “The Pictures of Childhood,” 1890) Chekhov praises the letter of the late Krestovski (who responded to Zhirkevich’s question how to write, with or without a plan, etc.) printed in Istoricheskiy Vestnik (“The Historical Herald”):

 

Письмо покойного Крестовского, напечатанное в «Историческом вестнике», — хорошее письмо, и, думаю, оно будет иметь успех в литературных кружках. В этом письме чувствуется литератор, и притом очень умный, доброжелательный литератор.

 

In Chekhov’s story Poprygun’ya (“The Grasshopper,” 1891) Olga Ivanovna (like Jean Farlow, a talentless amateur artist) wears a waterproof (raincoat):

 

Приехала она домой через двое с половиной суток. Не снимая шляпы и ватерпруфа, тяжело дыша от волнения, она прошла в гостиную, а оттуда в столовую.


She arrived home two and a half days later. Breathless with excitement, she went, without taking off her hat or waterproof, into the drawing-room and thence into the dining-room. (chapter V)

 

Hourglass Lake in Lolita brings to mind pesochnye chasy (the hourglass) mentioned in Chekhov’s story V sude (“In the Court,” 1886). According to predsedatel’ (the chairman), Koreyski (the old investigator) is razvalina, pesochnye chasy (a wreck dropping to bits):

 

— Михаил Владимирович, — нагнулся прокурор к уху председателя: — удивительно неряшливо этот Корейский вёл следствие. Родной брат не допрошен, староста не допрошен, из описания избы ничего не поймёшь...
— Что делать... что делать! — вздохнул председатель, откидываясь на спинку кресла: — развалина... песочные часы!

"Mikhail Vladimirovich," said the assistant prosecutor, bending down to the chairman’s ear, "amazingly slovenly the way that Koreyski conducted the investigation. The prisoner's brother was not examined, the village elder was not examined, there's no making anything out of his description of the hut…"
"It can't be helped, it can't be helped," said the chairman, sinking back in his chair. "He's a wreck . . . dropping to bits!"

 

In Chekhov’s story the prisoner (who is charged with the murder of his wife) turns out to be the father of one of the guards. After Charlotte’s death under the wheels of a truck Humbert Humbert manages to convince the Farlows that Lolita is his daughter:

 

"Well, you are the doctor," said John a little bluntly. "But after all I was Charlotte's friend and adviser. One would like to know what you are going to do about the child anyway."
"John," cried Jean, "she is his child, not Harold Haze's. Don't you understand? Humbert is Dolly's real father."
"I see," said John. "I am sorry. Yes. I see. I did not realize that. It simplifies matters, of course. And whatever you feel is right." (1.23)

 

The surname Koreyski comes from Korea. When Humbert Humbert revisits Ramsdale in 1952, Mrs. Chatfield tells him that Charlie Holmes (Lolita’s first lover who debauched her in Camp Q.) was just killed in Korea:

 

As I walked through the lobby, I had to skirt a group of ladies who with mille grâces were taking leave of each other after a luncheon party. With a harsh cry of recognition, one pounced upon me. She was a stout, short woman in pearl-gray, with a long, gray, slim plume to her small hat. It was Mrs. Chatfield. She attacked me with a fake smile, all aglow with evil curiosity. (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Laselle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done o eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?) Very soon I had that avid glee well under control She thought I was in California. How was? With exquisite pleasure I informed her that my stepdaughter had just married a brilliant young mining engineer with a hush-hush job in the Northwest. She said she disapproved of such early marriages, she would never let her Phillys, who was now eighteen -
“Oh yes, of course,” I said quietly. “I remember Phyllis. Phyllis and Camp Q. yes, of course. By the way, did she ever tell you how Charlie Holmes debauched there his mother’s little charges?”
Mrs. Chatfield’s already broken smile now disintegrated completely.
“For shame,” she cried, “for shame, Mr. Humbert! The poor boy has just been killed in Korea.”
I said didn’t she think “vient de,” with the infinitive, expressed recent events so much more neatly than the English “just,” with the past? But I had to be trotting off, I said. (2.33)

 

Humbert Humbert thinks of the French phrase vient de mourir. In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN describes his first erotic experience and quotes the words of his father, "Tolstoy vient de mourir:"

 

High-principled but rather simple Lenski, who was abroad for the first time, had some trouble keeping the delights of sightseeing in harmony with his pedagogical duties. We took advantage of this and guided him toward places where our parents might not have allowed us to go. He could not resist the Wintergarten, for instance, and so, one night, we found ourselves there, drinking ice-chocolate in an orchestra box. The show developed on the usual lines: a juggler in evening clothes; then a woman, with flashes of rhinestones on her bosom, trilling a concert aria in alternating effusions of green and red light; then a comic on roller skates. Between him and a bicycle act (of which more later) there was an item on the program called “The Gala Girls,” and with something of the shattering and ignominious physical shock I had experienced when coming that cropper on the rink, I recognized my American ladies in the garland of linked, shrill-voiced, shameless “girls,” all rippling from left to right, and then from right to left, with a rhythmic rising of ten identical legs that shot up from ten corollas of flounces. I located my Louise’s face—and knew at once that it was all over, that I had lost her, that I would never forgive her for singing so loudly, for smiling so redly, for disguising herself in that ridiculous way so unlike the charm of either “proud Creoles” or “questionable señoritas.” I could not stop thinking of her altogether, of course, but the shock seems to have liberated in me a certain inductive process, for I soon noticed that any evocation of the feminine form would be accompanied by the puzzling discomfort already familiar to me. I asked my parents about it (they had come to Berlin to see how we were getting along) and my father ruffled the German newspaper he had just opened and replied in English (with the parody of a possible quotation—a manner of speech he often adopted in order to get going): “That, my boy, is just another of nature’s absurd combinations, like shame and blushes, or grief and red eyes.” “Tolstoy vient de mourir,” he suddenly added, in another, stunned voice, turning to my mother.

“Da chto tï [something like “good gracious”]!” she exclaimed in distress, clasping her hands in her lap. “Pora domoy [Time to go home],” she concluded, as if Tolstoy’s death had been the portent of apocalyptic disasters. (Chapter Ten, 3)

 

Describing his first visit to Yasnaya Polyana (Tolstoy’s country seat near Tula) in December, 1890, and his conversations with Tolstoy, Zhirkevich mentions Vsevolod Krestovski:

 

Я: Я всегда жалел, что у меня слабая память, что я не могу заранее мысленно набрасывать весь план работы. Всеволод Крестовский говорил мне, что он заранее всё обдумывает и потом уже садится записывать.

Толстой: Оттого-то у Крестовского все его сочинения и выходят никому не нужными. Память тут не нужна и незачем наизусть намечать планы. Надо, чтобы созрела мысль, созрела настолько, чтобы вы горели ею, плакали над ней, чтобы она отравляла вам покой. Тогда пишите. Содержание придет само. Знаете ли вы, что я очень часто сажусь писать одно и вдруг перехожу на более широкие дороги: сочинение разрастается. Вот и теперь я занят новой работой над философской темою о непротивлении злу, которую я уже разрабатывал ранее. Сначала я хотел написать только одну небольшую заметку. Но теперь у меня закипел огромный труд, и я уже в нём возражаю на те возражения, которые делались мне -- в печати и в беседах -- по поводу теории о непротивлении злу. Как можно связывать себя узкими рамками плана? Мне приходилось иногда начинать литературную работу и при писании какой-нибудь подробности брать эту подробность, обращая ее в отдельный труд, обратив в подробность первоначальное главное.

 

According to Zhirkevich, in a conversation with him Tolstoy mentioned his story Kreytserova sonata (“The Kreutzer Sonata,” 1889):

 

Я: Но вы все-таки остались великим художником слова!

Толстой: Только не в вашем смысле "искусства для искусства". Если я и теперь иногда обрабатываю форму, то для того, чтобы содержание моих взглядов было легче всеми понято. Много говорят и кричат о художественности моей "Крейцеровой сонаты". А я там дал место этой художественности ровно настолько, чтобы ужасная правда была видна яснее. Вообще, меня в России многие не понимают. Зато друзья мои американцы отзывчивы на мои философские статьи. Сознание того, что меня там, в Америке, понимают, дает особый оттенок моим работам. До сих пор я работал для одних русских; но теперь работаю для всего человечества. Это ставит меня выше национальных особенностей французов, немцев, русских и т. д. Я имею в виду только человека, и человека внутреннего, который везде один и тот же. И статьи мои заняты вопросами человечества и все более и более усваиваются разными нациями.

 

Above Humbert Humbert’s bed in the Haze house there is a reproduction of René Prinet’s “Kreutzer Sonata:”

 

I was led upstairs, and to the left — into "my" room. I inspected it through the mist of my utter rejection of it; but I did discern above "my" bed René Prinet's "Kreutzer Sonata." (1.10)

 

In a letter of June 30, 1890, to Zhirkevich Tolstoy says that he agrees with Max Müller (a German philologist in Oxford, 1823-1900, who said that man thinks in words) and that “verbicide” is a sin as great as homicide:

 

Человек мыслит словами, как утверждает Макс Мюллер. Без слов нет мысли, и я совершенно согласен с этим. Мысль же есть та сила, которая движет жизнью и моей и всего человечества. И потому не серьёзно обращаться с мыслью есть грех большой, и "verbicide" не меньше грех, чем "homicide".

 

Max Müller brings to mind Mr. Windmuller, the Ramsdale lawyer whom Humbert Humbert visits after parting with Mrs. Chatfield:

 

There were only two blocks to Windmuller’s office. He greeted me with a very slow, very enveloping, strong, searching grip. He thought I was in California. Had I not lived at one time at Beardsley? His daughter had just entered Beardsley College. And how was? I have all necessary information about Mrs. Schiller. We had a pleasant business conference. I walked out into the hot September sunshine a contented pauper. (2.33)

 

Lolita’s married name hints at Friedrich Schiller (a German poet, 1759-1805). Shilleru (“To Schiller,” 1857) is a poem by Fet. Afanasiy Fet was a son of Afanasiy Shenshin (a Russian landowner) and Charlotte Becker (a German inn-keeper's daughter whose first husband was Johann Foeth). The maiden name of Lolita's mother is Charlotte Becker. According to Zhirkevich, in a conversation with him Tolstoy mentioned Fet:

 

Толстой: Живое слово есть средство, с которым обращаться, как с вещью, нельзя. Не верьте поэтам, когда они станут говорить вам, что пишут ради "искусства для искусства". Нет! Или корысть или желание, чтобы о них говорили, ими двигают. Я сам писал много, и если говорю вам это, то потому, что сам я грешил прежде желанием, чтобы обо мне говорили. На мой взгляд, разные юбилеи так называемых "маститых поэтов" -- позор для русского имени. Например, известный вам Фет. Человек пятьдесят лет писал только капитальные глупости, никому не нужные, а его юбилей был чем-то похожим на вакханалию: все старались его уверить, что он пятьдесят лет делал что-то очень нужное, хорошее... И он сам в это верит. В этом-то весь комизм таких юбилеев.

Я: Но стихотворения Фета доставляют удовольствие, отвлекают человека от мрачной обстановки современной действительности...

Толстой (гневно перебивая меня): Это и худо! Во-первых, ничто не должно отвлекать человека от жизни. Он должен жить, и жить осмысленно. Во-вторых, кого надолго отвлекут стихи? Я, конечно, говорю про душевно нормального человека. Да! стихами можно принести удовольствие и стать забавой для толпы, вроде какого-нибудь паяца, фокусника, гипнотизатора. Но не унизительно ли кривляться для толпы, кувыркаться перед нею на умственной трапеции?

 

Fet’s poem Quasi una fantasia (1889) brings to mind Stella Fantasia (Lolitas former classmate who marries Murphy):

 

Feeling I was losing my time, I drove energetically to the downtown hotel where I had arrived with a new bag more than five years before. I took a room, made two appointments by telephone, shaved, bathed, put on black clothes and went down for a drink in the bar. Nothing had changed. The barroom was suffused with the same dim, impossible garnet-red light that in Europe years ago went with low haunts, but here meant a bit of atmosphere in a family hotel. I sat at the same little table where at the very start of my stay, immediately after becoming Charlotte’s lodger, I had thought fit to celebrate the occasion by suavely sharing with her half a bottle of champagne, which had fatally conquered her poor brimming heart. As then, a moon-faced waiter was arranging with stellar care fifty sherries on a round tray for a wedding party. Murphy-Fantasia, this time. (2.33)

 

According to Humbert Humbert, only chance can bring about the perfect murder:

 

No man can bring about the perfect murder; chance, however, can do it. There was the famous dispatch of a Mme Lacour in Arles, southern France, at the close of last century. An unidentified bearded six-footer, who, it was later conjectured, had been the lady’s secret lover, walked up to her in a crowded street, soon after her marriage to Colonel Lacour, and mortally stabbed her in the back, three times, while the Colonel, a small bulldog of a man, hung onto the murderer’s arm. By a miraculous and beautiful coincidence, right at the moment when the operator was in the act of loosening the angry little husband’s jaws (while several onlookers were closing in upon the group), a cranky Italian in the house nearest to the scene set off by sheer accident some kind of explosive he was tinkering with, and immediately the street was turned into a pandemonium of smoke, falling bricks and running people. The explosion hurt no one (except that it knocked out game Colonel Lacour); but the lady’s vengeful lover ran when the others ran - and lived happily ever after. (1.20)

 

At the beginning of Tolstoy’s story Posle bala (“After the Ball,” 1903) the narrator mentions sreda (environment) and says that its influence is not as important as that of sluchay (chance):

 

― Вот вы говорите, что человек не может сам по себе понять, что хорошо, что дурно, что всё дело в среде, что среда заедает. А я думаю, что всё дело в случае. Я вот про себя скажу.
 

“And you say that a man cannot, of himself, understand what is good and evil; that it is all environment, that the environment swamps the man. But I believe it is all chance. Take my own case . . . ”

 

The surname Krestovski comes from krest (cross). In a letter of May 28, 1890, to Tolstoy Zhirkevich says that, if Tolstoy does not respond to him, he will have to postavit’ krest na svoi literaturnye plany (give up his literary plans):

 

Жду от вас совета, как сын от духовного отца!.. Я знаю, что критика моей книги не заметит! Но я о критике не думаю! Заметили бы её близкие моему сердцу люди, и я буду счастлив, а в числе этих людей вы один из первых!.. Не ответите мне, -- значит надо поставить крест на свои литературные планы. А не хотелось бы! Огонёк-то явственно чувствуется в груди!".

 

In VN’s novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932) Martin Edelweiss (the novel’s main character) receives a letter from Sonya in which she says that she will never marry him and asks Martin postav’ na mne krest (give me up, please):

 

И вот, пытая судьбу, он написал Соне. Ответ пришёл скоро, и, прочтя его, Мартын облегчённо вздохнул. “Да не мучь ты меня”, — писала Соня. — “Ради Бога, довольно. Я не буду твоей женой никогда. И я ненавижу виноградники, жару, змей и, главное, чеснок. Поставь на мне крест, удружи, миленький”. (chapter XL)

 

When Martin (a Cambridge student) comes for his first Christmas vocation to Switzerland, he feels as if he returned to Russia and for a moment the snow-covered Krestovski island (in the outskirts of St. Petersburg) appears before his eyes:

 

То первое рождественское возвращение, которое его мать запомнила так живо, оказалось и для Мартына праздником. Ему мерещилось, что он вернулся в Россию, — было всё так бело, — но, стесняясь своей чувствительности, он об этом матери тогда не поведал, чем лишил её ещё одного нестерпимого воспоминания. Лыжи ему понравились; на мгновение всплыл занесённый снегом Крестовский остров, но, правда, он тогда вставлял носки валенок в простые пульца, да ещё держался за поводок, привязанный ко вздернутым концам лёгких детских лыж. Эти же были настоящие, солидные, из гибкой ясени, и сапоги тоже были настоящие, лыжные. Мартын, склонив одно колено, натянул запяточный ремень, отогнув тугой рычажок боковой пряжки. Морозный металл ужалил пальцы. Приладив и другую лыжу, он поднял со снегу перчатки, выпрямился, потопал, проверяя, прочно ли, и размашисто скользнул вперёд. (chapter XIX)

 

According to Humbert Humbert, his father was “a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins” (1.1). Humbert Humbert was born in 1910, in Paris. Leo Tolstoy died on Nov. 7, 1910 (OS).