Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001096, Mon, 15 Apr 1996 14:33:02 -0700

EDITOR'S NOTE. Novelist (and art historian) Donald Harington
<dharingt@comp.uark.edu> describes his first encounter with Nabokov's

On First Looking into LOLITA

Donald Harington

I wish I had a record of my first awareness of Nabokov's name. Quite
possibly (and, given VN's passion for fateful happenstances, quite
wonderfully) I first read the name in something David Slavitt wrote for
NEWSWEEK in the late 50s.

Although I've always kept meticulous notes, I have no notes of my first
discovery of the name of the novelist who would become my idol. I do have
a note of the date and place I first bought LOLITA, in 1960, in a
remaindered copy of the G.P. Putnam's Sons first edition ("Third
Impression") and the price I paid for it: $1.50 (not a real bargain for
remainders in those days).

I am astonished, in thumbing through that much-read copy, to discover that
I made not one single marginal note, in either pencil or ballpoint. I
think I must have known, from the first pedantic utterances of John Ray,
Jr., Ph.D., that I was on holy ground and ought to take off my shoes and
confine the markings of my ballpoint to separate notecards...all of which
I've kept.

By contrast, my much later purchase (in the 70s) of Alfred Appel's THE
ANNOTATED LOLITA is cluttered throughout with underlinings, highlightings,
marginal jottings, and the pages have come loose from the spine.

When I first laid eyes on LOLITA two years after its American publication,
I was 24 years old, newly dismissed from Harvard's Ph.D. program in art
history (my dissertation committee had called my writing "too breezy and
novelistic to be scholarship" and I had thus begun to entertain notions of
writing a novel instead), and newly hired as a fledgling teacher of art
history at Bennett College (long since defunct, like Windham College,
where I spent most of my academic career), a debutantes' two-year
finishing school in Millbrook, N.Y. (in the days before Timothy Leary
moved to town and gave the place notoriety).

My students were attractive if pampered young ladies only five or six
years younger than myself, but not long after I'd begun reading LOLITA I
couldn't help thinking of myself either as a latent Humbert Humbert or
else as a faculty member at Ramsdale. The very setting of Bennett
College had a remarkable similarity to Ramsdale's.

I read the novel straight through without putting it down, a difficult
task for me, since I have always listened to every word I read, have
sounded it in my mind, and, in the case of VN's marvelous words, sometimes
replayed the words several times in succession out of the pleasure of
their music. Then, long before first hearing VN's own prescription that
every good novel deserves at least a second reading, I read it again,
finding myself the second time even more sympathetic to, and identifying
with, the pathetic narrator.

A sample of my copious if naive opening notes:

Frequent shifts in whether he is addressing himself, the jury,
the "reader out there" or Lolita in his narration. Many references to
himself in the third person.
Does not give a damn whether his meaning is either
comprehensible or grammatically correct. Let's face it: a certain
studied obscurity is virtually essential for great prose.
Never use a simple verb when a fancy one will do.
Strangers or non-essential characters are dispensed with by small
revealing actions. Referring to the Russian colonel who stole his wife,
he discovers in the bathroom after they have left that the man had not
flushed the toilet: "That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny
cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning
insult...actually I daresay it was nothing but middle-class Russian
courtesy that had prompted the good colonel, a very formal person as
they all are, to muffle his private need in decorous silence so as not
to underscore the small size of his host's domicile with the rush of a
gross cascade on top of his own hushed trickle."
_Intense sensual responses_: "I recall the scent of some kind of
toilet powder -- a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume...mingled with her own
biscuity odor."
Great variety of sentence lengths. Many two-word sentences.
Frequent references to historical events and personages, to
definitions, to literature -- the scholarly approach without benefit of
Similes: "that vibrant sky seemed as naked as she was under her
light frock." Never have qualms about being poetic...

The notes go on and on. All of them, no doubt, would remain
permanently a part of my epigonic equipment when I began writing THE
CHERRY PIT three years later, and, although I never reread the notes
(until now), their influence on EKATERINA is manifest.
As soon as the semester ended, I put my pregnant wife into our
Volkswagen Beetle and headed for Ithaca, just a four-hour drive (in those
days, in that car) from Millbrook. But the great man, already rich and
famous, was gone. I have to use David Slavitt's description of meeting
him there in belated vicariousness.
A few months later I would point my VW in the opposite direction
to have the first of several fateful meetings with William Styron at his
home in Roxbury, Connecticut...but that is a totally different and almost
unrelated story.