Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000385, Sun, 20 Nov 1994 17:44:20 -0800

Wyllie on LOLITA (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the years several critics have noted certain=20
inconsistencies in the chronology of LOLITA. Some have conjectured that=20
if these seeming inconsistencies are intentional on Nabokov's part, all=20
of the events after 22 September, i.e., HH's visit to the pregnant=20
Lolita, his murder of Quilty, etc., are the products of Humbert's=20
imagination. This line of thought is taken up in a set of articles to=20
appear in NABOKOV STUDIES #2. Alexander Dolinin argues that these events=20
are indeed delusional, while Julian Connolly examines the moral and=20
thematic consequences of this startling assumption. Brian Boyd, on the=20
other hand, argues that the novel's final events are no less "real" than=20
the earlier ones. Shortly after receiving these articles, NABOKOV STUDIES=
was sent the following essay by Barbara Wyllie, a student at the London=20
School of Slavonic Studies. ALthough the articles to appear in NABOKOV=20
STUDIES will offer much more detailed treatments of the topic, Ms.=20
Wyllie's paper serves nicely as an introduction to the topic. NABOKOV=20
STUDIES would like to thank Ms. Wyllie for allowing NABOKV-L to present=20
her short study. Your comments are invivted.

=09'Guilty of Killing Quilty': the Central Dilemma
=09=09=09of Nabokov's Lolita?
=09 =20
=09=09=09=09by =20
=09=09=09 Barbara Wyllie

There is a significant and pointed discrepancy in dates in
Lolita which, if considered as intentional, offers an entirely
new perspective on the novel and its hero. Various critics
have spotted this discrepancy, but few have been prepared to
examine its implications fully, preferring merely to note and
comment without disputing the facts of the novel as presented
by its psychotic narrator. In a novel so carefully
constructed, confined within a specific time span to generate
dramatic tension and evoke a sense of actuality, the addition
of three days at a crucial point in the narrative cannot be
dismissed lightly. Its precise purpose, however, is difficult
to ascertain.
The discrepancy lies in two specific dates and the stated
period of time which Humbert Humbert spends in prison awaiting
trial, presumably for the murder of Clare Quilty. According
to the novel=FEs foreword by the fictional character, John Ray
Jr., Humbert Humbert dies of a heart attack in prison on 16
November 1952. At the end of the novel, Humbert Humbert states
that he has been writing his account for =FEfifty-six days=FE. In
Chapter 27, Humbert Humbert receives a letter from Lolita. It
is 22 September 1952, exactly 56 days before Humbert Humbert=FEs
death. The narrative continues however, and over the next
three days, Humbert Humbert visits Mrs Dolly Schiller, murders
Quilty, and is subsequently arrested, leaving only 53 days
until 16 November. But, if the given dates are accurate,
Humbert Humbert would have had to have been arrested the day
he received Lolita=FEs letter and died the day he finished his
book. The murder of Quilty could never have occurred. =20
There are a number of possible explanations for this
discrepancy. Firstly, that Humbert Humbert made a mistake in
his calculations or had forgotten or confused the exact
sequence of events. Secondly, that the date of Humbert
Humbert=FEs death is misquoted by John Ray Jr. and thirdly, that
the discrepancy was a simple oversight on Nabokov=FEs part. Or
else, that all the dates given in the novel are actual, that
Nabokov placed them there on purpose, that John Ray Jr.=FEs
=FEForeword=FE is independent and impartial, of which Humbert
Humbert could have had no knowledge and that Humbert Humbert
inserted those three extra days, which without John Ray Jr.=FEs
intervention would never have been brought into question.
The morality of Lolita has been the focus of discussion
since its publication. Critics have endeavoured to defend
Nabokov=FEs motivations, basing their arguments on a text
containing capricious, ephemeral evidence obscured by a
beguiling but deceptive narrative. The comments Nabokov makes
in his epilogue =FEOn a Book Entitled Lolita=FE are equally
misleading. He skirts around the issue of morality, talking
rather about the novel as a work of art, indifferent to the
controversy it has provoked whilst defending the aesthetic
quality of its eroticism. His most revealing reference
however, is to the novel=FEs =FEnerves=FE, its =FEsecret points=FE and
=FEsubliminal co-ordinates=FE which indicates a hidden complexity
beneath its dazzlingly ambiguous surface. Nabokov is offering
a series of possible solutions, all of equal validity. Whether
a crime novel, a romance, a novel about art and creativity,
about paranoid obsession, about sexual perversion, the
experience of emigration, or 1950s America, Lolita can be any
one or a combination of countless elements depending on the
requirements of the individual reader and still ultimately
satisfy. Is this discrepancy in dates then offering merely
another possible solution or does it have a more fundamental
bearing on the work as a whole?
Various critics have reached different conclusions over
this niggling problem1. Carl Proffer=FEs A Calendar of Lolita2
noted the discrepancy but he puts it down to Humbert Humbert=FEs
=FEmessy timekeeping=FE3. Proffer took pains to construct a
calendar of dates and events around the few specific dates
which Humbert Humbert gives, providing calculated estimates to
fill in the gaps. Christina Tekiner, in her article =FETime in
Lolita=FE4 points out the same discrepancies but argues that it
is Proffer=FEs timekeeping rather than Humbert Humbert=FEs which
is =FEmessy=FE, exposing Proffer=FEs calculations as essentially
inaccurate. She infers from this that in the last six
chapters of the book the only actual occurrence is Humbert
Humbert=FEs arrest for driving on the wrong side of the road,
the rest being pure fiction. Leona Toker5 refers to Tekiner=FEs
argument but reserves judgement, preferring to acknowledge the
ambiguity generated by the discrepancies, which corresponds
with the elusive reality of the book as a whole and the extent
of Humbert Humbert=FEs deluded manipulations. Martin Green too,
discusses the various possibilities generated by Humbert
Humbert=FEs vacillating narration, suggesting that all the male
characters in the book are his own fictitious creations,
generated by Humbert=FEs pschyzoid delusions in an attempt to
satisfy his sense of guilt and to defend his fragile ego6. If
Quilty never existed, then there could have been no murder,
but if Quilty is removed from the narrative entirely, the
fabric of the plot collapses.=20
From the point when Humbert receives Lolita=FEs letter, not
only is it hard to correlate the sequence of events with real
time, but Humbert=FEs account becomes increasingly fantastic. He
tells us that Coalmont is an eight hundred mile drive from New
York and that he arrives early in the morning, but it is
unclear whether it is still 22 September or possibly by now
the 23rd. If Humbert is tricking his reader into believing his
story, he is relying on the fact that at this point, not only
he, but his audience wants him to meet Lolita again, and wants
confirmation that she has survived her ordeal and is leading a
normal life. It is also an opportunity for Humbert Humbert to
try to make amends, to transform himself from monster to
generous benefactor and for the first time declare his love,
where perhaps, in reality, he was unable to. But is Humbert
Humbert hinting that this is all fantasy? His narrative
control seems to break down, although the elements of hysteria
and confusion serve to dramatise his desperate state and could
well be an intentional device. The theatrical, tragi-comic
parody of the murder scene stretches Humbert=FEs =FEfancy prose
style=FE to its limits and his readers=FE willingness to suspend
belief, whilst at the same time providing a powerful
d_nouement. Allusions to Killer Street and Hunter Road are
oddly transparent compared to the evocative, subtle ironies
which have suffused Humbert=FEs prose so far. More puzzling is
the name he gives Quilty=FEs house, Pavor Manor, pavor being a
anagram of vapor, whose implications, coupled with the
explicit connotations of the latin term =FEpavor=FE, are
uncharacteristically overt. Why is Humbert revealing his hand
in this way? Is he losing control at this point or is he
playing a game of calculated risk, or, is he simply indulging
in a glorious, burlesque charade? Exactly how much of
Humbert=FEs account is fiction is impossible to say, but it
would be unwise to assume that Humbert is not in complete
control of the narrative from beginning to end. If he is, the
last six chapters are a daring confidence trick on Humbert=FEs
part, in which he mocks and teases his audience, safe in the
knowledge that they can have no grounds to suspect him.
Clare Quilty serves a specific function in the plot and
psychology of Humbert=FEs book. He is Humbert=FEs double and arch
rival, and it is appropriate that it should be Quilty who
steals Lolita away from Humbert, for he possesses a key
quality which Humbert lacks =FE glamour. Quilty also serves as a
psychological foil and an object of Humbert=FEs paranoid
delusions. Humbert=FEs mistake is in believing him to be passive
and the number and range of references to Quilty which occur
throughout the narrative indicate Humbert=FEs attempt to regain
the control which he only ever tentatively possessed. That
Quilty should remain obscure is essential to the success of
the plot. Humbert=FEs achievement is in his ability to scatter
bits of Quilty into a saturated text, establishing a sense of
presence without allowing him to emerge until the right
moment. There are holes in Humbert=FEs intricate design which
he attempts only cursorily to conceal. These chinks in the
novel=FEs fabric provide an insight into the sophisticated
artifice of Humbert=FEs artistry. Particularly distinct is the
reference to Who=FEs Who in the Limelight, in which he spots
Quilty=FEs name, but leaves the play =FEThe Hunted Enchanters=FE out
of his biography and replaces it with =FEThe Strange Mushroom=FE.
At this point in the novel, Humbert=FEs audience would be
unaware of the significance of this, but if he had referred
directly to =FEThe Hunted Enchanters=FE at this stage he would
have given the game away completely. Instead, Humbert indulges
in a little private irony, =FE(I notice the slip of my pen in
the preceding paragraph, but please do not correct it,
Clarence)=FE. For Humbert, the Quilty conspiracy is a convenient
means of vindicating himself as avenging hero, but it also
renders any speculation as to the reality of events futile.
The murder of Quilty is no more than a literal act of poetic
justice. Humbert Humbert may well be a refinement of Hermann
Karlovich but he is also, more importantly, a nascent Charles
If, as Martin Green suggests, John Ray Jr. is a creation
of Humbert=FEs in the same way that Quilty is, what purpose does
he serve? If Humbert Humbert has so carefully contrived to
deceive his readers, why should he use another narrator to
expose himself? What makes better sense, is that John Ray Jr.
is Nabokov=FEs character. He relates the most crucial
information about Humbert and Lolita, but it is not
acknowledged because it comes before the story and therefore
seems to provide merely a frame of actuality and a rather weak
and dubious moral prognosis. What would have been the impact
if Nabokov had placed his commentary at the end of the book?
As an epilogue, the details John Ray Jr. divulges would have
been far more thought provoking. As it stands, the =FEForeword=FE
is easily forgotten and could well be skipped altogether by
some readers. Martin Green defends Nabokov=FEs morality as a
morality focused on the value of art, and that Lolita as a
work of art cannot be judged as morally reprehensible. Yet,
this would be to argue that Nabokov was essentially amoral,
that he had no concern for such things. As he states, Lolita
has =FEno moral in tow=FE, but this is not a denial of its
existence in the novel. Nabokov=FEs position is oblique and his
comments must be interpreted as such. Rather than resort to
crass didacticism, Nabokov is pointing his reader towards the
=FEnerves=FE of the novel. Once these =FEsecret points=FE have been
seen, they cannot be unseen, and in Lolita the single detail,
16 November 1952, is the most forceful indication of Nabokov=FEs
moral position, for its implications lead irrevocably to an
indictment of Humbert Humbert=FEs behaviour.
Nabokov=FEs scenario then is this. Humbert Humbert is
arrested on 22 September 1952 for a minor driving offence for
which he is to be prosecuted. He is admitted to a psychiatric
unit for observation pending trial, in which time he writes
his confession. It is unclear as to whether the facts about
Lolita are known to the authorities. If they are, then
Humbert=FEs book has a specific purpose, as he says, =FEto save
his soul=FE and to immortalise Lolita in the refuge of art. As
far as the novel=FEs structure is concerned, if the visit to Mrs
Schiller and the Quilty shooting are removed, the last few
chapters of the book are made up of a series of regretful and
nostalgic reminiscences following Humbert=FEs collapse. This may
not be as exciting as Humbert=FEs version, but it is as
plausible and its implications establish in Lolita the
sylistic and thematic preoccupations which had their genesis
in The Gift and which were to continue to be a feature of
Nabokov=FEs later work.=20
Copyright. Barbara Wyllie
School of Slavonic and East European Studies
University of London
September 1994