The title of this paper derives from one of the strangest moments in Lolita (1955), near the very end of Humbert Humbert’s confession, when he imagines how he would have judged his own criminal case: “Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges” (308). It would have been logically impossible for Humbert to “come before [him]self,” of course, as indicated by his clumsy use of the subjunctive mood and awkward shift in pronouns. By means of this statement, however, he finally if obliquely admits that he is guilty of raping Dolores Haze.
Humbert’s attempt to determine his culpability or innocence in a criminal case (which completes the imaginary trial that he has conducted throughout the preceding narrative) coincides with his equally suspect attempt to evaluate the artistic merits of his own confession, which he has just read. The novel’s moral and aesthetic design depends, in fact, on the futility of Humbert’s efforts to become his own criminal judge and his own critical reviewer. In this sense, Lolita presents a more sophisticated version of a stratagem that Nabokov had already employed in Despair (1934) twenty years earlier: Hermann, too, at the very end of that novel, tries to pronounce judgment on both his crime and the narrative he has written about it. Hermann and Humbert are similar, of course, to many of Nabokov’s other unreliable narrators including Smurov in The Eye, “V.” in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and Kinbote in Pale Fire who try in vain to escape the contingencies of their own lives through fiction. Like those other narrators, Hermann and Humbert ultimately fail because they are, after all, only narrators and not the author himself.
Nevertheless, their efforts to judge the moral and aesthetic significance of their confessions cannot help but recall Nabokov’s own propensity for pronouncing definitive and authoritative judgment on the moral worth and artistic accomplishment of his works. To what extent do Nabokov’s self-appraisals present a similarly impossible situation, in which he too attempts to “come before (him)self” as his own editor, critic, reviewer, and reader? In order to tease out the implications of this parallel, I will compare Nabokov’s evaluation of both Lolita in “On a Book Entitled Lolita” (1956) and Despair in his foreword to the English translation (1965) to the respective narrators’ comments on their own criminal confessions within those two novels.