"Even Homais Nods": Nabokov's Fallibility, or, How to Revise Lolita
" ... the New Yorker’s wonderful research department several times saved Mr. Nabokov—who seems to combine a good deal of absentmindedness with his pedantism—from various blunders regarding names, numbers, book titles and the like." 1
In Pnin Nabokov glances at one of the most famous mistakes in literature, when night after night Victor tries to induce sleep by sinking into fantasies of himself as a king about to flee, pacing, as he awaits rescue, a strand on the Bohemian Sea. Ben Jonson was the first to mock Shakespeare for having a ship wrecked on the coast of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale; Samuel Johnson assumes Shakespeare is “little careful of geography”; Tristram Shandy turns the point to its own advantage. 2
But Coleridge more than once talked of having often dismissed as a fault in Shakespeare what he later saw as a “beauty.” Just as Victor knew what he was doing in choosing this impossible sea-coast—and this is probably Nabokov’s particular point—so did Shakespeare in stressing the coast of Bohemia, since it would be hard to find a more landlocked region in Europe. 3 Shakespeare rewrote geography in order to emphasize the fantastic nature of his plot—as he did also in choosing The Winter’s Tale for a title, and in all the expressions of incredulity at the play’s close—just as for instance he chose to violate history for other ends by fusing classical Rome and Renaissance Italy in Cymbeline.
In the twentieth century the professionalization of criticism and the ever-increasing prestige of Shakespeare have led critic after critic to resurrect as virtues in this or that play what had once seemed defects. This has yielded many valuable insights, but it has also led to a working principle that Shakespeare could not make a mistake. This of course, in the schizoid world of modern criticism, where some blithely combine Freud and Marx, is not incompatible with others insisting that Shakespeare always already contradicts himself. But the widespread assumption of Shakespeare’s infallibility has often led to absurd consequences. 4
In Nabokov’s case, too, both the professionalization of criticism and the prestige of the author have encouraged critics to adopt as an article of faith that he also soars above error. He does of course let pass far fewer mistakes than Shakespeare. Where Shakespeare paid little if any attention to publishing works other than his poems, Nabokov kept meticulous control over his texts, in all the languages he knew. Aware that he was writing for an audience that would see a play only once, Shakespeare could distort the time-scale of his stories to combine a sense of rapid pace and gradual development, since the dual calendar would be noticed only by a careful rereader. But that careful rereader was precisely Nabokov’s ideal audience.
Besides, Nabokov was of a notoriously precise, even pedantic temperament, hard on anyone else’s mistakes, exigent about particulars, insistent on an exactitude of detail and a delicacy of interconnection that make it natural to expect him to ensure the accuracy of all his work. Nearly always, the expectation is justified. Line 3 of Humbert’s poem “Wanted, wanted, Dolores Haze”—“Age: five thousand three hundred days” 5 —seems only to combine the continuation of the “Wanted” poster format, an affectionate approximation, and a rhyme. But after we calculate the gap between Lolita’s birth, January 1, 1935 and July 5, 1949, the day Humbert discovers her missing, and find it to be exactly 5300 days, we will hesitate to attribute any discrepancy in Nabokov’s work to oversight.
All the more so when we recall how fascinated he was by deception in nature, especially in mimicry, and how much he liked to find in his art equivalents for the sly playfulness he sensed behind things. He even wrote that “in art, as in nature, a glaring disadvantage may turn out to be a subtle protective device.” 6 As if this were not enough, he has said, in discussing the editing of Eugene Onegin: “Even obvious misprints should be treated gingerly; after all, they may be supposed to have been left uncorrected by the author.” 7
But even Homer nods, and so does Nabokov, and to build whole-scale interpretations on details that seem much more explicable as errors is fraught with danger.
I have in mind especially the thesis, first proposed in 1976 by Elizabeth Bruss, 8 developed in 1979 by Christina Tekiner, 9 in 1989 by Leona Toker, 10 in 1990 by Alexander Dolinin, 11 in 1995 by Julian Connolly, 12 and soon perhaps by Dieter Zimmer 13 and independently by others who have spoken and written to me in the wake of the biography and still others on the Nabokov electronic bulletin board 14 that a hidden inconsistency in Lolita, in Toker’s words, “untells Humbert’s tale.” 15 On the last page of the novel, Humbert says that he started work on his manuscript in captivity fifty-six days ago. In John Ray, Jr.’s foreword, we discover Humbert dies on November 16, 1952. Counting back fifty-six days from there, we reach September 22, the day Humbert receives the letter from Lolita. But since he is not in prison on that date, since over the next few days he drives first to Lolita in Coalmont, then to Ivor Quilty in Ramsdale, and finally to Clare Quilty at Pavor Manor, he has no time for these visits and composing the text we are reading. That is Nabokov’s hint, say these attentive readers, that Humbert has merely invented the visit to seventeen-year-old Lolita and the murder of Quilty. In the Russian Lolita, some of these critics add, Nabokov has placed further stress on these dates.
To refute this reading, I will first show that Nabokov could indeed make mistakes, especially in dating, and that second thoughts often merely compounded the confusion. I will then show how little is required to eliminate the revisionist interpretation of Lolita (the emendation of a single typographical character would suffice), and how plainly it contradicts itself and the rest of the text.
First, some examples of Nabokov’s fallibility. One of the reviewers of Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years listed as the “most intriguing fact” in the book my claim that Nabokov had committed twenty-one demonstrable errors in his autobiography, most of which I did not have space to list. 16 Let me mention a few here.
Nabokov’s map of the Vyra region in the endpapers of the revised Speak, Memory is thoroughly muddled. 17 What looks like a small tributary coming past the Batovo estate is in fact the Oredezh itself; the river labeled “Oredezh” running past the Rozhdestveno estate is actually the Gryazno, a very short-lived little stream; and when the Oredezh passes the Vyra estate it does not continue west and away from Siverskaya but turns to flow east towards the town. Other errors in Speak, Memory are equally close to home. Nabokov lists his father as the second son of Dmitri and Maria Nabokov, and Sergey as the third, when it was the other way around (59). But most of his autobiography’s inaccuracies involve minor details of dating: the birth of his grandfather, his father’s graduation, the sale of Batovo, the duration of the German occupation of Yalta, and the like.
Dates in fact are a common source of error in Nabokov, as he confesses in the foreword to Speak, Memory: “Among the anomalies of a memory, whose possessor and victim should never have tried to become an autobiographer, the worst is the inclination to equate in retrospect my age with that of the century… . Mnemosyne, one must admit, has shown herself to be a very careless girl” (13). Protesting to Katharine White about the New Yorker’s wanting to change one of the visual details in Speak, Memory’s final chapter, he insisted “I very seldom err when recalling colors,” but only after first making the concession: “As you have probably noticed I often make mistakes when recalling names, titles of books, numbers.” 18 Very often Nabokov, like many of us, would date a letter in January to the previous year, but he could do this as late as October. 19 He could be quite wildly wrong about the dates of his works, as when he recorded the date of composition of “The Potato Elf” as 1929 20 rather than the correct April 1924, despite the vast stylistic gap between the stories he was writing in early 1924 and the mastery he had achieved by the time, five years later, that he wrote The Defense.
Errors of memory, especially when they involve dates, may, like casual slips of the tongue or the pen, seem of a different order from apparent inconsistencies in fictional worlds whose details Nabokov entirely controlled himself. But even there, although he was meticulous in the extreme in correcting his work for the smallest imprecisions of phrasing or fact, errors still persisted. Vera Nabokov, never one to denigrate her husband, told me he was very “absent-minded.” When I asked her about resolving editorial problems by consulting the manuscripts, she told me the “manuscripts should not be trusted” as copy-texts, since “he would often write one word when he meant another,” and “might not catch it until the galleys.” 21
Pnin is a novel where mistakes matter: Pnin’s garbled English; his endearing errors like the one he discovers when, after laboriously returning a bulky library tome he cannot understand anyone else needing, he finds that the person who has recalled it was himself; Cockerell’s false version of Pnin’s mishap at Cremona; the discrepancies between Pnin’s and the narrator’s accounts of Pnin’s past. In view of these and other meaningful mistakes, Nabokov ought to have tried harder than ever to eliminate unintended errors. But he still does not succeed.
In February 1953 Pnin teaches Elementary Russian to a class that includes Frank Carroll. 22 In September 1954 Pnin invites to his party “old Carrol, the Frieze Hall head janitor, with his son Frank, who had been my friend’s only talented student and had written a brilliant doctor’s thesis for him on the relationship between Russian, English and German iambics; but Frank was in the army… . “ (147-48) Somehow in the space of a year Frank Carroll has advanced from Elementary Russian to having completed—some months ago, it seems, given his army service—a Ph. D. that requires a sophisticated command of the language and, presumably, could only have been envisaged by someone with a long-standing interest in Russian verse read in the original. He has also found the time to lose that letter from his surname.
Al Cook (Aleksandr Petrovich Kukolnikov) and his American wife Susan have a summer house, The Pines, to which they invite, “every even-year summer, elderly Russians … ; on odd-year summers they would have amerikantsï” (117). But only three pages later Varvara Bolotov is said to have visited The Pines for the first time “in 1951” (120), and finds that its birches and bilberries remind her of her “first fifteen summers” near Lake Onega in northern Russia. Are we to deduce that she is an American falsely posing as a Russian, or a Russian whom Al Cook has mistaken for an amerikanka, or simply that Nabokov should have written “1950” or “1952”?
Nabokov was pressed for time, distracted by teaching, and publishing chapters serially over several years when he wrote Pnin. But there was no such excuse at the time of Ada.
Van recalls dining at a restaurant with Ada “on New Year’s Eve, 1893,” 23 in other words on December 31, 1893. But according to the novel’s very precise calendar, Van and Ada do not meet between February 5, 1893 and October 11, 1905. Now we could deduce from this that Van has either fantasized this dinner with Ada, perhaps in desperate consolation, or that he has deliberately suppressed some of his time with Ada to exaggerate, for effect, the bleakness of their separation. Or we could simply decide that Nabokov made a natural error: he meant the day before New Year’s Day, 1893, and should have written “on New Year’s Eve, 1892.”
Another much more serious error, or rather cluster of errors, was subsequently noticed by Nabokov himself. In Part 1 Chapter 26 Van describes the codes he and Ada use to correspond in the years between Ardis the First and Ardis the Second. One would expect Van and VN to have been utterly vigilant after a comment like this: “Again, this is a nuisance to explain, and the explanation is fun to read only for the purpose (thwarted, I am afraid) of looking for errors in the examples.” (161-62) In fact, the first time the code was used, several pages earlier, Nabokov let slip a misprint (“xlic,” ) which he corrected in later editions (to “xliC”). 24
But that is not the mistake I mean. Look at this tangle of thorns.
In describing the code, Van states: “The entire period of that separation was to span almost four years … from September, 1884 to June 1888, with two brief interludes of intolerable bliss (in August, 1885 and June, 1886) and a couple of chance meetings” (160). The terminal dates are correct, but if the second interlude refers to Van’s meeting feverish Ada at Forest Fork (178), that occurs on July 25, 1886, not in June. “The entire period of that separation” is also interrupted by the Brownhill visit, not a “chance meeting” but taking place in November or December 1884 (167: “he had not seen his Ada for close to three months”). The rest of the novel, then, implies that Van meets Ada between the summers of 1884 and 1888 only at Brownhill, in late 1884, anything but an “interlude of intolerable bliss,” and at Forest Fork, in June 1886; but Part 1 Chapter 26 implies two trysts, August 1885—never mentioned elsewhere, though Van otherwise assiduously records his meetings with and partings from Ada as milestones and crossroads in his life—and July 1886, and two other “chance” meetings. All four meetings seem either partially or totally incompatible with the rest of the novel.
But this short chapter, a mere two pages of solid text, is incompatible even with itself. Three paragraphs after the first passage, Van explains that “In the second period of separation, beginning in 1886, the code was radically altered” (161). This could be taken as implying that they changed the code at Forest Fork, in July, or is it June, 1886, but it ignores the August 1885 interlude which surely ought to start “the second period of separation.” The next paragraph makes matters still worse: “curiously enough, in their third period of separation, from January, 1887, to June 1888 (after a very long-distance call and a very brief meeting)” (162). The January 1887 meeting is not “chance,” and since it marks the third of the three numbered periods in the four-year separation, it is perhaps one of the two “brief interludes of intolerable bliss,” except that they have been dated 1885 and 1886.
No wonder then that Nabokov on his own copy of the novel, the one he marked on the recto of the front loose end-paper “Author’s copy” and “Genial’naia kniga—perl’ amerikanskoi literatury” (“A book of genius, the pearl of American literature”), lists on the half-title page thirty-odd corrections to be made, and this note: “p. 161 not worth correcting.” Ingenious readers who had spotted these contradictions without seeing Nabokov’s comment might perhaps have suggested that Van’s aversion to the hints of betrayal in Ada’s coded correspondence makes him recoil from close attention to codes or dates, or that Ada’s Forest Fork fever somehow infects him so that he deliriously confuses this patch of their past. There is no end of possible conjecture, if all we need is an inconsistency as a springboard for fancy. That Nabokov might have become bored with or fatigued by his attempt to outline the codes and simply failed to scrutinize the dates sufficiently would strike some readers as methodologically impermissible, since it moves outside the world of the book, or as just plain heresy.
Nabokov could muddle things further in his attempts to correct real or imagined errors. In Pt. 1 Ch. 2 of Ada, for instance, Marina’s “meeting with Baron O.” (12) seems odd, sandwiched as it is between the first and third references to her opposite number in a stage travesty of Eugene Onegin: “a local squire, Baron d’O.” and “Baron d’O., now in black tails and white gloves.” Why, this second time, is he not also “d’O.”? Things become no clearer when on the next page Demon, now occupying the role of Marina’s real-life opposite, meets an art-dealer—and soon, he discovers, her lover—called Baron d’ Onsky, who in one of the three references to his name becomes (“simply”?) “d’O.” (13). Why the solitary “Baron O.” on the previous page? Is it to unsettle the bizarre equation between d’O. and d’Onsky? Does it suggest the theme of transfiguration with which Nabokov is preoccupied in his treatment of the Eugene Onegin travesty, and even in these semi-interchangeable barons? Or is “O.” a mere oversight for “d’O.”?
In Nabokov’s own master-copy of Ada, he began to answer those questions when he changed the third reference to Marina’s opposite, ten lines after the second, from “d’O.” to “O.”—but forgot to turn back to the previous page to alter that “d’O.” to “O.” But at least it was clear now what he wanted, that there should be less overlap than it had seemed between d’O. and d’Onsky. Accordingly, the three references to Marina’s stage partner were changed to “O.” in the German edition, which Nabokov checked through, for eleven days, in company with the German translators, while leaving the abbreviation of “d’Onsky” to “d’O.” untouched. 25
At last everything was correct. Or so it seemed. For in revising the French translation of Ada, which he did at his own pace and over a period of six intense months, Nabokov returned all three references to Marina’s opposite to “d’O.” 26 And this indeed seems what he originally, and finally, intended. In reading through his own master-copy, he had noticed the inconsistency on p. 12, and made the second instance conform to the first, not realizing that both now differed from the previous occurrence, on p. 11. His German translators, presumably, rectified the discrepancy by making the first occurrence conform to the other two, with no objections from Nabokov, who was never at his ease with (and almost never subjected himself to) teamwork. Only in rereading even more slowly and in his own time did Nabokov realize what had happened, and restore what he had first meant. This, indeed, now seems the “obvious” reading, since it links d’O. not only with d’Onsky but also with “the Don,” Ada’s opposite in Don Juan’s Last Fling, pointedly associated with Marina’s play as another orgasmically interrupted performance. 27
One of the many curious features about this sequence of corrections and counter-corrections is that it shows Nabokov quite clearly forgetting what he had once meant. That is even more strikingly noticeable in another change in the Ada master-copy, where he “corrected” the account of a gambling evening during which Van notices Dick Schuler cheating on and winning a fortune off a pair of French twins. In “The unfortunate twins were passing to each other a fountain pen, thumb-pressing and re-pressing it in disastrous transit as they calculated their losses” (174), Nabokov changed “fountain pen” to “ball pen,” which seems like a legitimate correction—we “thumb-press” only ball pens, not fountain pens—but destroys an incidental joke: that the twins are so drunk (“happily and hopelessly tight,” 173) that they treat the fountain pen as if it were a ball pen.
[This article originally appeared in Nabokov Studies #2 (1995). It is reprinted here by kind permission of the editors.]
“‘How the deuce could there—Trim?’ cried my uncle Toby; ‘for Bohemia being totally inland, it could have happened no otherwise’
“—It might,’ said Trim, ‘if it had pleased God.’” (bk. VIII, ch. 19)
“‘How the deuce could there—Trim?’ cried my uncle Toby; ‘for Bohemia being totally inland, it could have happened no otherwise’
“—It might,’ said Trim, ‘if it had pleased God.’” (bk. VIII, ch. 19)
5. The Annotated Lolita, ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), p. 257. This has the advantage over the revised Annotated Lolita of having the same pagination as the first American edition and the recent, textually authoritative, Vintage edition.
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