"Even Homais Nods": Nabokov's Fallibility, or, How to Revise Lolita
by Brian Boyd
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Humbert heads for Coalmont, where the screenplay closely follows the novel. As soon as he finds Quilty’s name from Lolita, ascertains that she will never return to him, and heads off to find Pavor Manor, the screenplay’s visual action ends, as Dr. Ray’s voiceover explains that

Poor Lolita died in childbed a few weeks later, giving birth to a stillborn girl, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remote Northwest. She never learned that Humbert finally tracked down Clare Quilty and killed him. Nor did Humbert know of Lolita’s death when shortly before his own dissolution he wrote in prison these last words of his tragic life’s story:

Humbert’s voice(clear and firm): …While the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blest matter as I am. I can still talk to you and make you live in the minds of later generations. I’m thinking of aurochs and angel, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita (212-13).

The screenplay ends with the final two sentences of the novel intact. Once again, it strives for the very effects that the novel achieves. The reader of the novel, anxious to know what exactly did happen to Lolita, and vaguely remembering the fates of some characters given in Dr. Ray’s foreword, can turn back there and appreciate the poignant ironies: Lolita’s death, despite Humbert’s wishes for her longevity; Humbert’s sudden death, without ever learning of hers. The screenplay offers the connections that the novel invites; Nabokov planned nothing to undermine them, and a single slip in counting should not be allowed to destroy the world he created.

Revisionists could at this point try to shore up their sagging case by arguing that Nabokov would have been reluctant to undermine the status of the story in a Hollywood screenplay at the beginning of the 1960s. But he refused to undertake the screenplay at all while he could see no way to render the novel. Presumably when he did undertake it he thought he had found a means of conveying what mattered in the novel—and if the meeting with Lolita and the encounter with Quilty had never really happened in the novel, that would certainly matter.

Nor was Nabokov shy about undermining the status of dramatized events: the last act of Death (1923) may be, and almost all of The Waltz Invention (1938) certainly is, the delusion of the hero. He was hardly less bold in his sixties than he had been in his early twenties. The Lolita screenplay abounds in disruptive expressionist and self-conscious effects, like Humbert’s mother flying up to heaven holding a parasol after her death by lightning, or Dr. Ray as narrator offering urgent advice to a driver in a scene he knows occurred more than a decade before (“Look out! Close shave. When you analyze these jaywalkers you find they hesitate between the womb and the tomb” [13]). Had Nabokov wanted to suggest the final scenes of the novel were Humbert’s invention, he could have done so in the screenplay. There is nothing to suggest the idea ever occurred to him.

What surprises me most about the revisionists, the three most recent of whom are Nabokov scholars I greatly respect, is not only that they have so much against their case, but so little going for it. If their case were true, Humbert would have either invented or fantasized the visit to Lolita and the murder of Quilty. Surely invention is ruled out. Humbert, who is so unrelentingly vain, would hardly choose to invent a Lolita who makes it perfectly plain he doesn’t feature in her experience of love and never has, and who says that the only person she has ever really loved is the rival whom Humbert detests and whom she herself has come to think rather squalid. Nor would Humbert be likely to fabricate the murder of his rival in such a fashion that he is made to look a fool in the very act of executing the revenge he has so longed for, as Quilty coolly mocks him (“Well, sir, this is certainly a fine poem. Your best as far as I am concerned” [302]) and even orchestrates the whole show (“the ingenious play staged for me by Quilty” [307]) that Humbert so craves to direct himself.

Above all, it seems impossible to imagine a Humbert who could construct a scene as rich in independent life as the reunion with Lolita at Coalmont. He has no gift of narrative invention, apart from his penchant for vague self-indulgent fantasy—fondling Ginny McCoo, reliving his Mediterranean idyll with Annabel beside Hourglass Lake with Lolita, murdering Charlotte as she swims, siring a litter of Lolitas, savoring the bliss of sweet revenge on Lolita’s abductor. Indeed it is essential to Humbert’s nature that in these brief projections on the screen of his indulgence he fails to take into account the live reality of others. Not that he is so obtuse as to be, like Hermann in Despair, incapable of perceiving it even after the fact—after Charlotte’s discovery of the diary, after he has at last possessed Lolita, after he sees her burst into tears at the tenderness between Avis Chapman and her father. I cannot see what evidence the novel has offered that Humbert can invent a moment like this:

“And so,” I shouted, “you are going to Canada? Not Canada”—I re-shouted—“I mean Alaska, of course.”
He nursed his glass and, nodding sagely, replied: “Well, he cut it on a jagger, I guess. Lost his right arm in Italy” (276-77).
or this:
“What things?”
“Oh, weird, filthy, fancy things. I mean he had two girls and two boys, and three or four men, and the idea was for all of us to tangle in the nude… . ”
“What things exactly?
“Oh, things … Oh, I—really I”—she uttered the “I” as a subdued cry while she listened to the source of the ache, and for lack of words spread the five fingers of her angularly up-and-down-moving hand. No, she gave it up, she refused to go into particulars with that baby inside her (278-9).

Imagine that gesture, act it out. Nabokov, after decades of writing fiction and of deliberately studying gesture, can invent this, but Humbert surely cannot. Nor is there anything in these scenes that makes them smack, as with Luzhin’s or Hermann’s or Kinbote’s so plainly do, of a madman’s visions.

Apart from the discrepancy in dating, the revisionists have no concrete evidence. They point to the tinge of fantasy surrounding the scenes that follow Humbert’s reading the letter, especially the murder scene, and argue that this proves them his invention. In the murder scene, of course, Humbert has explicitly drunk too much and is even more agitated than usual. It would be astonishing if reality were not skewed a little. But the revisionists simply ignore the element of fantasy that surrounds almost every scene in Lolita, from as far back as Humbert’s first memory, his mother’s death (“picnic, lightning” [12]), through his first glimpse of Lolita (“And, as if I were the fairy-tale nurse of some little princess (lost, kidnapped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the king and his hounds), I recognized the tiny dark-brown mole on her side. With awe and delight (the king crying for joy, the trumpets blaring, the nurse drunk) I saw again her lovely indrawn abdomen where my southbound mouth had briefly paused … ,” [41]), to the morning Humbert finds Lolita gone and drives drunkenly to the hospital through the “cute little town” of Elphinstone, with “its model school and temple and spacious rectangular blocks, some of which were, curiously enough, just unconventional pastures with a mule or a unicorn grazing in the young July morning mist” (248). If a jittery jostling of reality sufficed to prove that Humbert invented a scene from scratch, we would have to conclude he had invented even his own childhood and Lolita’s whole existence.

It further discredits the revisionists that they cannot agree on what the discrepant dates are supposed to show Humbert has invented: all that follows the letter, but not the letter itself, nor Ray’s foreword?; the letter too?; the foreword too? Experienced Nabokovians should know that Nabokov does not allow dual or multiple solutions: his solutions, like those of his chess problems, are exact (and of course not self-contradictory, like an “invented” foreword).

The revisionists seem to want to avoid the implications of their theory for Clare Quilty. None of them wants to ditch Quilty, yet without Lolita’s disclosing his name, there is no reason for Humbert to know the identity of her accomplice. The novel stresses Humbert’s long frustration in attempting to track down his identity: the cryptogrammic paper chase; the absurd stalking of Ass. Prof. Riggs; the detective who turns up a Bill Brown near Dolores, Colorado (or in the screenplay, a “Dolores Hayes, H, A, Y, E, S, … a fat old dame selling homemade Tokay to the Indians” [188]). Until his visit to Lolita, both novel and screenplay insist, Humbert has no inkling of the abductor’s identity, despite all the clues Quilty amuses himself and torments Humbert by scattering. If the visit to Lolita is invented, then so is the identification of Quilty.43 But if Humbert does not know his real abductor, if he is simply inventing Quilty as a rival and victim, why does someone as vain as him, as sure of his own intellectual superiority to those around him, choose to invent someone who so easily frustrates and humiliates him? If Quilty were mere invention, would Humbert not concoct something less unflattering? If on the other hand he merely follows the facts, unpleasant though they are—and takes a kind of narrative revenge on Quilty and a kind of surrogate triumph over the reader by his manipulations of Quilty’s concealed appearance—what we find in the text makes perfect sense.44

Nor do the revisionists agree on what their theory could prove. For Leona Toker, Humbert’s having invented the conclusion of his story explains why throughout the earlier part of the story we hear the voice only of the old unreformed Humbert, not the new Humbert, who loves Lolita even in her post-nymphet phase, for after all the Humbert writing even the start of the story should be this “reformed” self. But this is an old problem in first-person narrative. The Gulliver of Book Four of Gulliver’s Travels has come to hate humans and adore Houyhnhnm and horses, but none of that shows through the first three books, written after his return from that final voyage. Besides, Humbert explicitly says he has until the point of her death thought himself back into his initial relentlessly anti-Charlotte temper “for the sake of retrospective verisimilitude” (73). Why cannot he similarly mimic his unredeemedly nympholeptic state? And it suits his strategy to keep his “reform” a surprise. It wins over many of Nabokov’s readers, let alone Humbert’s.

Dolinin and Connolly both suggest that Humbert’s ability to invent a Lolita pregnant, independent, yet still loved by him reveals his new moral status, allows him to pass, in Dolinin’s words, to another plane of "awareness."45 But neither explains why Humbert should suddenly find this new moral power, in an uneventful moment in his deliberately, prophylactically bland and automatic life with Rita.

Nor does either notice how incompatible is Humbert’s supposedly self-propelled leap to a higher moral plane with what Humbert actually records of his own behavior in the scene he supposedly invents. He comes to Coalmont knowing that Lolita is married and pregnant. But although he assumes that her husband is Lolita’s abductor, he is ready to kill him, regardless of what that would do to Lolita and the child he realizes she is bearing and would be compelled to rear on her own. Nabokov accentuates the conjunction: “The moment, the death I had kept conjuring up for three years was as simple as a bit of dry wood. She was frankly and hugely pregnant” (271). Within Humbert’s narrative strategy, of course, this serves a different purpose: to mislead us into thinking for a moment that it is Lolita whom he will kill, so that when he corrects us, we will be so relieved that we discount that he still plans to kill someone. He quickly disabuses us: “I could not kill her, of course, as some have thought. You see, I loved her.” (272) Loved her enough, indeed, to plan to kill her husband. (He does not kill Dick Schiller only because he sees at once that this is not the man who spirited Lolita from Elphinstone.) How this planned murder of Lolita’s unborn child’s father would testify to Humbert’s moral refinement, even within an invented scenario, I cannot conceive.

The revisionists indeed uniformly discount the significance of Humbert’s overwhelming desire for revenge. But Humbert has always felt intense jealousy, even over the despised Valeria, let alone over Lolita, and he seethes with another kind of enraged pride at Quilty’s manipulating him on the road to Elphinstone, though he himself has manipulated Lolita on roads across America for years. Humbert sees his desire for revenge as a positive, proof of his essential romanticism and dedication to Lolita, proof of his moral superiority to Quilty. He manages to convince many readers of this. Yet Nabokov has structured his whole novel to imply the parallelism between each of the quests—to possess Lolita, to erase his rival—that at the end of each part reaches its climactic and confusing satisfaction.

Despite the “moral apotheosis” of the scene above Elphinstone, Humbert harbors for the three years that follow a compulsion to kill Lolita’s abductor, an urge as powerful as his desire for Lolita herself. Nabokov pointedly juxtaposes these two contrary impulses in Humbert in the very paragraph that introduces Humbert’s dedication to murderous revenge. That paragraph ends: “To myself I whispered that I still had my gun, and was still a free man—free to trace the fugitive, free to destroy my brother” (249).46 But it begins, in limpid prefigurement of the scene of the “moral apotheosis”: “Elphinstone was, and I hope still is, a very cute little town. It was spread like a maquette, you know, with its neat greenwood trees and red-roofed houses over the valley floor and I think I have alluded earlier to its model school and temple” (248).47 Humbert may choose for his own rhetorical purposes to make the scene of the moral apotheosis the last in his story, but Nabokov remembers that “apotheosis” was conjoined for three years with an absolute determination to revenge: “I wrote many more poems. I immersed myself in the poetry of others. But not for a moment did I forget the load of revenge” (259). Even Humbert juxtaposes the contrast: “To have him trapped, after those years of repentance and rage” (297). But far too few readers stop to think what that says about the quality of his repentance.

Nabokov—and even Humbert himself—manages to make Humbert seem funny in his plans for vengeance. “On the day fixed for the execution,” Humbert writes (254), as he stalks not the Rev. Rigor Mortis but his near-double, the visiting art teacher “Albert Riggs, Ass. Prof.,” he discovers of course that although he seems to have ruled out everyone else, this too is not the man. Some discount the reality or the seriousness of Humbert’s killing Quilty because he murders someone who is in a sense his own double, a writer, a nympholept, a manipulator. But Humbert does not merely shoot his mirror-image. The murder scene will indeed end up “a silent, soft, formless tussle on the part of two literati,” (301) but three years before he has the least inkling of Quilty’s identity, of any similarity between himself and Lolita’s abductor other than their interest in the girl, Humbert vows to destroy his foe as soon as he can track him down.

In Nabokov’s world, murder matters, because other people exist. A murderer acts as if another were only other, not a self in his or her own right. A lover, per contra, can treat the other as a self that matters at least as much as one’s own. Nabokov structures Lolita around the contrasts and the comparisons between the girl Humbert loves and the man he hates, the one he tries to immortalize and the one he tries to obliterate, the one he at last realizes has a life of her own and the one he realizes, damn him, had such a life, was just as alive as himself, in fact far too like himself—and whom all the same he is still happy to have killed. Humbert at last loves Lolita, even though she has won free of him; he hates Quilty all the more, the more he finds him freer than himself. To reduce to Humbert’s solipsistic fancies Lolita in her final proud but abashed independence and Quilty in his strutting irrepressibility is to gain nothing and lose almost everything—and all for the sake of one revisable digit.

University of Auckland

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43. Toker is particularly confused. According to her version, Humbert does not plan ahead; his slightly reformed feelings for Lolita develop only as he suddenly begins to fantasize, from the point he writes about receiving Lolita’s letter to the end of his composing the narrative (Toker 211, 217, 218). But in that case Humbert does not discover who Quilty is until he writes the Coalmont scene, yet at the very moment she tells him who her abductor was, he comments: “Quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order, into the pattern of branches that I have woven throughout this memoir with the express purpose of having the ripe fruit fall at the right moment” (274). In other words, he has planned Quilty’s peekaboo presence from the first.

44. Tekiner, p. 466 (followed by Connolly, pp. 51-52) , suggests that Humbert identifies Quilty from Who’s Who in the Limelight in the psychiatric institution where—according to her—Humbert writes up his manuscript. (Rejecting the murder, Tekiner, p. 468 rules out prison, but does not explain why Humbert suddenly finds himself in a psychiatric institution, when his life with Rita seems perfectly stable; Dolinin is convinced that Humbert is happily sitting in his study, hoodwinking the reader.) Why Humbert should have read through the thousands of entries in Who’s Who in the Limelight and realized the relevance of the brief Quilty entry, when he has for years come nowhere near to suspecting Quilty, seems anything but clear. True, Lolita did lie that “Quilty” was the “gal author” (223), but why would Humbert persist in reading through a fat biographical tome until he found this one clue when he had never made any connection between Lolita’s disappearance and the playwright of the play in which she was to star?

45. P. 37.

46. Quilty of course has posed as Lolita’s uncle in taking her from the Elphinstone hospital.

47. He has: and that description on p. 243 confirms the equation between Elphinstone and the vista of the moral apotheosis.

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