Intimations of Lo:
Sirens, Joyce and Nabokov's Lolita
by Neil Cornwell

What is now frequently termed 'the Lolita phenomenon' involves - in addition to the text of the novel, its controversial reception, and a difficult publishing history - a screenplay by Nabokov, two film adaptations, and an ever-raging debate over the perpetually sensitive issues of paedophilia and child abuse. However, increased attention has been given to a consideration of a widening assortment of 'pre-texts' (or ur-texts). These range from shades, or anticipatory glimmerings, of the Lolita theme in Nabokov's own oeuvre to the nomination of a gamut of precursors and possible influences. 'Did she have a precursor?' (AL 9) has become a much-quoted question (from the opening section of Humbert's narrative). The answers have been affirmative and their quantity is growing.1 We shall recall a range of these, before turning to the impact of Ulysses.


When publishing his third collection of short stories in English, in 1975, Nabokov claimed that he was 'eerily startled to meet a somewhat decrepit but unmistakable Humbert escorting his nymphet in the story I wrote almost half a century ago' (TD 43). In the story in question, 'A Nursery Tale' (Skazka) of 1926, we indeed encounter:

... a tall elderly man in evening clothes with a little girl walking beside - a child of fourteen or so in a low-cut black party dress. ... [the protagonist's] glance lit on the face of the child mincing at the old poet's side; there was something odd about that face, odd was the flitting glance of her much too shiny eyes, and if she were not just a little girl - the old man's granddaughter, no doubt - one might suspect that her lips were touched up with rouge. She walked swinging her hips very, very slightly, her legs moved close together, she was asking her companion something in a ringing voice ... (TD 57 / SSRP 2 477-8)
Even earlier, in 1924, it is worth remembering, Nabokov had translated Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland into Russian. In The Gift, a decade or so later, Boris Ivanovich Shchyogolev has his own familial situation (with step-daughter Zina Mertz) in mind when he proposes the following plot for a novel:
From real life. Imagine this kind of thing: an old dog - but still in his prime, fiery, thirsting for happiness - gets to know a widow, and she has a daughter, still quite a little girl - you know what I mean - when nothing is formed yet, but already she has a way of walking that drives you out of your mind - A slip of a girl, very fair, pale, with blue under the eyes - and of course she doesn't even look at the old goat. What to do? Well, not long thinking, he ups and marries the widow. Okay. They settle down the three of them. Here you can go on indefinitely - the temptation, the eternal torment, the itch, the mad hopes. And the upshot - a miscalculation. Time flies, he gets older, she blossoms out - and not a sausage. Just walks by and scorches you with a look of contempt. Eh? D'you feel here a kind of Dostoevskian tragedy? (G 172-3 / SSRP 4 366-7)
Here we have, virtually in mise en abyme, two future works: The Enchanter and Lolita. The reference to Dostoevsky evokes Svidrigailov's dream in Crime and Punishment (involving temptation from the blandishments of a five-year-old girl), 'Stavrogin's Confession' in The Devils (in which an abused girl of twelve commits suicide), and precocious sexuality in the lesser known and uncompleted Netochka Nezvanova. A novel from the Russian 'Silver Age' treating somewhat similar themes is Fyodor Sologub's The Little Demon (Melkii bes, 1907).

What the above quotation from The Gift does, then, all but encompass - though without the disastrous ending tacked on - is Nabokov's novella The Enchanter, written in Russian in 1939 (as Volshebnik), and forgotten or lost for many years before its publication in Dmitri Nabokov's English translation in 1986. It is clear from a letter of 1959 that Nabokov did himself contemplate reviving this work for print (see SL 282-3; E 15-16); it was scarcely, however, quite 'the first little throb of Lolita', as seemingly recollected in 1956 - no more than it had been totally lost or destroyed, as then thought (E 11-12). The unnamed enchanter's ambition toward his twelve-year-old and cynically acquired stepdaughter is 'to take disinterested care of her, to meld the wave of fatherhood with the wave of sexual love' (E 49 / SSRP 5 57). His voluntary death on the road, as Alfred Appel points out, is 'in a manner which Nabokov will transfer [in Lolita] to Charlotte Haze' (AL xxxviii). It also appears to be evoked in the later novel when, in a state of insomnia at the Enchanted Hunters hotel, Humbert is aware of 'the despicable haunt of gigantic trucks roaring through the wet and windy night' (AL 130).

'Around 1949, in Ithaca, upstate New York, the throbbing, which had never quite ceased, began to plague me again', Nabokov recalled (E 13). Other, perhaps minor, impulses had already restarted this throbbing a little earlier. Adam Krug, the protagonist of Bend Sinister, Nabokov's first novel written in America (in 1945-46), experiences the following dream about his teenage housemaid (soon revealed as a spy):

On the night of the twelfth, he dreamt that he was surreptitiously enjoying Mariette while she sat, wincing a little, in his lap during the rehearsal of a play in which she was supposed to be his daughter. (BS 148).
Later, in an introduction (dated 1963) to the English version, Nabokov confirms that this amoral and treacherous young temptress had been consigned to the fate of gang-rape: 'the dummies are at last in quite dreadful pain, and pretty Mariette gently bleeds, staked and torn by the lust of 40 soldiers' (BS 8). Mallarmé's L'Après-midi d'un Faune is said to have haunted Krug, while Lolita-like vocabulary and motifs are clearly and admittedly visible (at least with hindsight), in sadistic association with lust and fatality (or, indeed, execution):
Death, too, is a ruthless interruption; the widower's heavy sensuality seeks a pathetic outlet in Mariette, but as he avidly clasps the haunches of the chance nymph he is about to enjoy, a deafening din at the door breaks the throbbing rhythm forever. (BS 10)
Mariette, who is mortally punished, may be reminiscent of Margot (of Laughter in the Dark, first published as Camera obscura, 1932-33), who is not. No doubt further pre-shades, or presentiments, of the Lolita theme from within Nabokov's pre-Lolita writings may be - or indeed have already been - advanced.


Notwithstanding his verdict, in a letter to Edmund Wilson of 1947, on What Maisie Knew as 'terrible' (N-W 182), and his declared antipathy to Henry James, it is difficult to believe that the closing stages, at least, of that novel, in which the barely teenage eponymous heroine proposes co-habitation to her stepfather Sir Claude, did not strike a chord with Nabokov, as author of The Enchanter and future creator of Lolita (and the word 'terrible' may even be ambiguous). Barbara Eckstein has written: 'Lolita is surely a burlesque of What Maisie Knew and also an exercise in slippery self-parody'.2 In any event, Nabokov certainly parodied the Jamesian style on occasions and one may suspect that, in the case of James, as with Dostoevsky and no doubt certain others, Nabokov's megaphoned distaste is at least partly attributable to a Bloomian anxiety of influence - the author in question having prematurely anticipated Nabokovian elements but without, of course, executing them quite (or even anywhere near) to Nabokov's satisfaction.

Almost at the very beginning of the composition of Lolita, in 1948, Edmund Wilson supplied Nabokov with volume six of Havelock Ellis's Etudes de Psychologie Sexuelle (Paris, 1926), which contains a 100-page confessional document written in French by an anonymous southern Russian: 'Havelock Ellis's Russian sex masterpiece', as Wilson terms it (N-W 201), to which Nabokov rejoined:

I enjoyed the Russian's love-life hugely. It is wonderfully funny. As a boy, he seems to have been quite extraordinarily lucky in coming across girls with unusually rapid and rich reactions. The end is rather bathetic. (N-W 202)
This apparently authentic disclosure, written down for Havelock Ellis, purports to record the detailed sexual history of the scion of an upper-crust Russian family (resident in Kiev), who develops from precociously over-sexed adolescent debauchery, involving young females of all classes, through a lengthy period of abstinence in Italy, which finally degenerates into paedophilia, voyeurism and masturbatory obsession amid Neapolitan child prostitution. The raconteur, now known as 'Victor X', is remarkable (in Nabokovian terms) for his insistence on imagination as 'the most important factor in sexual pleasure', leading to his claim that 'I can get no enjoyment unless I can imagine the woman's enjoyment'.3 Victor is unusually passive in his activities for much of his 'career' and restrains himself from immoral compulsion when he encounters (thanks, as in the case of Humbert, to the helping hand of a rich uncle) the stricter mores of Italian society - until, that is, he allows himself to be entrapped in 'the Babylon' of Naples.

While comparisons between Nabokov's protagonists and Victor should not be exaggerated, there are undeniable common factors; as Donald Rayfield (Victor's subsequent translator into English) has written, there is 'the disastrous inability to find sexual arousal and satisfaction in anything but young girls' and, moreover:

The basic structure of Lolita and the confessions is similar: the contrast between the homeland (Russia or France) and the attempt to recreate lost experience in exile (Italy or America). both Victor and Humbert Humbert are prisoners of their first childhood sexual experiences. (Rayfield 141)
'"Sexual confessions" (in Havelock Ellis and elsewhere), which involve tiny tots mating like mad' are mentioned in Speak, Memory (SM 158), and were elaborated slightly further in the Russian version (Drugie berega), which refers to 'a particularly Babylonian contribution from a landowner [from the Ukraine]' (SSRP 5 275).4


A number of obvious or plausible proposals of other works or authors that may seem to have contributed to the shaping of Lolita have, of course, long been made. The 'Annabel Lee' theme from Edgar Allan Poe is the most overt instance coming from within the novel's text.5 Mérimée and Proust have also been considered particularly relevant authors in this respect, with a mass of others (including Shakespeare, Goethe, de Sade, Joyce and T.S. Eliot) close behind. The more recent rush of suggestions, though, has shown a perhaps unexpected widening in scope: in terms of artistic approach, chronology, and stature.

In addition to the Dostoevskian novelistic episodes indicated above, Julian Connolly (NS 4, 1997) has drawn rich comparisons with the story A Gentle Creature (Krotkaia, 1876).6 Alexander Dolinin, in an article on Nabokov and 'third-rate literature' (of 1993) adds a story by a minor émigré writer named Valentin Samsonov as another possible source.7 Ellen Pifer, who seems set to emerge as the doyenne of Lolita studies (especially after her Oxford 'Casebook' of 2003), has observed a series of parallels between the two most famous novels of Nabokov and Mary Shelley, in 'Lolita's narrative and thematic structure, and the homage it pays to Frankenstein's'; she draws particular attention to the use made in both works of the terms 'daemonic' and 'fiend' (Pifer, 1999 163; 166; 169).8 Pifer furthermore compares Lolita with Edith Wharton's The Children (1928), in which novel the fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater is desired by the 46-year-old Martin Boyne (who perhaps more nearly deserves the label 'middle-aged' than does the 37-year-old Humbert Humbert - almost unanimously so termed by commentators). While it is admitted that 'Humbert's scurrilous conduct lies outside the purview of the more scrupulous Boyne' (Pifer, 2002 175), and that Judith's home background, as the guardian of younger siblings, is rather different from that of Dolly Haze, respective images of the 'child-woman' and the 'nymphet' invite comparison (ibid. 181).

As part of an on-going survey of the impact of other artistic forms on Nabokov's fiction, Susan Elizabeth Sweeney focuses on his experience of the Ballets Russes, and in particular Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty (which he certainly saw in Russia and had the opportunity to see again in London), in relation to Lolita and The Enchanter (see Sweeney, 2003a, first published 1999; and Sweeney, 2003b). In particular, she finds (2003a 133):

Nabokov apparently borrowed the notion of an enchanted hunter from The Sleeping Beauty, and he acknowledged that borrowing - along with all of his other debts to Petipa's ballet - with his embedded parody of just this kind of theatrical and literary appropriation of fairy tales, in the form of Quilty's play The Enchanted Hunters.9
'Enchantment' is also of the essence in a much earlier novel with which Nabokov was concerning himself at a certain stage during the composition of Lolita. In a brief, though fascinating, article published in 2004, Miriam Gottfried goes back to Cervantes's Don Quixote, with a reminder that Nabokov was preparing his Harvard lectures on that work in 1952. Nabokov regarded Don Quixote as 'a cruel and crude old book' (LDQ xiii); however, according to Guy Davenport's 'Foreword' to the Lectures, after Lilith, Lulu, Molly, Circe, Odette and other feisty mistresses of Decadence, Nabokov chose the 'Swinburnian' name Dolores - related to a much younger Alice, Ruskin's Rose and of course Annabel Lee - and yet 'her Grandmama was Dulcinea del Toboso' (ibid. xvii-xviii). Humbert, in Gottfried's reading, 'internalizes and embodies' both the 'crude and cruel' characteristics 'in applying the chivalry theme to his own life' (Gottfried 36-7). Lolita's full name, 'Dolores' means 'pains' (or 'sorrows') in Spanish, while 'Dulcinea', on the other hand, comes from dulce, or 'sweet'; both females are 'solipsized' into contrasting visions or ideals devoid of any 'reality' (ibid. 41-2). 'Enchanters' are vital to both novels, while Quilty (amid the 'deep mirrors' of Pavor Manor: AL 294) even becomes 'a Knight of Mirrors' (Gottfried 45).

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1. The first two sections which now follow appeared, in slightly different form, in the chapter 'The Lolita Phenomenon': Neil Cornwell, Vladimir Nabokov (Plymouth: Northcote House, 'Writers and Their Work', 1999).

2. Barbara Eckstein, 'Unsquaring the Square of What Maisie Knew', in The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew, ed. Neil Cornwell and Maggie Malone (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 'New Casebooks', 1998, 179-93), (190). On Nabokov and James, see: Robert Gregory, 'Porpoise-iveness Without Porpoise: Why Nabokov Called Henry James a Fish', The Henry James Review, 6/1 (1984), 52-9; and Neil Cornwell, 'Paintings, Governesses and "Publishing Scoundrels": Nabokov and Henry James', in Nabokov's World. Vol. 2: Reading Nabokov, ed. Jane Grayson, Arnold McMillin and Priscilla Meyer (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave in association with School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 2002), 96-116.

3. Rayfield, ed., The Confessions of Victor X, 74.

4. See also Rayfield, 140.

5. On this topic, see Appel, AL 328-32, 9/2; and, for instance, Dale E. Peterson, 'Nabokov and Poe', GCVN, 463-72. See also Fraysse.

6. See also Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, 'Rereading Lolita: Reconsidering Nabokov's Relationship with Dostoevskij', Slavic and East European Journal, 33/1 (1989), 64-77.

7. See also Ernest Machen's letter in TLS (27 November, 1998), 17.

8. See also Pifer's 'Nabokov's Novel Offspring: Lolita and Her Kin', in Pifer, A Casebook, 83-109 (an essay first published in 2000).

9.One cannot help wondering, in view of the Joycean allusions to be noted below, whether Nabokov was aware that the original Dublin prototype for Leopold Bloom was a man named Hunter (Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 161-2; 230; 375), and that there is therefore a sense in which Bloom was to become 'the enchanted Hunter'. Dolly Schiller, of course, lived on Hunter Road (AL 268).

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