The Poerotic Novel: Nabokov's Lolita and Ada
by Maurice Couturier

(Leading French Nabokovian Maurice Couturier has generously allowed Zembla to make available an English version of Chapter 5 of his recent book, Roman et censure, ou la mauvaise foi d'Eros [Novel and Censorship, or Eros' Bad Faith] (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1996). The book's fifth and final chapter deals at length with Lolita and Ada. To give an idea of context, here is a list of the other chapters:

Chapter 1 - Pornographic mode
Chapter 2 - Comic mode: Tristram Shandy
Chapter 3 - Ironic mode: Madame Bovary, Ulysses
Chapter 4 - Didactic mode: Lady Chatterley's Lover
Chapter 5 - Poerotic mode: Lolita and Ada
Text © copyright 1996 Maurice Couturier. All rights reserved.)

Chapter 5- The Poerotic Novel: Nabokov's Lolita and Ada

Apart from such pornographic novels as L’Ecole des filles, none of the texts studied so far openly claimed to arouse the reader sexually. From Sterne to Lawrence, novelists developed more or less elaborate strategies to distance themselves from their desires, because they knew that to acknowledge such desires amounted to confessing their sins, a confession which inevitably would have put them in an inferior position towards their reader. Yet, these strategies—poetic games, suspense, enunciative breaks, erotic descriptions—which intensely eroticize the text and arouse the reader, are also intended to make him feel guilty for indulging himself so crudely. The author can indulge his desires freely only to the extent that he can manage to seduce his reader and generate strong desires in him, so that his own desires will appear only in their poetic garb.

This law of desire, probably more peremptory in novels than in plays, is responsible for all the literary mechanisms studied so far in this book. It compels novelists to experiment with different modes of discourse about sex; only the first one, the pornographic, openly displayed the author’s desire to spin out erotic fantasies for his own benefit, to arouse erotic reactions in the reader, to challenge a society which is bound to censor works that openly try to undermine its moral and even political foundations. The other modes, though they produce erotic effects often more powerful than in the case of so-called pornographic literature, do not apparently seek first and foremost to generate them but rather to exculpate the author for the guilty thoughts and desires he entertains. Laughter, irony and didacticism constitute efficient strategies allowing the author to dissemble his desires, the lascivious effect being as it were a mere by-product rather than the chief goal of the text.

The poerotic mode1 best represented by the Nabokovian novel constitutes a fusion of the pornographic, the comic and the ironic modes: it openly seeks to produce a strong erotic effect in the reader, but also a comic and ironic one, while seemingly keeping the author’s desires out of reach. The Nabokovian text is a sophisticated engine which generates powerful desires and paralyzes the reader’s critical judgment. The authorial figure is not absent, as I demonstrated in a previous book; on the contrary it exhibits itself authoritatively, hence the critics’ discomfort when trying to apply psychoanalysis to a book like Lolita. The poetic element is not a simple alibi but the novel’s raison d’être so that the reader willingly surrenders to the fascination of the text and even agrees, temporarily at least, to suspend his moral judgment in order to draw the greatest poetic pleasure from his reading. The traces of self-censorship are tenuous without being totally absent, as we shall see; for example, the science fiction element in Ada considerably reduces our capacity to censor Van’s and Ada’s incestuous behavior. The laws regulating our universe do not seem to hold in the Nabokovian world, and only the most hardened puritans will object. Yet, censorship has not totally been swept away: it still acts as a core of resistance within the text itself, as a strong antidote to primary narcissism whose devastating and sterilizing effects are evident in the case of D.H. Lawrence.

In order to study the poerotic mode, I will first analyze a few erotic passages lifted from Lolita and Ada; then I will examine the processes of ethical monitoring at work which, in these novels, are so intimately linked with the enunciative games that they often lead critics to adopt contradictory interpretations. Finally, I will investigate the various censoring behaviors triggered by these novels: institutional censorship, in France at least, and the author’s self-censorship after the fact when he gave the impression of wanting to correct the texts he had written in order to project his good image as a moralist, while refusing to surrender to the law of the majority or to any kind of doxa, particularly that of psychoanalysis.

1 - Poerotic Strategies

Lolita is perhaps one of the most disturbing novels in this century: it tells the a priori immoral story of a middle-aged man who falls madly in love with a twelve-year-old girl, a nymphet as he calls her, and who has sexual relations with her for two years. After she elopes with another even more perverse middle-aged man, he does his best to find her and to discover the identity of his rival, whom he finally executes. Lolita, after marrying a simple man and moving to Alaska with him, dies in childbirth. What makes this novel particularly disturbing is the fact that Humbert’s sexual perversion is dressed up in highly poetic garb, and that the monitor of virtue is, from beginning to end, the (gifted) pervert who narrates the story.

Never, since the Renaissance, had sex been evoked so poetically as well as so erotically as in Lolita (and later in Ada ). The first erotic scene takes place between Humbert Humbert, still an adolescent, and Annabel Leigh, a girl who is about the same age and who is the model for Lolita:

She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face. She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion.2

This scene contains no sign of trepidation or self-censorship. It is highly poetic from beginning to end. Annabel Leigh’s name is of course borrowed from Poe’s “Annabel Lee”, a poem which is mentioned often throughout the novel; the surname of Poe’s Annabel appears on the very first page of Humbert’s text, in a poetic rewriting of Lolita’s name (“Lo-lee-ta”).3 The scene takes place one summer night in a garden on the French Riviera. The narrator is not so much trying to describe the erotic games of two youngsters as to make us intimately feel their erotic excitement. The author of a pornographic novel would have endeavored to describe the boy’s exploratory gestures in great detail, focusing the description upon him. Nabokov reverses the situation, making of Annabel the focal point of the text, though not its reflector. The scene begins with an alliterative evocation of her legs (“Her legs, her lovely live legs”) through which one can picture, as in a mirror, young Humbert’s erotic pleasure while he is caressing them and adult Humbert’s excitement as he remembers the event. These legs are hospitable but not wanton, Annabel’s (frayed) modesty being necessary to contain young Humbert’s ardor and to allow the poetic unfolding of the scene.

Such refined eroticism owes nothing to the castration complex such as it is described by Baudrillard in the following passage from L’Echange symbolique et la mort:

Thus the hem of the stocking on the thigh: the erotic potency of this image derives not from the proximity of the sexual parts but from its positive promise (in such a naïve functionalist perspective, the naked thigh would play the same role), but from the fact that the apprehension of sex (the scary acknowledgment of castration) comes to halt there upon a staging of castration (…).4

In the passage from Lolita, the sartorial elements are not meant to turn the girl into a tumescent object, nor even to represent the girl’s genitals metonymically, under cover of the fetish; they are not even referred to as a forbidden nook, as the phrase “my hand located what it sought,” in which there is hardly any trace of self-censorship, confirms. The girl’s genitals are neither named nor described; they are simply designated deictically as the sublime goal of a quest. Here, the anatomic word or the hyperbolic metaphor à la Henry Miller would inevitably mar the poetic beauty of the passage and betray the inadequacy between the words and the idealized referent.

The neutral phrase used by Nabokov prevents the intrusion of the Freudian tragic in the unfolding of the scene and induces a great complicity between the author, the narrator, the characters, and, naturally, the readers who are invited to fuse their desires with those of Humbert. The latter, as a narrator, does not insist on his gesture as a protagonist; on the other hand, he extensively, poetically, evokes the effects of his caresses on Annabel who seems to be teetering between pleasure and pain. The scene is all the more exciting as the girl’s gestures, which are described in such voluptuous detail, inevitably reflect the caresses lavished on her by the boy; they mirror the rhythm and configurations of his caresses. The protagonist and the narrator betray the same fascination in front of Annabel’s voluptuous contortions, drawing their excitement from the spectacle, so that the final gesture is hardly indecent: it is the ultimate gift made by the young boy to the ecstatic virgin. There is no trace of vulgarity in the phrase which is both a metaphor and a metonymy and constitutes a kind of poetic climax. After the indexical evocation of the girl’s genitals, the narrator had no choice but to invent a beautiful poetic formula which would sound at once natural and relevant.

Among the 550 words designating the penis in Pierre Guiraud’s Dictionnaire érotique, there is not a single one which is really poetic, whereas among the hundreds of words designating the female genitals there are many which are.5 In this marvelous passage from Lolita, one feels that Nabokov not only meant to mimic as closely as possible the voluptuousness experienced by the two adolescents and to make us feel it intensely in sympathy, but also to cast aside the vulgar clichés used in literature to represent sex, and, step by step, to prepare us for the blossoming of the final metaphor which bears little trace of trepidation and self-censorship.

The most erotic passage in the novel is no doubt the description of the Sunday morning scene on the divan. Here, the narrator takes endless precautions, begging us to sympathize with him as a protagonist and to participate in the scene: “I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how careful, how chaste, the whole wine-sweet event is if viewed with what my lawyer has called, in a private talk we have had, ‘impartial sympathy.’”6 This is a somewhat ambiguous request: Humbert the narrator says that he is aware of the reader’s desire as a voyeur, and he thinks he can depend on his freedom from prejudice, nay on his erotic complicity. The signs of embarrassment and self-censorship are obvious here; yet, it is neither the author, nor even the protagonist who is supposed to experience such feelings, but the narrator while he is writing and imagining his reader’s reactions. Naturally, there is a big difference between this sexual scene between a thirty-seven-year-old man and a twelve-year-old girl, and the sexual games indulged in by young and inexperienced Humbert and Annabel Leigh on the French Riviera. Humbert the narrator is aware that the scene he is about to replay is going to hurt many readers’ feelings and offend their moral sense, so he dissociates himself from Humbert the protagonist by presenting him as a somewhat grotesque theatrical character: “Main character: Humbert the Hummer.”7

Lolita, too, is portrayed as somewhat vulgar: “She wore that day a pretty print dress that I had seen on her once before, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice, short-sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pink, and, to complete the color scheme, she had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple.”8 Never will Ada don such vulgar attire and pile up so many clichés, which Jean Baudrillard would probably call “phallic substitutes.”9 Lolita is a young American flirt who flaunts countless erotic signs in an attempt to make herself desirable, a bit as her mother likes to decorate all the nooks and crannies of her house with Mexican knick-knacks.

Hence the three adjectives used by Humbert to describe the apple which is objectively beautiful, artistically vulgar and superfluous in this context, but marvelously appropriate and functional in this scene. Lolita is no longer a vulgar little flirt but the archetypal seductress and temptress, Eve in the Garden of Eden. Humbert, the protagonist, burlesqued by Humbert the narrator, is too excited sexually to be distracted by such clichés. The apple serves as a prop in a first erotic exchange: Lolita tosses it up as if she were juggling with it, he catches it, and she begs him to give it back: “I produced Delicious. She grasped it and bit into it, and my heart was like snow under thin crimson skin.”10 “Delicious” does not only designate a species of apples but also, metaphorically, the penis which, in the present scene will be turned into a poetic object.

In the magazine lying on the divan, there is the photograph of a surrealist painter, probably René Magritte, “relaxing, supine, on a beach, and near him, likewise supine, a plaster replica of the Venus di Milo, half-buried in sand.”11 Magritte made a series of paintings on this theme: “Eternal Hatching,” “Mental Universe,” “Black Magic,” and above all “The Flying Statue,” except that this particular Venus was painted in 1958, three years after the publication of the novel. The model for the present scene may well be “The Versailles Impromptu” which was made in 1933 by Magritte to illustrate the book Violette Nozière:12 it shows a middle-aged man sitting on a chair and holding on his knees a girl whom he strokes under her dress; in front of him, there is a grave man in a top hat holding a leather briefcase under his arm whose face seems to be a syncretic combination of Freud’s and the painter’s. The fact that Violette Nozière poisoned her incestuous father is probably significant in the present context.

This picture, to which Lolita draws Humbert’s attention, echoes an earlier scene in the novel between young Humbert and young Annabel: “There, on the soft sand, a few feet away from our elders, we would sprawl all morning, in a petrified paroxysm of desire, and take advantage of every blessed quirk in space and time to touch each other: her hand, half-hidden in the sand, would creep toward me, its slender brown fingers sleepwalking nearer and nearer.”13 The picture is therefore terribly ambiguous: it probably refers to the prohibition of incest as well as to that scene on the Riviera which Lolita has apparently never heard of. Even though she is unaware of some of the images triggered by the photograph in Humbert’s imagination, she is confident that it will arouse him sexually: after dropping the magazine, she lies down on the divan and stretches her legs across Humbert’s knees.

It is remarkable how Nabokov gradually replaces the clichés lavishly displayed by Lolita on herself and around her by a subtle play of superimposed images, thereby showing the difference between the vulgar yet “fey” nymphet and the refined connoisseur in ars erotica. Here the narrator does not dissociate himself from his protagonist self: he unambiguously brings his personal contribution to the staging of this poerotic scene in which the reader finds it increasingly difficult to dissociate his aesthetic from his erotic pleasure.

The scene, which is constructed like a sequence in a musical comedy, becomes more and more writerly as Humbert’s excitement increases: “Sitting there, on the sofa, I managed to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her guileless limbs.”14 There is no trace of embarrassment in the phrase “masked lust.” Nabokov is not trying to compose luxuriant, hyperbolic, or burlesque metaphors as pornographers did to depict the tumescent penis; he prefers to use an abstract word, “lust”, which evokes a highly concrete experience and alliterates with the aforementioned “Delicious”, as well as with other words not mentioned, like “luscious”, “licentious”, which belong to the same isotopy. Incidentally, the word “lust” has a strange etymology: it is derived from an Old English word meaning “skin”.

The poetic escalation accompanying Humbert’s increasing excitement continues in the following lines, and his “masked lust” becomes “the hidden tumor of an unspeakable passion.”15 In this at once metaphorical and metonymic phrase, a word reappears that was used in the passage studied earlier, “passion”: Humbert is no longer “Humbert the Hound, the sad-eyed degenerate cur clasping the boot that would presently kick him away,” but “a radiant and robust Turk, deliberately, in the full consciousness of his freedom, postponing the moment of actually enjoying the youngest and frailest of his slaves.”16 The subtlety and the intensity of his voluptuous excitement, added to the poetic prowess of his narrator double, have brought about this change. Step by step, Humbert the narrator redeems Humbert the protagonist and eventually becomes one with him at the end, so that it becomes terribly difficult to distinguish each participant’s contribution in the construction of this scene, of this text.

At the moment of orgasm, the narrator vanishes behind his protagonist self who addresses the members of the jury as follows: “and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.”17 Humbert does not simply apostrophize the members of the jury who, as we will learn later, will have to try him for murdering Quilty, but another court of justice which he begs to render its verdict against him for depraving Lolita. Later on, he will be very hard on himself; here, though, he neither accuses himself nor makes amends but jubilantly glorifies his sexual experience which he claims had no precedent in nature and therefore can not be judged by any human court of law. The word “monster” probably does not imply that Humbert the narrator is beginning to feel remorse but rather that, at that particularly moment, Humbert the protagonist feels as if he has totally freed himself from the law of men and performed the ultimate erotic act, an act at once ugly and sumptuous, for, as Bataille put it, with a touch of bad faith, “no one doubts that the sexual act is ugly.”18 To be sure, Humbert tries to vindicate himself morally after that: “I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor,” and he tries to fool himself into believing that he has not soiled the “lady’s new white purse.”19 Yet, he knows as a narrator that the intensity of his pleasure at the time owes a great deal to his conviction that he was actually defiling Lolita. In comparison, his first actual love-making with her will be very disappointing, both erotically and poetically.

The author personally gets involved in the construction of this scene: his writing unambiguously seeks to transmute Humbert’s erotic experience into a work of art, and to induce us to relive it intensely in our imagination and with our senses. He does not want us simply to identify with his protagonist as a crude pornographer would, but to bring us to adhere totally to this beautiful text in which the gradual eroticization of the language eventually creates a poerotic ecstasy. There is no longer any separation between signifier and signified, between the pretext and the present text; the obstacle that prevented novelistic language from representing the sexual act is magically abolished, even though sex still remains a powerful source of anxiety. It is not the sexual interdict, no matter what its true nature is, which is transgressed, but the aesthetic one. As Humbert later acknowledges: “sex is but the ancilla of art,”20 it cannot be its main subject.

Ada is even more systematically poerotic than Lolita. At the end of the 60s, American novelists could write almost anything they liked, especially where sex was concerned, without fear of censorship. Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, like Ada, came out in 1969, , which proves, incidentally, that Charles Rembar’s prophecy concerning the disappearance of sex and smut was ill-founded. The most erotic scene in Ada, that in which Ada and Van undress in front of each other and make love (perhaps incompletely) for the first time, contains no trace of self-censorship to speak of. This at once torrid and comic scene is ironically triggered by the fire which breaks out in the barns.

From the start, the narrator’s language is somewhat perturbed by the very thought of the excitement he is about to depict, as the two following passages testify: “we both were roused in our separate rooms by her crying au feu!”, and “No, she was fast ablaze—I mean, asleep.”21 The narrator’s slip of the pen reinforces the semantic isotopy announced by the verb “rouse” and the French phrase, “au feu” (fire!). Blanche, who cried “au feu”, was probably making love with Bouteillan, father or son, outside in the tool shed, as she had done on many previous occasions; the phrase must therefore be interpreted as both a cry of alarm and a cry of jubilation. Nabokov is obviously using the French word “feu” in its classical sense (meaning passion, love). In The Enchanter, there was a fire in the house in which the man arrives to pick up the girl he wants to seduce;22 and in Lolita, Humbert meets his nymphet because the McCoos’ house in which he was supposed to stay was destroyed by fire.23 Ada will later make a reference to the fire of erotic passion in a letter addressed to Van, apparently to reproach him with initiating her too early, in fact to arouse him sexually and induce him to come back to their Garden of Eden where she still dwells:

The fire you rubbed left its brand on the most vulnerable, most vicious and tender point of my body. Now I have to pay for your rasping the red rash too strongly, too soon, as charred wood has to pay for burning. When I remain without your caresses, I lose all control of my nerves, nothing exists any more than the ecstasy of friction, the abiding effect of your sting, of your delicious poison.24

In this evocation of the erotic fire, in which there is perhaps an echo of Ronsard,25 the multiplication of metaphors and alliterations gradually leads to the concluding oxymoron in which the word “delicious”, used earlier in Lolita , reappears. The intertextual and intratextual references are endless.

Instead of offering his help to those who are going to put out the fire, Van goes down to the library, described many pages earlier when he was being shown around the mansion by Ada, with its divan and its yellow cushions, to admire the show through the window, a show whose depth and beauty is considerably increased when Ada suddenly appears in the mirror of the windowpane.26 This propitious mirror brings the two fires together, that of the burning barns and that of Ada’s candle which she puts near Van’s.

To this superposition of images on the very surface of the windowpane must be added the narrative games played by Van and Ada as they alternately narrate the scene (“That multiple departure… Take over”27), giving a double version of it as it were. The text gradually turns into a real dialogue, first in the narration time (“First time I hear about him. I thought old Mr. Nymphobottomus had been my only predecessor”28), and then in the story (or diegetic) time:

“I want to ask you,” she said quite distinctly, but also quite beside herself because his ramping palm had now worked its way through at the armpit, and his thumb on a nipplet made her palate tingle: ringing for the maid in Georgian novels—inconceivable without the presence of elettricità—
(I protest. Youcannot. It is banned even in Lithuanian and Latin. Ada’s note.)
“—to ask you…”
“Ask,” cried Van, “but don’t spoil everything” (such as feeding upon you, writing against you).
“Well, why,” she asked (demanded, challenged, one flame crepitated, one cushion was on the floor), “why do you get so fat and hard there when you—”
“Get where? When I what?”29

Here, two scenes are magically superposed, the erotic scene of 1884 and the narration scene where Van and Ada in their impotent nineties relive their past ardor by poetic means, and remember their youth. The reader surreptitiously tries to find his way between the two scenes, as earlier he tried to distinguish between the various images seen through or reflected in the windowpane. As he tries to make sense of the text, his poerotic experience acquires a new intensity, and he is dazzled by the magic of this text which totally swallows him in its maelstrom.

Never had Nabokov managed to defeat censorship so efficiently. The double dialogue (between the teenagers on the one hand, and between the nonagenarians on the other), and the confusion of voices forestall the censorious reaction that a third-person narrative would inevitably have triggered since this scene provides an unambiguous evocation of the penis. This chapter constitutes a new step after the poetic feats of Lolita studied above. It is not the prohibition against incest that is transgressed but the interdict against the representation of the penis in a poetic context:

“Oh, dear,” she said as one child to another. “It’s all skinned and raw. Does it hurt? Does it hurt horribly?”
“Touch it quick,” he implored.
“Van, poor Van,” she went on in the narrow voice the sweet girl used when speaking to cats, caterpillars, pupating puppies, “yes, I’m sure, it smarts, would it help if I’d touch, are you sure?”
“You bet,” said Van, “on n’est pas bête à ce point” (“there are limits to stupidity,” colloquial and rude).30
Here again, Nabokov avoids using any dictionary word to designate the penis, preferring this neutral deictic which not only shows that part of the boy’s anatomy but above all the at once touching and exciting discomfort of Ada; he thereby makes it easier for the reader to read this passage without blushing, whereas the use of metaphors or scientific words would probably have marred the childish and erotic tone of the scene.

Ada gradually becomes more confident, however, which naturally suggests that her ignorance was a sham, and she embarks upon a geographical and botanical description as if she were describing one of her butterflies:

“Relief map,” said the primrose prig, “the rivers of Africa.” Her index traced the blue Nile down into its jungle and traveled up again. “Now what’s this? The cap of the Red Bolete is not half as plushy. In fact (positively chattering), I’m reminded of geranium or rather pelargonium bloom.”
“God, we all are,” said Van.
“Oh, I like this texture, Van, I like it! Really I do!”
“Squeeze, you goose, can’t you see I’m dying.”31
The metaphors describing the penis are not invented by the narrator but by Ada who, acting the part of a conscientious explorer and botanist, seems to be totally unaware of the erotic dimension of the scene. The chuckle which this dialogue triggers in the reader does not reduce its erotic value; on the contrary, it is both an erotic and an aesthetic chuckle and betrays his jubilation as he watches this twelve-year-old girl transgressing the interdict against the depiction of the ejaculating organ in a poetic context. We are not so much applauding the actors, of course, as the author himself who has achieved this comic and poetic prowess.

As it happens, this scene takes place in a library which, as we shall learn two chapters later, contains an ample collection of erotica: Nabokov obviously means to outdo his predecessors by composing a text which was at once more erotic and more poetic than theirs. Ada and Van have thus selected the best room in the mansion to begin their careers as fictional characters.

Nabokov’s poerotic strategies are very sophisticated and always make use of very complex narrative, phonetic and metaphorical games. These games are sometimes so subtle that they go unnoticed, as for instance in the concluding lines of Chapter 36 in Ada: “‘She’s an utterly mad and depraved gypsy nymphet, of course,’ said Ada, ‘yet we must be more careful than ever… oh terribly, terribly, terribly… oh, careful, my darling.”32 Van and Ada have just got rid of troublesome and jealous Lucette, who pesters them at the worst possible moments and keeps spying on them. This passage contains not a single word with a sexual connotation; yet, the suspension points and the repetition of “terribly” probably mean that, after Lucette’s eviction from their Paradis à deux, Ada and Van have resumed their love-making. The scene proper is not described, only evoked discreetly; so discreetly in fact that it took the present reader (and most Nabokovians, it seems) many rereadings before understanding what really happens.

The second and last “careful” does not probably have the same significance as the first: Ada no longer needs to warn Van about Lucette’s jealous spying since he has been complaining even more bitterly than she has about the nosy nymphet; she only begs Van “to pull out before it’s too late,” because she is afraid of becoming pregnant. At the beginning of the next chapter, she is on her way to Kaluga,

officially to try on some clothes, unofficially to consult Dr. Krolik’s cousin, the gynecologist Seitz (…). Van was positive that not once during a month of love-making had he failed to take all necessary precautions, sometimes rather bizarre, but incontestably trustworthy, and had lately acquired the sheathlike contraceptive device that in Ladore county only barber-shops, for some odd but ancient reason, were allowed to sell.”33
The enunciative traps of this and the former chapter are almost countless: the names of the two doctors both mean “rabbit” (in Russian and in German), an obvious reference to a pregnancy test used generations ago, with the woman’s urine. The fact that Ada smells of tobacco when she returns suggests that she probably has visited one of her lovers, Percy de Prey. She needed an excuse to leave Van for one day and used the alibi of the gynecologist, just as Emma Bovary alleged that she was taking piano lessons in Rouen to meet Léon, and she prepared it carefully with her “careful” of the previous passage. The erotic scene, after being revealed to us, is now terribly marred since we find out that Ada was putting on an act and fabricating an alibi for herself while she was making love with Van. The reader is rather proud to have been able to reconstruct all this little plot that the author had so cleverly concealed in his text; he is also somewhat disturbed, realizing that the author has been laughing behing his back during his previous readings.34

Such are some of the strategies used by Nabokov to transgress the interdict against the representation of sex in a novelistic and poetic context, and to arouse poerotic pleasure in his readers. They are not mere trompe-l’oeil as some critics have suggested: the poetic and erotic desires of the author and of the reader are intimately linked with each other, feed upon each other. In the passionate exchange between these two subjects, in the here and now of reading, the author manages to keep his hold on his reader, of course.

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Notes

1. A term I coined in an article, "Sex vs. Text: From Miller to Nabokov," published in Revue Française d'Etudes Américaines, #20 (May 1984), pp. 243-260.

2.The Annotated Lolita (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), pp. 16-17.

3. Ibid., p. 11.

4. L'Echange symbolique et la mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 156.

5. Pierre Guiraud, Dictionnaire érotique (Paris: Payot, 1978), pp. 29-37.

6. The Annotated Lolita, p. 59.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., pp. 59-60.

9. L'Echange symbolique et la mort, p.168.

10. The Annotated Lolita, p. 60.

11. Ibid.

12. Violette Nozière (Brussels: Editions Nicolas Flamel, 1933).

13. The Annotated Lolita, p. 14.

14. Ibid., p. 60.

15. Ibid., p. 61.

16. Ibid., p. 62.

17. Ibid., p. 63.

18. L'Erotisme (Paris: UGE, 1965), p. 160.

19. The Annotated Lolita, p. 64.

20. Ibid., p. 261.

21. Ada (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), p. 114.

22. The Enchanter (London: Picador, 1986), p. 76.

23. The Annotated Lolita, p. 23.

24. Ada, p. 334.

25. See for instance Poem 100 of Amours de Cassandre:

Quand je vous voy, ou quand je pense en vous,
D'un frisson tout le cueur me fretille,
Mon sang s'esmeut, et d'un penser fertile
Un autre croist, tant le sujet m'est dous.
26. Ada, p. 116.

27. Ibid..

28. Ibid., p. 117.

29. Ibid., pp. 118-9.

30. Ibid., p. 119.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid., p. 229.

33. Ibid., p. 230.

34. I presented this interpretation for the first time in an article, "Death and Symbolic Exchange in Nabokov's Ada," Canadian-American Slavic Studies, Vol. 19, no. 3 (Fall 1985), pp. 303-4.

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