The Poerotic Novel: Nabokov's Lolita and Ada
by Maurice Couturier
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Considering the passages analyzed above, one might be tempted to say that Nabokov merely exploited a sophisticated pornographic mode, using his prodigious talents to arouse powerful erotic feelings in his reader under a false poetic alibi. Yet, as we will now see, he built into his text strange elements which highly disturb the reader and prevent him from adopting this mode of reading. Whereas pornographic authors always strove to flout the political, religious and moral laws and to denounce their arbitrariness, Nabokov takes these laws seriously and exploits their interdicts to create highly paradoxical structures which eventually ensnare the reader.

From Mary, his first novel, until Look at the Harlequins!, his last, he portrays a number of love objets, nymphets, who are partly or totally forbidden. First a brief remark about the word “nymphet” which he claims to have invented: “I am informed that a French motion picture company is about to make a picture entitled ‘The Nymphet’s (‘Les Nymphettes’). The use of this title is an infringement of my right since this term was invented by me for the main character in my novel Lolita and has now become completely synonymous with Lolita in the minds of readers throughout the world.”35 In Ronsard’s Les Amours, there is a song, set to music by Clément Jannequin, which begins like this:

Petite Nymphe folâtre,
Nymphette que j'idolâtre,
Ma mignonne, dont les yeux
Logent mon pis et mon mieux. 36
Nabokov, who is indeed responsible for introducing the word into English, is wrong when he claims that he has rights to it even in French. He knew his Ronsard, of course, and he mentions him a few times in Lolita. The Larousse Dictionnaire étymologique claims that its first occurrence goes back to the fifteenth century, whereas the Dictionnaire historique de la langue française spotted the first occurrence in 1512. Nabokov did not invent the word, he revived it (it had gone out of use in French), giving it a new meaning which it did not have in the Renaissance.

In Lolita, Humbert provides a double portrayal of the typical nymphet. The first one is almost anthropometric, but the second is totally subjective. Here is the first one:

In fact, I would have the reader see “nine” and “fourteen” as the boundaries—the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks—of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea. Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we long voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.37
Three elements, one totally objective, the others more subjective, characterize the nymphet: her age, defined metaphorically with a sea imagery that we are already familiar with, her lack of sublime beauty, and finally her vulgarity; it is the combination of all these elements which confer to the nymphet her “fey grace”. The word “fey” is etymologically akin to “foe” and to an old Saxon word meaning “doomed to die”. In modern English, it also refers to the fairies, probably because of confusion with “fay”.

It is this word which provides a transition to the nympholept’s perspective and introduces the subjective portrayal of the nymphet:

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.38
The nymphet, who is doomed to die soon in childbirth, and who is indirectly responsible for Quilty’s and Humbert’s death, is an eminently tragic character who has indeed little to do with Ronsard’s “frolicsome nymph.”

Her tragic dimension is naturally related to the interdict implicit in the age gap between the nymphet and the nympholept: “the idea of time plays such a magic part in the matter, the student should not be surprised to learn that there must be a gap of several years, never less than ten I should say, generally thirty or forty, and as many as ninety in a few known cases, between maiden and man to enable the latter to come under a nymphet’s spell.”39 Humbert acknowledges only one, and the least reliable, component of the interdict. To be sure, in American society, where rape and child molestation loom bigger perhaps in people’s imagination than on the old continent, sexual intercourse between a middle-aged man and a girl of that age seems particularly abject; as the narrator likes to remind us, with a great deal of bad faith, people have had different attitudes towards such matters in past generations or in other civilizations.

By transforming the age gap into a time gap, he replaces a moral interdict by an artistic one. It is this strategy, consistently used throughout the novel, which scandalized puritanical readers, and among them John Ray, the author of the foreword, who is as it were their interpreter. Of course, the interdict transgressed by Humbert the protagonist is not of this nature, only: if, in Lolita, as well as in The Enchanter, the nympholept marries the mother in order to have access to her daughter, it is because the nympholept also wants to acquire the status of a surrogate father in the nymphet’s eyes. Humbert will even invent a subtle little scenario for the benefit of Charlotte’s friends, the Farlows, in order to persuade them that he is Lolita’s real father; Jean will eventually jeer at her dumb husband: “‘John,’ cried Jean, ‘she is his child, not Harold Haze’s. Don’t you understand? Humbert is Dolly’s real father.’”40

Ada, a delphinet rather than a nymphet, is not strictly speaking a forbidden love object. Officially, she is Van’s cousin on their mother's side. The reader must be particularly attentive and quick-witted to understand, at a first reading at least, that the children who are poring over Marina’s herbarium in Chapter 1 are brother and sister. When, at the age of fourteen and twelve respectively, they begin to indulge in their sexual games and fantasies, we do not really consider their actions incestuous, especially as we are not yet totally sure of their real blood-relationship. In fact, we are tempted to consider their erotic games with a certain degree of tolerance: two adolescents at that age, be they brother and sister, are tacitly allowed to be somewhat promiscuous, though naturally they would be severely rebuked if found out. Our ethical judgment is impaired by all the little games played by the narrator, by the stains and erasures in Marina’s herbarium, for instance, which conceal the children’s true blood-relationship. We gradually tend to envy Van and Ada and refrain from blaming them. Demon, their father, is hardly vested with the proper moral authority when he finds out about their relationship years later: he and Marina are responsible for what happened since they did their best to hide their little secret about their love affair. Van and Ada will agree to end their relationship, temporarily at least, in order to please him, but after his death and that of all the other protagonists—Marina, Lucette, and Ada’s husband—, they will resume their life together.

There is one genuine nymphet in this novel, Lucette, Van’s and Ada’s step-sister. Being only six years younger than Van, she cannot be considered a nymphet for him, yet she is designated as such by Ada in the passage quoted above, whereas Ada herself is only called a “delphinet”,41 a word etymologically derived from “dolphin” and also from the oracle of Delphi, but which also contains the word “elf”. It appears therefore that the word “nymphet” has a more extended significance than Humbert claims: it designates a young girl in so far as she is considered as a wholly forbidden love object for a grown man. The violation of the interdict inevitably leads to a catastrophe: the enchanter, after exposing himself to the nameless girl who goes mad, walks out of the house and commits suicide; all the main protagonists in Lolita die.

The case of Lucette is indeed much more disturbing. In Nabokov's Ada: The Place of Consciousness, Brian Boyd quotes the text at great length to demonstrate that Lucette is Van’s and Ada’s victim:

I do not want to suggest for a moment that Nabokov wrote Ada primarily to expound an ethical system, but the evidence shows that he expended extraordinary artistic energy in documenting via Lucette the demonic side of Van and Ada in a way that the ordinary reader cannot even suspect.42
Boyd cannot easily defend himself against a certain kind of manicheism: he is somewhat reluctant to acknowledge the ambiguity of signs and also the author’s ambiguous desires. Nabokov once declared that he despised Van (“I loathe Van Veen”43), yet he devotes all the resources of his prodigious pen to represent Van’s and Ada’s idyll during their first summer at Ardis on a highly poetic and jubilating mode. Boyd almost suggests that Van should have made love to Lucette: “Van will not make love to Lucette, despite her adoration and eagerness and beauty: he exercises a restraint beyond what his father could manage—even if the restraint is tragically overdue.”44 Does he mean that if he had made love to her on the ship, he would have put an end to the erotic torture he and Ada had been inflicting upon Lucette and would have prevented her from committing suicide? It would obviously have taken a great deal more to heal Lucette’s wound.

To be sure, everything indicates that Van and Ada feel terribly guilty after Lucette’s suicide. In the last pages of the novel, Ada says to Van: “‘Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, the one sitting feet up, in ballerina black, on the stone balustrade, and then everything would have been all right—I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!’”45 Should this heartbreaking confession make us forget their Edenic idyll at the beginning? Certainly not; Van and Ada have devoted too much time and energy reliving it in their imagination and their writing for this interpretation to be warranted. Their union is more intimate at the end that it ever was:

By the way, who dies first?
Ada. Van. Ada. Vaniada. Nobody. Each hoped to go first, so as to concede, by implication, a longer life to the other, and each wished to go last, in order to spare the other the anguish of worries, of widowhood.46
Despite their intense remorse after Lucette’s suicide, they still hold on to their idyll to which her death confers a truly tragic beauty.

Brian Boyd has a tendency to overlook all the passages revealing the fact that russet-haired Lucette is wholly forbidden as a love object whereas dark-haired Ada is not. Marina, the three adolescents’ mother, does not bother to warn Van against indulging in sexual games with Ada, but she does order him to keep away from Lucette. From this remark, one might be tempted to infer that the interdict imposed by the mother is stronger than the interdict decreed by the father, but one would probably miss the point. Van and Ada are in fact the only authority, the only law for each other: their incestuous idyll is not a fraud since it lasts all their lives, and it is not because it possesses a strong erotic component until they resume their life together in 1922 (when they are respectively fifty-two and fifty years old) that it must be considered as inferior or vulgar. Van forbids Ada to sleep with other men, and he asks her, when they part at the end of their first and most beautiful summer: “‘the point, the point, the point is—will you be faithful, will you be faithful to me?’”, to which she ambiguously answers: “‘You spit, love,’ said Ada, wiping off the P’s and the F’s. ‘I don’t know. I adore you. I shall never love anybody in my life as I adore you.’”47 She does not beg him to be faithful, knowing in advance that he will not. When Van finds out that she has been sleeping with Percy de Prey and Mr. Rack, he immediately decides to execute his rivals, though he is forestalled by war and disease. Despite the fact that Ada apparently sets no rule to Van, she warns him after a particularly exciting petting session à trois with Lucette for which Van apologizes to their step-sister in a moving letter: “‘It’s curious—you know, something in the tone of your note makes me really jealous for the first time in my fire [thus in the manuscript, for ‘life.’ Ed.] Van, Van, somewhere, some day, after a sunbath or a dance, you will sleep with her, Van!’”48 Though she is the one who initiated the petting session, she cannot stand the idea that Van could one day make love to Lucette. Her interdict is not so firmly decreed as Van’s, but it is perhaps all the more compelling.

This passage naturally announces the scene where, after a swim with Lucette in the ship’s swimming-pool, Van is terribly tempted to sleep with her: “He feared precisely that which she wanted to happen: that once he had tasted her wound and its grip, she would keep him insatiably captive for weeks, maybe months, maybe more, but that a harsh separation would inevitably come, with a new hope and the old despair never able to strike a balance.’”49 This bondage of desire which he fears so terribly is reminiscent of the spell under which the enchanter and Humbert, both victims of their burning desires for absolutely forbidden love objects, tragically fall. Lucette is forbidden to Van because the latter feels such a powerful and fearful desire for her that, if he were to surrender to it, it would enslave him forever. His desire for Ada with whom he constitutes something like an androgyny, keeps its poetic, ludic, and intellectual dimension which prevents it from becoming tragic.

To postpone the moment when he will probably surrender to Lucette’s spell, Van goes to see a movie with her on board, Don Juan’s Last Fling. In the middle of the film, Ada suddenly appears on the screen in the role of a gypsy, Dolores (Lolita’s real name, of course), who unmans Don Juan with her caresses in order to prevent him from making love to Donna Anna. Van immediately understands that he is going to lose Ada if he makes love to Lucette. He goes back to his cabin and masturbates; when Lucette phones him, he tells her he cannot join her, pretending he is not alone.

The interdict as regards this passionate nymphet who grows up to be a nymphomaniac is double: it is first the interdict imposed by Van’s intense feeling of love for Ada, and secondly Van’s tyrannical desire for this girl who is very much like Ada in many respects, and even more desirable. Dorothy, Ada’s sister-in-law, is right to say that “‘her prettiness seemed to complement Ada’s, the two halves forming together something like perfect beauty, in the Platonic sense.’”50 During his first summer at Ardis, Van imagined that he had found the perfect love object in Ada, but during his second summer there he comes to understand that Lucette possesses erotic charms beyond those of Ada. The ideal love object does not exist, of course: it is distributed in this marvelous novel between the two step-sisters. Van shuttles back and forth between them, obeying a law that is stronger than the one imposed by society, that of his conflicting desires which will never be reconciled.

In Nabokov’s novels, the nymphet represents the ultimate interdict which the desiring subject is submitted to, and without which his desire would turn into a vulgar physiological need. Ada constitutes a genuine autopsy of absolute desire, an at once Edenic and Satanic desire which no single object, no experience, however intensely artistic, can ever hope to fulfill.

This discovery of the eminently ambiguous and tragic nature of desire makes it possible to account for the “detumescent” structure of Nabokov’s most erotic novels. The most intensely erotic scenes are always to be found in the first third or half of his books. Thus, the Sunday morning scene on the divan in Lolita or the burning barn scene in Ada. Vladimir Alexandrov and Brian Boyd offer an ethical explanation to this slow de-eroticization of the text in these novels. Alexandrov claims that Nabokov turns against his too complacent reader at the end: “if beauty is a function of accurate perception, then the careless reader is immoral.”51 After quoting the passages in the novel where Nabokov openly criticizes Humbert’s perverseness and immorality, Alexandrov concludes that the reader is immoral if he has allowed himself to be so fascinated by the erotic scenes at the beginning that he cannot take into account the protagonist’s remorse at the end. Nabokov naturally speaks through the narrator writing his story in prison who, like all picaresque narrators, tries to redeem his past sins by confessing them in writing, that is, by also reliving them in his still desiring imagination.

The ethical reading of Nabokov’s novels is strongly biased and fails to take into account the paradoxical nature of the author’s desires. Taking into consideration the author’s a posteriori statements concerning his characters’ perverseness and immorality, but overlooking others as for example the following, taken from the afterword to Lolita, in which Nabokov claims that he is “neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction,” and claims that “Lolita has no moral in tow,”52 Alexandrov rereads this great novel as if it were a highly sophisticated moral treatise. Nabokov is a very talented novelist who creates plurivocal and open poetic objects. He complacently describes the subtleties of perversion, the seductions of forbidden love objects, the rapture of uncensored eroticism, and, once he has cast a spell over his reader and has foisted his private fantasies upon him—fantasies which acquire a strong poetic value and legitimacy thanks to his extraordinary style—, he makes his text bifurcate towards an erotically disappointing ending where Nemesis is at work; an ending which is, nevertheless, less moral than Vladimir Alexandrov claims since Humbert and Van still dearly treasure their past experiences. This structure is widespread in the Western novel; Charles Grivel labeled it a “disclaimer” [“démenti”].53 It is the very structure of the picaresque novel.

The last page of Lolita confirms this interpretation. To be sure, Humbert is sorry for defiling and corrupting Lolita; when he hears children at play, he laments “the absence of her voice from that concord.”54 Here is the punishment he thinks he deserves: “Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges.”55 In the concluding paragraph, he openly tries to promote his love for Lolita to the rank of a highly poetic experience:

And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.56
Quilty had to die not only because he had abducted Lolita but because he had only a sexual and perverse image of her. Humbert the narrator considers that the poetic image which he has been composing by writing his story erases the lascivious images of Lolita that he himself had fashioned in his aroused imagination, and that Quilty had put into writing in his play, The Enchanted Hunters inspired by the nymphet. For similar reasons, Van will put out the eyes of the kitchen boy, Kim, who, on the sly, had taken ugly photographs of his idyll with Ada during his first summer at Ardis.

In the last lines of Lolita, the indefinite pronoun “one” reminds us of the fleeting appearance of the artist’s pencil in a Tex Avery movie: the author seems to resume the voice which he had lent to Humbert and thereby to pass on the relay to the reader. For the text is not over yet; in our reading Lolita continues to live with her double poerotic status, arousing in us multiple and contradictory desires. We are doomed to follow the perverse logic adopted by Humbert who, through his poetic language, tries to redeem the sins of his protagonist self. Nabokov manipulates us arrogantly; he seeks to gain our complicity without which Lolita’s immortality would not be guaranteed.

Vladimir Alexandrov takes advantage of Humbert’s belated remorse to offer a moral and metaphysical interpretation of the novel:

The final implication of the novel’s conclusion has to do with metaphysics. Humbert speaks of the “refuge of art” being the “only immortality” that he can share with Lolita. This does not mean, however, that art is the only immortality that exists. Humbert’s couplet in fact suggests that his ethical sense is a sign of some absolute that validates human behavior.57
Alexandrov overhears two voices in this passage, and so do I: whereas he perceives the voice of conscience enlightened by a transcendence, I hear only that of the desiring aesthete, caring not so much for morality as for poetry, who wants to turn the story of his life into a work of art and who knows in advance that, in generations to come, his writing will endure. This ending is therefore like a first version of the author’s afterword, which intimates that the author did not manage to distance himself from his protagonist as much as he had wished to. The poetic achievement of his novel probably owes a great deal to the fact that Humbert’s voice and the author’s echo each other in some obscure way, though, of course, Nabokov never shared his character’s perversion.

The same argument could be made about Ada which ends with a bogus blurb.58 All of Nabokov’s most erotic novels share this “detumescent” structure. The violation of the interdicts irrevocably trivializes and kills sexual desire, and this constitutes an incredible challenge for the author who must replace this fairly commonplace desire with a more refined aesthetic one. His personal involvement in this transmutation of desires is as great as Humbert’s or Van’s. Having described the most erotic scenes in the first third or the first half of his work (except in The Enchanter), he is compelled to mobilize all the resources of his art to change the nature of his reader’s desire and to prevent his text from sinking to the level of sheer vulgarity. The ethical stake may be present, but it is apparently a great deal less important than the aesthetic one.

The ethical questions raised by John Ray, the author of the foreword in Lolita, are shared by most of the readers. This is implicitly what T. McNeely acknowledges, with obvious puritanical prejudices:

By choosing pedophilia as his subject, then, Nabokov is setting himself the ultimate challenge as a stylist, as well as setting himself up for the ultimate triumph as a jokester—to present this inherently repellent activity in such a way that the public will not only read and enjoy a book about it, but also so that the scholarly community again will work it into a cause célèbre like Ulysses, championing its author and even committing the ultimate absurdity of condoning the activities of its hero—finding “legitimate” scholarly grounds for judging him innocent.59
As this scandalized critic laments, Nabokov’s poetic and narrative strategies manage to foil censorship, hence the necessity for the morally sane reader, Judge Woolsey’s homme moyen sensuel, to remain lucid. Yet, Nabokov never openly challenged censorship, as did the authors of pornographic novels who knew that their works would never circulate through the normal channels. Nor did he struggle to defeat the puritanical prejudices enforced by censorship, as Lawrence had done. He merely integrated the complex mechanisms of censorship within the structure of his novels which, as a result, assume a truly tragic dimension.60

With Lolita and Ada, the cycle which opened with the pornographic novels of the seventeenth century is completed. To be sure, Nabokov has little in common with de Sade, yet his desire for power is as intense as that of the Divin Marquis. He uses the narrative strategies inherited from his predecessors since Sterne and the prodigious poetic resources of his own writing to impose his authority upon his reader, and, through him, upon society at large. By combining erotic and poetic desire, he manages to present the anatomy of desire in general which always feeds upon interdict in some way. This paradoxical logic puts the reader in an uncomfortable situation: it induces him to wonder whether he does not take too much pleasure in what he is supposed to hate or despise. The author, though he is obviously superior to him, evidently asks himself the same question: he does not claim to teach a lesson but only to try and understand his own desire through his partial egos, namely his characters, his narrators, and eventually his readers upon whom he successfully imposes his tyrannical law.

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35. Selected Letters, p. 312.

36. Les Amours, Chanson I. "Little frolicsome nymph, nymphet whom I venerate, my precious whose eyes harbor my worst and my best."

37. The Annotated Lolita, p. 19.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., p. 103.

41. Ibid., p. 416.

42. Nabokov's Ada: The Place of Consciousness (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985), p. 93.

43. Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), p. 120.

44. Nabokov's Ada, p. 146.

45. Ada, p. 586.

46. Ibid., p. 584.

47. Ibid., p. 158.

48. Ibid., p. 421.

49. Ibid., p. 485.

50. Ibid., p. 518.

51. Nabokov's Otherworld, p. 185.

52. The Annotated Lolita, p. 316.

53. Charles Grivel, Production de l'intérêt romanesque (The Hague-Paris: Mouton, 1973), p. 283.

54. The Annotated Lolita, p. 310.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid., p. 311.

57. Vladimir R. Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld, pp. 185-6.

58. See my Nabokov, ou la tyrannie de l'auteur, pp. 348-350.

59. T. McNeely, "'Lo' and Behold: Solving the Lolita Riddle," Studies in the Novel, XXI, no. 2 (Summer 1989), p. 185.

60. Nabokov was also the victim of editorial censorship. In the thirties, the editors of Sovremennye zapiski in which his Russian novel Dar (The Gift) was being serialized, refused to publish the fourth chapter, which drew an iconoclastic portrait of Chernyshevsky, the nineteenth-century Russian writer highly esteemed by Russian émigrés in Europe.

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