On the Road to Canterbury, Liliput and Elphinstone - The Rough Guide: Satiric Travel Narratives in Chaucer, Swift and Nabokov
by Sam Schuman

Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales offers an irresistible and logical beginning point for the discussion of so much that followed in English literature. This seems especially true of the satiric travel narrative, which from Chaucer's day to ours has been a vital and productive subgenre. Indeed, Chaucer's masterpiece created a template which, 600 years later, shows no signs of growing archaic.1 Two of the most compelling and well-known satiric masterpieces of the English language tradition, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita derive much of their vigor from the Chaucerian tradition. Perhaps more surprisingly, and more revealingly, the Twentieth-Century work exhibits an interesting and illuminating set of rather particular correspondences with the 1726 novel.2

There is both instruction and entertainment in contemplating briefly such resemblances. The possibility of direct, literary influence is always present, and in this case, is surely operative to some degree. It is very difficult to deny a strong Gulliver-esque tone to Nabokov's narrator, Humbert Humbert, and his exotic voyages. But even in the absence of such a specific link, the observation of a strict and close relationship between two works of the imagination tells us much about the shaping consciousness of both works, and gives us a valuable signpost pointing towards major thematic structures. The satirist seeks to instruct and correct his/her society, by holding the follies thereof up to ridicule, and thus inspiring the reader(s), who, of course, do not want to be ridiculed, to eschew them. However, both Swift and Nabokov, as we shall see, are satirists on the very edge - perhaps at times, a bit over the edge - of sharpening that ridicule to vitriol. Both move very close to satire of the Jacobean, rather than the Augustan, sort: venomous portraits of an unredeemable culture. The worlds we come to know through the crazed eyes of the two mad narrators of the two novels seem at moments closer to "The Revenger's Tragedy" than "The Rape of the Lock."

We know that Nabokov knew Swift well: Pale Fire is full of Swift allusions. Vanessa butterflies flutter about the story of John Shade, who is himself a scholar of eighteenth-century English poetry. Priscilla Meyer demonstrates that Swift, along with other 18th-century literary lights, "figure prominently in Pale Fire" (p. 156). In Part I, Chapter 3 of Lolita, Nabokov speaks of "fat, powdered Mrs. Leigh (born Vanessa van Ness)" (14). Appel notes that Nabokov is "alluding to Jonathan Swift's (1667-1745) 'Vanessa,' as he called the young woman whose passion he awakened" ( 336). Carl Proffer in Keys to Lolita had also noted this Swiftian moment in Lolita. There are seven citations of Swift in the "index" to Nabokov's Eugene Onegin (none particularly revealing, it is true). Like Swift, Nabokov was a social conservative who nevertheless distrusted many specific political institutions and leaders, and relied more on common sense than systematic abstract philosophizing. On the other hand, the two authors are quite unlike in the degree of their engagement in the political life of their times: Swift was often overtly political in his life and work, Nabokov explicitly denied the political relevance of everything he did and wrote. Although it is clear that Nabokov considers Swift a major figure on the landscape of his adopted English culture of letters, it is to be doubted that the two energetic, irascible and idiosyncratic satirists would have cared much for each other's company. This suspicion is reinforced by Nabokov's comments upon "Stella's Birthday" in Notes on Prosody which he says is "typical of the 'light verse' (a ponderous and dreary machine) of the Age of Reason" and describes as "doggerel" (p. 60).


Interestingly, the first similarity a reader encounters between Gulliver's Travels and Lolita is not that both are travel narratives: rather, it is that both works begin with what purport to be "objective" editorial prefaces.

Swift begins his work with an exchange between Gulliver and Richard Sympson, and a "foreword" by the latter entitled "The Publisher to the Reader." In this prefatory statement, the unimaginative Sympson, who is, of course, wholly fictitious, seeks, in rather pedestrian fashion, to establish the value of the manuscript before him--and us--and to articulate the bona fides of its author. To Sympson, a narrative has value not in any aesthetic or "delightful" sense, but solely as utilitarian, ethical instruction. Gulliver's story, Sympson pontificates, will be "a better Entertainment to our young Noblemen, than the common Scribbles of Politicks and Party" (xi). Lemuel Gulliver himself is praised for the proverbial repute of his veracity ("There is an Air of Truth apparent through the whole..." [xi]).

The equally fictional John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., who plays the similar role in Lolita also affirms the truthfulness of the novel's main narrator: he cites "a desperate honesty that throbs through his confession" (5). Like Swift's Sympson, Nabokov's prefatory narrator is conscious of the effect of the manuscript in his hands upon gentlefolk. But, where Sympson felt Gulliver's story to be uplifting to the gentry, Ray is a bit more uncertain: Humbert Humbert is guilty of "sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman" (5). Indeed, in a wonderful Nabokovian twist, Ray is so exercised by some aspects of Humbert's character that he maladroitly elevates him into "a shining example of moral leprosy" (5). Still, our introductory voice assures us that the manuscript we are about to peruse is, like Swift's, morally instructive and, therefore, useful:

"Lolita" should make all of us--parents, social workers, educators--apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. (6)

Few have derived comfort from this affirmation....

The flat, morally utilitarian voice of the prologue in both these novels is a sharp contrast to the immediate, vivid tones of shrillness which characterize both Humbert ("Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul..." [9]) and Gulliver ("Do these miserable Animals presume to think that I am so far degenerated as to defend my Veracity, Yahoo that I am....I was able ... to remove that infernal Habit of Lying, Shuffling, Deceiving, and Equivocating, so deeply rooted in the very Souls of all my Species especially the Europeans." [8]).

However, in spite of (or perhaps because of) this introductory hysteria, both narrators themselves seek to establish their own credentials, on the very first pages of the novels, by giving a paternalistic biographical sketch:

I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. (9)
My father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five Sons. He sent me to Emanuel-College in Cambridge, at Fourteen years old, where I resided three Years (19). [Coincidentally, Nabokov was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge.]


Both Nabokov's masterwork and Swift's are accounts which describe, in minute satiric detail, multiple voyages to strange lands. This is self evident in Gulliver's Travels, with its perpetually fascinating descriptions of the lands of the Houyhnhnms, Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, etc. In his famous letter to Pope of 29 September 1725, Swift is uncomfortably unambiguous about the purposes to which he intended Gulliver's journeys:

I have ever hated all nations, professions and communities....Upon this great foundation of misanthropy (though not Timon's manner), the whole building of my Travels is erected.3

Swift's methodology, to which he adhered only imperfectly, appears to have been to have each locale which Guilliver visits manifest a related set of follies. Lilliput reveals the pettiness of politics, Brobdingnag the fleshly grossness of humanity, and the like. Utilizing the exaggeration of fantasy (floating islands, talking horses, giant eagles, etc.) Swift, as the classic satirist, is able to expose those follies, cast them into very clear relief, and hold them up to ridicule.

It is not quite as obvious that Lolita is as much the story of a stranger in a strange land as Gulliver's Travels. The reader needs to be reminded fairly frequently that Humbert Humbert is as new to America as Gulliver to Lilliput. Nabokov, of course, provides those reminders, e.g., "I was angry, disappointed and bored, but being a polite European..." (36). As a traveler to, and in, America, Humbert brings a fresh-eyed vision to the landscape which makes it seem as exotic and new, just as does Gulliver. Here, for example, Humbert casts a fresh eye on the classification of various species of American motels:

We came to know--nous connûmes, to use a Flaubertian intonation--the stone cottages under enormous Chateaubriandesque trees, the brick unit, the adobe unit, the stucco court, on what the Tour Book of the Automobile Association describes as "shaded" or "spacious" or "landscaped" grounds. (145)

Of course, most of Part Two of Lolita takes place "on the road," thus affording Humbert an opportunity to see America from coast to coast, and Nabokov to identify, through the eyes of his poetic pervert narrator, examples of poshlust from West ("a winery in California, with a church built in the shape of a wine barrel" [157]); to South (Bourbon Street [ in a town named New Orleans] whose sidewalks, said the tour book, 'may [I liked the 'may'] feature entertainment by pickaninnies who will [I liked the 'will' even better] tap-dance for pennies' [what fun], while 'its numerous small and intimate night clubs are thronged with visitors' [naughty]" {156}); to East ("What we are concerned with is the adjustment of the child to group life. This is why we stress the four D's: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating" [177]); and North ("Another group, equally misguided, collected plankton. A third studied tuberculosis in the tundra" [33]). In very many ways, Humbert's European vision and his pervert's imagination make of mid-Twentieth Century America a land every bit as exotic and strange as any visited by Lemuel Gulliver. Here is a Dantean description of a simple unfinished storefront display in a small town:

It was indeed a pretty sight. A dapper young fellow was vacuum-cleaning a carpet of sorts upon which stood two figures that looked as if some blast had just worked havoc with them. One figure was stark naked, wigless and armless. Its comparatively small stature and smirking pose suggested that when clothed it had represented, and would represent when clothed again, a girl-child of Lolita's size. But in its present state it was sexless. Next to it, stood a much taller veiled bride, quite perfect and intacta except for the lack of one arm. On the floor, at the feet of these damsels, where the man crawled about laboriously with his cleaner, there lay a cluster of three slender arms, and a blond wig. Two of the arms happened to be twisted and seemed to suggest a clasping gesture of horror and supplication. (226)

At a certain point, the amused ridicule of folly which constitutes satire can become sufficiently colored by invective and hysteria, and slide into something more sardonic. This is a point which is not infrequently reached, as the above citation might suggest, by Nabokov. Swift, too, often reaches a height of invective which transcends the satiric:

As soon as I entered the House, my Wife took me in her Arms, and kissed me; at which, having not been used to the Touch of that odious Animal for so many Years, I fell in a Swoon for almost an Hour. At the Time I am writing, it is five Years since my last Return to England: during the first year I could not endure my Wife or Children in my Presence, the very Smell of them was intolerable; much less could I suffer them to eat in the same Room. (289)

It is difficult to find examples of Swift and Nabokov's contemporary satirists--say, Pope or Updike--writing at this heightened level of repulsion and emotional pitch.

In both Lolita and Gulliver's Travels the inherent fascination of the plot keeps readers tuned to the satire, and keeps them tolerant of what might seem moments of excess in tone. Both novels tell unique stories; both have demonstrated a broad and lasting interest. Gulliver's Travels has been a popular children's cartoon, and was recently revived as a two-part television mini-series staring "Cheers" hunk Ted Danson as a somewhat frenetic Gulliver. Probably the majority of contemporary Americans who can identify Gulliver's Travels at all would describe it as a child's story. Lolita has had a different but parallel career in popular culture. It was a celebrated movie, staring Sue Lyon as the lollipop-sucking nymphet, James Mason as Humbert Humbert and featuring Shelly Winters as a frowzy Charlotte Haze. It has been a flop Broadway musical, and is about to be made into a second movie. Moreover, words like "nymphet" and "lolita" have become part of our language. Probably the majority of contemporary Americans who can identify Vladimir Nabokov would describe him as the author of Lolita; probably the majority of contemporary Americans who can identify Lolita would describe it as a pornographic depiction of adult/child sexual relations. Swift and Nabokov ensured the success of their satirical novels not by the accuracy or the savagery of the mockery of folly, but by the one-of-a-kind and whopping good stories which carry the theme. As readers of "The Miller's Tale" or "The Franklin's Tale" or "The Nun's Priest's Tale" know, this was a lesson they learned from Chaucer, too.

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1. It is tempting to dwell on the many and interesting ways in which The Canterbury Tales foreshadows later works, including the two which are the subject of this paper. Chaucer, for example, gives us a naive narrator who is a careful and accurate recorder of the physical details which surround him on the road, but who fails to grasp--in such an obvious manner that we are forced to grasp for him--the ethical and social implications of what he sees. Chaucer the Pilgrim can describe the most minute details of the wart on the nose of the Cook or the table setting in the Franklin's hallway, but he "misses" the Prioress' hypocrisy and the Monk's ill-suitedness to his clerical vocation. One of the chief mechanisms by which the reader of The Canterbury Tales is guided to understand the unreliability of narrative understanding is through the use of literary parody and meta-poetic self-consciousness: when the narrator tells his own "Tale," and chooses a dunder-headed rhyme scheme and metrical pattern, reminiscent, perhaps, of clownish poets and performers, we know we are not to take him entirely seriously. Most important, of course, the narrative of the journey itself offers a panoramic view of both the travelers themselves, and the world through which they move, which is most conducive to sweeping satire.

My purpose, however, is not to undertake the history of the English satirical travel narrative, but the more modest comparison of Swift and Nabokov. The pervasive influence of Chaucer can perhaps best be understood as a sub-motive to my discussion, always present, usually just below the surface of explicit discussion.

2. My thanks to Brian Walter of Washington University (St. Louis), who provided some friendly clues and helpful insights as this paper was being imagined.

3. Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" is extremely important in Nabokov's Pale Fire, in which the self-described exiled narrator, the insane Charles Kinbote, frequently and overtly refers to himself as "Timonian."

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