Double Exposure: On the Vertigo of Translating Lolita
by Tadashi Wakashima
translated from the Japanese by Jeff Edmunds in collaboration with Akiko Nakata

Just prior to completing a new Japanese translation of Lolita,1 as I was immersed in checking the page proofs, the following sentence caught my eye. It appears in Part One, Chapter 13, the famous scene in which narrator Humbert Humbert masturbates on the couch:

My heart beat like a drum as she sat down, cool skirt ballooning, subsiding, on the sofa next to me, and played with her glossy fruit.

While translating the book I had often been surprised to encounter a sentence like this, a sentence I had no memory of ever having seen, although I must have read it countless times. It was as if the line had simply passed through my head without stopping. This time, however, as if written in bold face, the sentence abruptly jumped out at me: I felt a sensation familiar to readers of Nabokov: there was something here, as if a concealed power had been lurking in the sentence waiting to shake the reader’s sleeping sensors awake.

In the sentence above, what so took me aback was its apparent similarity to a famous scene in The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn Monroe’s white skirt billows up weightlessly like a balloon as she straddles a subway vent. Associating the two images may not be as crazy as it seems. The reader may recall that in Pale Fire, two lines from John Shade’s poem describe an actress appearing in close-up on a TV screen: “The parted lips, the swimming eyes, the grain / Of beauty on the cheek, odd Gallicism,” clearly a reference to Monroe. It would not be unusual then if Nabokov were using the Monroe of The Seven Year Itch as a model in Lolita. Of course the circumstances in the two cases are entirely different, but the word “cool” cannot help but evoke Monroe as she appears in the famous film.

When an imaginary line is drawn between Lolita and The Seven Year Itch in the hopes of establishing a relationship diagrammatically, other mysterious connections can be discerned. The scene that includes Monroe’s billowing skirt occurs when Tom Ewell and Monroe, who has moved in upstairs from him and whom he has invited to go out, are returning from seeing a movie: the science fiction classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. Monroe expresses a surprising take on the film: she finds the creature “kinda scary-looking” but says that “he wasn't really all bad. I think he just craved a little affection-- you know, a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.” The audience may laugh at her assessment, which could be seen as unintentionally likening Tom Ewell, who has unsavory intentions, to the monstrous half-fish, half-man. Much the same could be said of Humbert Humbert in Lolita: although disguised as an Old World gentleman, in fact he’s a monster afflicted with pedophilia.

Such parallels could, of course, be merely the delusions of someone who has read too much Nabokov, so I investigated the data.

The first release of The Seven Year Itch took place in June 1955. Lolita was published in Paris by Olympia Press in September 1955. What a coincidence! According to the account Brian Boyd gives in his biography, Nabokov received the galley proofs from Olympia Press and made minor corrections to them in July 1955 (Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, 269). Although this fact does not confirm that Nabokov saw The Seven Year Itch, the conjecture that he did—or that he knew about it through hearsay—and that this description involving a ballooning skirt then made it into the book at the last minute, is not wholly outside the realm of possibility. Considering the matter dispassionately, the apparent parallel is probably only fortuitous, but such strange coincidences seem inherent in the experience of reading Nabokov’s novel. One might even say that it has an oddly prophetic quality.

In examining the final typescript of the Japanese translation, I experience a dizzying sense of illusion, elicited by my awareness that I am now noticing every place where Nabokov may have made changes to the final proofs of the novel. As soon as one comes into contact with Nabokov, the world is suffused with a Nabokovian tint. Spanning in a single burst two points in time 50 years apart, Lolita seems unexpectedly fresh.

Having begun with movies, let’s continue on the theme of Lolita and film. In trying to recapture the night he spends with Lolita at the Enchanted Hunters hotel, Humbert looks through newspapers from the middle of August 1947 at a public library. Amidst the various articles he reads, the following statement appears: “Brute Force and Possessed were coming on Sunday, the 24th to both theaters.”

Brute Force poster

Possessed poster

In his book Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, Alfred Appel, Jr considers the links between Nabokov’s work and popular culture, most notably movies and comics. Appel discusses the films Brute Force and Possessed in detail. In the course of a conversation with the author, Nabokov says: “I saw both films, and thought them appropriate for several reasons. But I don’t remember why … so many years have passed” (210). As to what these “several reasons” might be, Appel’s analyses are probably, on the whole, correct. Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster and directed by Jules Dassin, is about an escape from prison, a theme perfectly suited to Humbert’s situation: he composes Lolita in prison; the term “brute” calls to mind Humbert, who repeatedly refers to himself as such throughout the novel. The film noir Possessed, directed by Curtis Bernhardt, tells the story of a nurse (Joan Crawford) who is utterly smitten with an engineer (Van Heflin) and in the end succumbs to madness. This scenario too bears close resemblance to Humbert’s situation. (And if we read “possessed” somewhat obliquely, as equivalent to the title of the English translation of Besy—literally “demons” but often rendered as The Possessed—mention of the film could also be seen as a slighting reference to Dostoevsky, whom Nabokov, after emigrating to the United States, consistently disparaged.)

Is there a more direct reason that Nabokov makes reference to the films? An examination of newspapers of that era reveals that Brute Force was released in June 1947 and Possessed in July 1947. In other words, reference to the films confirms that time internal to the novel has been coordinated with the actual time of the real world. Nabokov, who was in the habit of conducting detailed research, must have examined newspapers dating from the middle of August 1947,2 just as Humbert does.

Apart from these two films, are there other references to movies? Soon after Humbert finds lodging in the Lolita’s home, as mother and daughter are talking one evening in the garden, Charlotte makes a statement which Humbert records as follows:

The old girl had finished relating in great detail the plot of a movie she and L. had seen sometime in the winter. The boxer had fallen extremely low when he met the good old priest (who had been a boxer himself in his robust youth and could still slug a sinner).

This is another passage that caught my eye while I was translating the novel. Unlike the two films mentioned above, the title of the one to which Charlotte refers is not divulged. To conclude that the film is Nabokov’s invention might be natural. In Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, Appel does not mention the unnamed film, and in his copiously annotated edition of Lolita (1970), no note elucidates this passage. But if we abandon the assumption that the film is invented, can there be any doubt that the reference is to The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford?

The Quiet Man poster

Nabokov’s motive for referring to The Quiet Man is easy to guess: the eponymous “quiet man” is really an ex-boxer who once beat an opponent to death. The disparity between his outward demeanor and inner being is much like the duality characterizing the middle-aged man in The Seven Year Itch, whom Marilyn Monroe’s character inadvertently likens to a creature that is half monstrous fish, half man. The same disparity holds true for Humbert. (As a slight digression, Stanley Kubrick uses a similar technique in his 1962 film adaptation of Lolita. Following the scene in which Humbert glimpses Lolita for the first time in the garden of the Haze house, a shot of Humbert sitting between Charlotte and Lolita as the trio watches a film at a drive-in theater cuts to a shot of the movie screen itself, on which a scene from the Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein is visible. Here again, Humbert is likened to a monster. The Curse of Frankenstein dates from 1957, however, so for a long time I found its appearance in a scene from 1947 to be a mystery. It was only much later that I became aware of my mistake: Kubrick’s adaptation includes a scene of Lolita playing with a Hula-Hoop, a fad that swept America in 1958. In other words, The Curse of Frankenstein makes an appearance because Kubrick has shifted the time period of the original work by ten years, transforming a novel set in the late 1940s into a film whose setting is suffused by American popular culture of the late 1950s.)

And yet, the conversation that supplies a synopsis of The Quiet Man is fairly strange, and one cannot help feeling that its extreme artificiality bears closer investigation. We should begin with the phrase that set our intuition working: “the boxer had fallen extremely low when he met the good old priest.” The phrase refers to a scene in which Sean Thornton (John Wayne), a boxer who has returned to his homestead in Ireland after killing an opponent in the ring, and now troubled by how to respond to the challenge for a match issued by another man, goes to visit the Reverend Playfair. In this scene, Reverend Playfair is amusing himself by playing tiddlywinks.

Nabokov makes references to tiddlywinks in Chapter 5 of Part One of Lolita. Humbert, excited by his own descriptions as he tracks various nymphets throughout history, writes “I am just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup” and “My little cup brims with tiddles.” Proof that the metaphor referencing an obscure game unfamiliar to many readers has been drawn from The Quiet Man lies concealed in the remainder of the same scene from the film: in admitting that his hobby is clipping articles about sporting events from the newspapers (making clear that he knows about Thornton’s past), Reverend Playfair says “Some men collect butterflies, some stamps.”

Collecting butterflies was of course Nabokov’s lifelong passion. Perhaps when he saw The Quiet Man, the Reverend’s statement struck him. A recollection of the line may explain the otherwise strange reference to The Quiet Man in Lolita.3

Nonetheless, the scene in which Charlotte and Lolita are talking about the film they saw gives rise to a strange effect. Within the time frame of the novel, Charlotte is speaking in June 1947. In reality, however, the first release of The Quiet Man took place in June 1952. It would be nice to find an explanation for this time lag of five years.

To dismiss it as a mere oversight of Nabokov’s would be difficult. Considering that in the case of the two films mentioned above, Brute Force and Possessed, the time internal to the novel and actual time are precisely coordinated, like the hands of two watches laid side by side, it is difficult to imagine that in the case of The Quiet Man such meticulous attention to detail was carelessly forgotten. Given that Brute Force and Possessed are expressly named whereas The Quiet Man is given only in synopsis, its title withheld, it is natural to see something intentional at work here. Why was this anachronism planted in the text?

Before assuming the author is the culprit, it may be possible to read the passage in such a way as to reveal Humbert, rather than Nabokov, as the source. According to the foreword written by the editor of the confessions, John Ray, Jr., Humbert dies in prison on November 16, 1952. Since he is incarcerated in September of that year, it is theoretically possible that he saw The Quiet Man or knew a synopsis of it. One could therefore assert that grounds exist for believing that the 1947 conversation between Charlotte and Lolita about The Quiet Man is Humbert’s fabrication. Such an assertion is fully within the realm of possibility given Humbert’s acknowledgement that the passage in question is being written in the form of a diary reproduced from memory, and that such reproduction can comprise falsehoods. His admission raises the question of the extent to which Humbert creates fictions, and has a profound bearing on the extent to which we the readers should trust the veracity of his confessions.

The all-encompassing question of the truthfulness of Humbert’s account arise from contradictions in dating that occur in the text. Opinion even among Nabokov scholars has become divided into two apparently incompatible schools of thought.4 The anachronistic reference to The Quiet Man actually has some bearing on the questions on which the revisionists’ arguments are based. As soon as doubt is expressed about the veracity of Humbert’s narrative, the resulting divergence of possible interpretations makes arriving at a simple solution extremely problematic, like finding the sole path that leads out of an endless bog.

Placing credibility for the time being in Humbert’s account of the conversation, let us assume that Nabokov had some reason for planting the anachronism. This assumption leads to a single conclusion: that in the novelistic world of Lolita, The Quiet Man already exists in 1947.

Treatment of music in the novel is similar to the treatment of film. Apparent time lags exist. During their year-long flight across the United States, from the spring of 1947 to the spring of 1948, Humbert is pestered incessantly by Lolita for change to put into jukeboxes. Humbert recalls the overly sweet voices of the singers: “I still hear the nasal voices of those invisibles serenading her, people with names like Sammy and Jo and Eddy and Tony and Peggy and Guy and Patty and Rex.” According to Appel’s notes in The Annotated Lolita, these names point respectively to Sammy Kaye, Joe Stafford, Eddie Fisher, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Guy Mitchell, and Patti Page (Appel does not mention a singer corresponding to “Rex,” implying no such singer exists). Here too, however, something strange is going on. The majority of these singers debuted, became stars, and saw their songs become hits in the 1950s. Moreover, Anthony Benedetto did not take the stage name “Tony Bennett” until 1949, and Al Cernik was not discovered and given the stage name “Guy Mitchell” by Mitch Miller until 1950. In other words, from the spring of 1947 to the spring of 1948, “Tony” and “Guy” seem not yet to have existed in the real world.

The key to solving this puzzle is a single note card that Nabokov drafted while composing Lolita, reproduced by Brian Boyd in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years.

Nabokov's notes for Lolita

The card, dated 1952, lists song titles and singers including Tony Bennett and the other names mentioned above. The list seems to have been transcribed from a miniature remote-controlled Wall-O’-Matic jukebox, a common fixture in restaurants and similar establishments of that era. Either knowingly or unknowingly, Nabokov has inserted these singers “as is” into the novelistic world of four or five years earlier.5

Wall-O'-Matic Jukebox

The Wall-O-Matic jukebox Nabokov saw in a restaurant somewhere was probably a model like the one pictured above, with 100 songs to choose from: a total of twenty songs in two columns of ten displayed side by side in a glass window. Nabokov simply wrote down the names of songs and singers as they appeared in the Wall-O’-Matic.

Judging by the names that appear on the list, Sammy Kaye, Eddie Fisher, Jo Stafford, and Tony Bennett, it is clear that this note card became the source for the passage cited above.6 The songs and singers can be transcribed as follows:

You Sammy Kaye
Maybe Como + Fisher
Wishin' Russ Morgan
Walkin' to Missouri S. Kaye
God’s Little Candles Red Foley
Botch A Me Rosemary Clooney
Pretty Boy Jo Stafford
Forgive Me Peggy Lee
A Full Time Job Eddy Arnold
Here in My Heart Tony Bennett
You May Be the Sweetheart Ink Spots
Sleepless Tony Bennett

Nabokov may have had a reason for including not only the names of singers but the titles of hit songs from 1952. The list may have been consulted as a reference for the climactic scene in which Humbert goes to visit Lolita after having received a letter from her with news of her marriage and pregnancy. The date is September 23, 1952. When Humbert sees Lolita holding her big abdomen and leaning against a cushion, he becomes aware, for the first time, of the genuine love he feels for her. In the background of the decisive scene in which Humbert makes his declaration to the reader, “an afterwork radio had begun singing of folly and fate.” If we infer from the list Nabokov compiled, the most likely candidate for the song fulfilling the important role of background music for this scene is “You Belong to Me” by Joe Stafford, which was number one on Billboard magazine’s “hit chart” for five weeks in a row from September 13 to October 11, 1952 (the song “Pretty Boy” that appears on the list was the B-side of “You Belong to Me”). In other words, the song playing throughout this scene corresponds to the song being played most often on the radio at that point in time in the real world.

But “You Belong to Me” is a song about a woman waiting for her lover to return, not about “folly and fate.” Since Nabokov was by nature disdainful of popular music, his conception of this particular song is of course unknown. However, it is certain that the date on which Nabokov wrote down the titles of fashionable songs on the card and the date of the novel’s climactic scene are extremely close in time. In other words, it seems that the time internal to the novel, eager to attain the second half, overtakes the time of actual reality, the time in which Nabokov was composing the novel. In the latter part of this article I’d like to examine the question of whether this apparent acceleration of fictional time has any significance.

To summarize: one of Lolita’s distinctive characteristics is the treatment of popular culture—movies and music—by means of temporal distortion that results in a kind of double exposure, or rather double vision. This is an intentional stratagem on Nabokov’s part, I believe, because such treatment is not limited to movies and music but applies to other features of the era: cigarette brands and the names of gas stations are two of the most obvious. Clare Quilty, the playwright of whom Lolita becomes enamored, appears in publicity for Drome brand cigarettes. The word “drome” evokes “dromedary” and thus “camel,” so the brand Camel is inevitably called to mind for the reader. In fact this was an era when publicity for Camel cigarettes was flourishing. Even without considering newspaper and magazine advertisements, we note that the radio program Camel Caravan, hosted by the popular singer Vaughn Monroe, first aired and won public favor in 1946.7 In other words, the reader arrives at “Camel” via a distortion of the word as “Drome,” and as the advertising campaign for Camel cigarettes is called to mind he finds himself facing the fictional world in which the brand “Camel” has been transformed into “Drome.” Something similar can be said with respect to the gas stations that serve as an indispensable backdrop for Lolita as a “road novel”: “Shell” is transformed into “Conch” and “Mobil” into “Pegasus.” Here again there is a kind of double exposure caused by the distortion of words.

To borrow a phrase used in the text, “It is a question of focal adjustment” (I.4). When reading Lolita, both the so-called real world and the fictional world—like a phantom of it distortedly reflected in a mirror—simultaneously meet the eye. When one eye is closed, only one of the dual worlds can be seen. In the essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” Nabokov recounts that while writing the novel he was “faced by the task of inventing America” and therefore also of “obtaining … such local ingredients as would allow me to inject a modicum of average ‘reality’ (one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes) into the brew of individual fancy….” The dream America depicted by Nabokov in Lolita is precisely this “brew of individual fancy.”

In keeping with the time lags and the transformations of words, the geographical details of America as depicted in Lolita are similarly distorted. Several such distortions have been pointed out.8 Someday I hope to compile a complete list; for now, suffice it to say that the America of Lolita is a world that has subtle divergences with respect to the real America, both temporally and geographically. In fact there are so many subtle such lags that it is easy to overlook them. Apprehending the novelistic world of Lolita in this way is not necessarily unusual when one surveys the entirety of Nabokov’s work. Ada is constructed like science fiction, in which America and Russia and France are geographically and linguistically fused to form North America, their common history unfolding with temporal lags relative to real history.

Moreover, the principle of “double exposure” in Lolita governs not only the structure of the novelistic world but also the book’s main themes. The girl Lolita as seen by Humbert is a hallucination that arises out of the flesh-and-blood girl Dolores Haze. The figures of Lolita and Dolores are simultaneously reflected in the eyes of the reader. Or, conversely, as soon as only Lolita is seen, Dolores disappears. Continuously at question is whether Humbert is referring to Lolita or to Dolores when he says “Lolita, my Lolita.” The novel has a kind of deceptive depth as if being viewed through a stereoscope. No matter how many times one reads the text and no matter how thoroughly one thinks one has read it, there remains more to be seen. The foremost cause of this effect is the double exposure mentioned above. Even given the unresolved controversy articulated by the revisionists, I hope to use the principle of double exposure as a kind of unified field theory, to allow solution, if only partial, of a number of questions. Of course, even resolution of the controversy does not imply that everything in the text to be seen has been seen.

Finally, let us return to time lags. Humbert writes in his notebook that he wants the confessions to be published after Lolita’s death. John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., entrusted with the task of editing the notes, reveals in the foreword that Mrs. Richard F. Schiller (in reality, Lolita) dies in childbirth on Christmas Day, 1952. The preface is dated August 5th, 1955.

In other words, there is an illusion, momentarily enveloping the reader like a mist, that at the time of Lolita’s publication in 1955 the events within the novel upon which the appearance of the book is contingent have already transpired, permitting release of the book—as the reportage of these events—to the reader. We cannot help but be struck with admiration at Nabokov’s magic: by boldly connecting the time in the novel to the time of the real world, he fascinates us with the book’s unique character—on one level we are aware that the novel purports to be an account of actual past events, on another we feel as if the events recounted in the book in our hands are occurring in real time, that they exist simultaneously in both the real world and the fictional world. Another case of double exposure in action.

Nabokov’s reason for dating the foreword “August 5, 1955” is easy to understand, but did he inadvertently commit a blunder? The date does not appear in the edition issued by Olympia Press in 1955. The omission was corrected in the version edited by Appel and published in 1970 as The Annotated Lolita. Had Nabokov overlooked the fact that this correction gives rise to a contradiction in the foreword? In the enumeration of what has become of the characters after the events described in the book, Louise, the daughter of Mr. Windmuller—the source of the information—is said to be at present a sophomore in college. But in Chapter 33 of Part Two, Humbert on returning to Ramsdale visits Windmuller’s office and learns there that his daughter has just been admitted to college. The date is September 24, 1952, the day after his reunion with Lolita. In other words, on August 5, 1955, Louise must be a junior and not a sophomore.

How did this contradiction occur? Here’s my theory: Nabokov completed the manuscript of Lolita on December 6, 1953. As recounted in “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” the last part of the novel to be written was John Ray, Jr.’s foreword. With respect to the timeframe of the novel, Louise was then a sophomore. In other words, Nabokov intended in the foreword to connect the time of the real world with the time of the world of the novel. Considered from the point of view of the author at that moment, for whom Lolita’s prospects for publication were not yet clear, Nabokov was likely at a loss as to the date and had to leave it blank. When he later filled in the blank with “August 5, 1955,” however, he had forgotten the relationship between the date of the foreword and the time of the action of the novel implied by the statement that Louise is a sophomore. Or perhaps this time lag is yet another example of double exposure—not an oversight of Nabokov’s, but deliberate artifice?

The date “August 5, 1955” is like a moment in time that has been returned to the real world from the world of the novel, an actual moment in real time rather than a simple textual signpost. Rereading Lolita yet again, we cannot help noticing the chronological marker. The manuscript of the Japanese translation was completed on August 4th, 2005. As I was about to transmit the file by e-mail, I sensed there was something significant about the date. Then I remembered that John Ray, Jr.’s foreword is dated August 5th, 1955: the very day, perhaps, that, fifty years ago, Nabokov mailed the final galleys to Olympia Press, the day that Lolita at long last left his hands and after which he had only to wait for the book to be published.


1. Tôkyô: Shinchôsha, 2005.

2. Nabokov frequently used newspapers as raw material. What may be the best example is to be found in Pale Fire. We digress somewhat from Lolita, but the passage merits attention.

The assassin Gradus, intent on killing Charles Kinbote aka the King of Zembla, arrives in New York and sets out for a morning stroll through Central Park. Because the scene is narrated by Kinbote, its reality is open to question; it may be Kinbote’s delusion. The date is July 21st, 1959. Kinbote's version of the scene, which includes many specific references to articles and advertisements in The New York Times, appears in his second note to line 949 of the poem.

If we investigate issues of The New York Times from the 20th and 21st of July, 1959, as Charles Kinbote appears to have done, what do we find?

The articles buried in Pale Fire are indeed extracted from The New York Times. Immediately evident is the influence of the international situation, especially relations between the US and the Soviet Union. The cancellation of Krushchev’s visit to Scandanavia, the launch of the first atom-driven merchant ship Savannah, the situation in Iraq, Carl Sandburg’s comment on the Soviet exhibition (clearly Nabokov’s intent is to ridicule the left-wing man of letters) all relate to US-Soviet relations. In July of that year, Vice-President Nixon visited Moscow and had a heated exchange about the differences between capitalism and communism. In September, Krushchev visited America and met for talks with President Eisenhower. In the midst of the Cold War, Krushchev articulated a turnaround in foreign policy, “peaceful coexistence.” Nabokov’s view of these developments is a very interesting question.

Another distinctive feature are the anagrams. The Rachel Jewelry Company that appears in one article is an anagram of Charel. Founded in 1945, Charel had become by the 1950s a well-known brand of costume jewelry. Today their products are vintage collectors’ items. “Helman” brothers is also an anagram, a distortion of the Lehman brothers seen in advertisements of that era. When fabricating “reality” out of reality, transformation into anagrams is also one of Nabokov’s standard techniques.

Referring to an actual article without distortion, Nabokov’s intent is plain when he writes that a “hack reviewer” reviews “his own tour through Norway.” The person being referred to here as a “hack reviewer” is frequent contributor to The New York Times Orville Prescott. After the scandal caused by the publication of Lolita in Paris, on the eve of the book’s appearance in America on August 18th, 1958, Prescott wrote a severely critical review in The New York Times under the heading “Novel found dull and fatuous”: “‘Lolita,’ then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.”

Although his real name does not appear in Pale Fire, the rejection of Prescott as a “hack reviewer” is retaliation for the article critical of Lolita. (It is daunting to think that when you defy Nabokov, you risk being inserted into his novelistic world and held up to eternal laughter.)

I would like to draw particular attention to the fact that there are two articles into which accounts relating to the fictional land of Zembla have been absorbed. Although Krushchev’s trip to Scandinavia, called off at the last minute--a decision said to have been made based on the anti-Soviet sentiment in that region--is certainly a historical fact that appeared on the front page of newspapers, the addition “and was to visit Zembla instead” is of course fiction. The strange disparities between reality and “reality” manifest in the article, the optical illusion caused by seeing the two worlds simultaneously, the trembling of the fictional world due to “double exposure,” all occur in Pale Fire. In the fictional world of the novel, whether the foreign land of Zembla exists in “reality” or is merely the mad delusion of the narrator Kinbote is not entirely clear. In other words, the material supposedly being read by the assassin Gradus and now being reread by Kinbote in the library, to be found in July 20 and 21st issues of The New York Times in the world of the novel, may or may not actually mention Zembla. Of course this question too, insofar as the narrator is apparently insane, is not easy to resolve.

In any case, let’s examine a phrase that appears at the end of the article mentioning Zembla: “a picnic for international children.” If we consult the actual article, we find that it describes a farewell picnic held for children visiting America as part of a homestay program that involved 30 eleven-year-old boys and girls from 13 countries (from Bergen, Norway to Tokyo, Japan ) as part of an international exchange. Whereas in Pale Fire, a Zemblan child says to her Japanese friend: “Ufgut, ufgut, velkam ut Semblerland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!),” in the actual article it is a Swedish girl who says the words “Adjö, adjö, välkommen till Sverige!” (Goodbye, goodbye, welcome to Sweden!).

New York Times article

What I found so regrettable here is that in transforming the companion to whom the Swedish child speaks into a Zemblan girl, Nabokov has eliminated mention of the Japanese friend. This Japanese girl’s reply to the words of the Swedish girl is reproduced: “Sayonara, Nippon e kite kudasai” (Good-by, come to Japan).

The same article includes the following account: “The children, gathered in a circle, watched spellbound as Yôko Tsuchiya of Tokyo, dressed in a printed robe adorned with purple morning glories, demonstrated a graceful Noh dance to the accompaniment of recorded Japanese music.”

This is the reason I have been dwelling on the article at such length. Given that this Japanese participant in the event, Ms. Yôko Tsuchiya, was 11 years old in 1959, she would now, in 2006, be 58 years old. I wanted to find her. Of course, doing so would not contribute to the cause of Nabokov studies. But this Yôko Tsuchiya, as far as I know, is the only Japanese person to actually appear in Nabokov’s novels. The very thought of a Japanese managing to enter Nabokov’s text was something to get excited about. Moreover, it is she to whom the Zemblan child says goodbye. Isn’t this a bit like meeting a Martian by chance!?

I consulted a number of Japanese newspapers from July 20, 1959 and thereabouts, but unfortunately there were no articles about the exchange event. I appeal to readers of this article for additional information. Of course, even if one were to meet Yôko Tsuchiya face to face, she would no doubt give the curious Nabokovian a look of bewilderment…

3. Rediscovering such tiddles as we watch this scene affords the researcher the same relish Nabokov enjoyed when he saw the film over fifty years ago.

4. At the end of the book, Humbert writes that his confession was begun in prison 56 days earlier. According to John Ray, Jr.’s foreword, Humbert dies on the 16th of November, 1952. Assuming Humbert dies immediately after completing the book, he must have been arrested, at the latest, on September 22, 1952. But September 22 is the day he receives a letter from Lolita (now married to another man), and if we inspect the account of Humbert’s actions from Chapter 28 of Part 2 to the end of the book, we find that Humbert is arrested on September 25. There is a gap of three days.

Christina Tekiner pointed out this three-day gap in 1979. At that time the contradiction did not seem terribly significant to Nabokov scholars, and the lapse was attributed by some to the unreliability of Humbert’s memory. But it’s not that simple. When we consider the significance of dates appearing throughout the novel, we realize Humbert’s fussiness when it comes to numbers and find very few exceptions to his surprising exactitude. For example, in the poem “Wanted Wanted Dolores Haze” composed by Humbert, there is a line stating Lolita’s age as 5,300 days. When we calculate the number of days from Lolita’s birth to her disappearance, we find that Humbert’s figure is exactly correct.

For argument’s sake, let’s accept both dates as being correct. If we do, there can be only one conclusion: the events following Humbert’s receipt of Lolita’s letter do not happen in reality. Given this, the very basis of Humbert confession becomes unstable. Lolita itself comes to look like a shimmering mirage.

Defeating the argument expressed by the so-called revisionists is not easy, and there is even circumstantial evidence to support it. According to Leona Toker, while preparing the final manuscripts of the Russian translation as well as the English editions, Nabokov checked scrupulously for errors, and yet he did not correct either of the figures in question. Instead, he specified the date September 22, 1952 (cf. Toker 210 and note 14 on the same page): by retaining it, Nabokov may have planted evidence that the ending of the book is Humbert’s fabrication.

Opposing the foremost revisionists (Alexander Dolinin and Julian W. Connolly), Brian Boyd speaks for the traditionalist view and concludes that the inconsistency in dates is an oversight of Nabokov’s. In order to restore the traditional reading of Lolita, only a single digit, in the date of Humbert’s death, need be corrected, from November 16 to November 19.

The revisionist argument is very interesting, built as it is as from small clues assembled to reveal an unexpected truth, like the solution to be deduced by a reader of detective fiction, but the questions that arise as a result are so big that there is as yet no conclusive explanation of the evidence. Cf.: Christina Tekiner, “Time in Lolita,” Modern Fiction Studies, 25 (1979), pp. 463-69; Leona Toker, Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989), pp. 209-11; Alexander Dolinin, “Nabokov’s Time Doubling: From The Gift to Lolita,” Nabokov Studies, 2 (1995), pp. 3-40; Julian Connolly, “‘Nature’s Reality’ or Humbert’s ‘Fancy’: Scenes of Reunion and Murder in Lolita,” Ibid., pp. 41-61; Brian Boyd, “‘Even Homais Nods’: Nabokov’s Fallibility or How to Revise Lolita,” Ibid., pp. 62-86.

5. Proof that the time lag of five years with respect to the real world evidenced by the movies and music mentioned in the book is by no means an oversight of Nabokov’s but an intentional operation can be found in Nabokov’s annotations to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

In the passage in question (Eight: XVII, 9), Onegin returns from a trip to reenter Petersburg society, where he is reunited with Tatiana. But Onegin fails to recognize her: she has changed into a fair lady with only faint traces of her former appearance. Onegin asks a prince beside him “Tell me, prince, you don’t know / who there in the framboise beret / with the Spanish envoy is talking?” [Nabokov’s literal rendering]. Whereupon the prince, somewhat surprised, replies “My wife.”

In the narrative world of Eugene Onegin, the scene takes place in August 1824. Pushkin composed the stanza from 1829 to 1830. Nabokov notes the time lag in his annotation:

I suggest that, when composing Eight, Pushkin visualized not the fashions of 1824 but those of 1829-30 and, possibly, the very beret of eminence color (a purplish red) which is prominently illustrated in vol. LXII (no. 2, Pl. 2, fig. 1; Jan. 11, 1829) of the Journal des dames et des modes, imported into Russia from Frankfort on the Main (EO, v.3, pp. 182-183).
Evidence that supports his inference is that from 1825 to 1835 the Spanish ambassador to Russia was J.M. Páez de la Cadena, whom Pushkin knew personally. Nabokov points out that there is no record of a Spanish ambassador having been appointed before 1825, but that the incident in Eight : XVII, which includes the “Spanish envoy,” takes place in August, 1824.

The Onegin anachronism pointed out by Nabokov (created by Pushkin consciously or unconsciously, we do not know) is structurally the same as the anachronism Nabokov plants in Lolita. Even the extent of the lag, five years, is the same.

Coincidence seems highly improbable. Composition of Lolita partially overlapped in time with the translation and annotation of Eugene Onegin, and it seems unlikely that Nabokov, who had pointed out the anachronism in Onegin would have overlooked a similar such anachronism in his own work. That the time lag in Lolita is a nod to Onegin is the most natural explanation.

At question here is the closeness of the relationship between Onegin and Lolita. Carefully deleting traces of Russia from the surface of the text, Nabokov emphasizes the transatlantic theme of a European in America, while in reality there is a concealed subtext that clearly draws on Russian literature. Both Lolita and Onegin can be summarized as: “meeting with a fateful woman” --> “lengthy separation” --> “reunion” --> “rejection by the woman.” The parallelism is striking. Furthermore, the works make use of letters (Charlotte’s in Lolita and Tatiana’s in Eugene Onegin) in similar ways. For a detailed discussion, see especially the chapter “Onegin and Lolita” in Priscilla Meyer’s excellent Find What the Sailor Has Hidden (Wesleyan University Press, 1989). Further examination of the relationship between Lolita and Onegin is undoubtedly warranted.

6. Nabokov was indifferent to popular music; his only motive for writing down the song titles was to later use them in “inventing America” as background for the book.

7. Two of the popular singers whose names have already been mentioned, Perry Como and Jo Stafford, were hired to appear in advertisements for Chesterfield brand cigarettes of that era. Such advertisements regularly appeared in The New Yorker, which Nabokov, as a frequent contributor, always perused.

8. Paul Kriloff, a student of Galya Diment, points out in his honors thesis that “Conception Park” does not exist. See Diment’s message to the NABOKV-L list on July 8, 1994. In his annotations to the German edition of Lolita, Dieter E. Zimmer discusses a number of place names appearing in the novel (see "Anmerküngen," Lolita [München: Artemis & Winkler, 1995], pp. 571-643).

The question of which real world locales correspond to the camouflaged place names in Lolita is an interesting puzzle. Let’s try a comparatively simple example: Lepingville, the bustling town visited by Humbert and Lolita at the end of Part One. What is the model for this town “where a great poet had resided in the early nineteenth century” (L, I.27)?

Of particular note is the phrase “a great poet.” Why the vagueness? What prompted Nabokov’s decision not to make the name explicit? In fact, Nabokov did make it explicit outside the text of Lolita. In response to Alfred Appel, Jr., who asked him to identify "the great poet," Nabokov said "That poet was evidently Leping who used to go lepping (i.e., lepidoptera hunting) but that's about all anybody knows about him" (The Annotated Lolita, p. 376). But "Leping" seems to be, in the context of Nabokov's reply, merely a pun. Who, then, would be the model for this great poet, and to what actual town might the name "Lepingville" refer?

To solve the puzzle we must examine the context. The poet most frequently referred to in Lolita is of course Edgar Allan Poe. Not only does the name Annabel Lee resound like a keynote throughout the first part of the novel, but Nabokov later puns on Poe’s name:

“Monsieur Poe-poe,” as that boy in one of Monsieur Humbert Humbert's classes in Paris called the poet-poet.
Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809. The following year, his father abandoned the family, and when Poe was two years old his mother died of tuberculosis. He was adopted by the tobacco merchant John Allan and went to live in Richmond, Virginia. Poe thus lived for a brief time as a small child in Boston. My conclusion is that Lepingville is probably Boston. The phrase “in the early nineteenth century” supports this theory.

Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.