Category Archives: Lolita

Maurice Vermont & Marion Rumpelmeyer

Cursed with a succession of tedious faculty meetings, I decided to surreptitiously bide my time exploring one of Lolita’s little riddles. Humbert, in Chapter 13, mentions a playlet (The Emperor’s New Clothes) by Maurice Vermont and Marion Rumpelmeyer. Appel, in his notes, quotes Nabokov as saying, “I vaguely but persistently feel that both Vermont and Rumpelmeyer exist!” before Appel idly speculates that Nabokov culled the names from a phone book. All this sounded fishy to me, so down the rabbit hole I went, only to emerge hours later with the following odds and ends:

1. Rumpelmayer’s (spelling noted) was a well-known chain of European tea-houses that catered particularly to Russians, with locations in Baden-Baden, Nice, Mentone, Monte Carlo, Paris, London, and elsewhere. It would later open a location in NYC (of which more later).

2. In the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the titular character is preparing for a party and we are told that “Rumpelmayer’s men were coming” (presumably caterers).
3. Edmund Wilson published a story in 1927 called “The Men from Rumpelmayer’s”—presumably a reference to the Woolf passage. This was later collected in Wilson’s American Earthquake (1958) where Nabokov read it after Lolita was already published (see VN-Wilson Letters, p. 324).
4. The Rumpelmayer’s in New York (which closed in 1998) was located in the lobby of the Hotel St. Moritz. 
5. In her biography, Shelley Winters says she once dined with Nabokov (post-Lolita) at this Rumpelmayer’s: “I forget how much money I got for this film, but at Rumpelmayer’s with Nabokov, during the final discussions, I had a tuna-fish sandwich and a chocolate milkshake, my standard tranquilizer . . .”
6. St. Moritz is a famous resort in the Swiss Alps.
7. It is named after St. Maurice, the patron saint of weavers and dyers. 
8. Maurice = Moritz in German
9. Vermont = Green Mountain

Sorting through all of this, my best guess is that Nabokov associated Rumpelmayer’s (Rumpelmeyer) with the Hotel St. Moritz (Maurice), a mountain resort (thus VerMONT). Furthermore, if he knew that St. Maurice was the patron saint of weavers and dyers, this could relate to The Emperor’s New Clothes. None of this seems significant in the least, yet I found this excavation more enriching and interesting than the intricacies of our faculty pay scale and the office window covering policy.


Lolita’s Leaping Tailor

In part 1, Chapter 29 of Lolita, Humbert, standing above the sleeping girl, says “For at least two minutes I waited and strained on the brink, like that tailor with his homemade parachute forty years ago when about to jump from the Eiffel Tower” (AnLo 128). Oddly, Appel provides no annotation.

The tailor in question is Franz Reichelt, and his leap was fatal. VN must have seen this newsreel, as most of it is taken up with ill-fated Franz standing on the brink. Humbert’s image is lively enough on its own, but I have to say that it takes on a new flavor after one watches the film.

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Paratexts Gone Wrong

Today in my Intro to English Studies course we are talking about paratexts, the materials that surround the text (front and back matter, illustrations, book design, advertisements, etc.) but are not part of the text proper. Nabokov, as we know, was fascinated by paratexts. He liked to include sham versions of them within his novels (John Ray Jr.’s foreword in Lolita, Kinbote’s foreword, commentary, and index in PF, the editorial interruptions in Ada) and penned a number of authentic prefaces and afterwords, as well. Sometimes he intruded into the publisher’s paratext, as in the Putnam’s first edition of Pale Fire, where, as James Ramey has shown, he hid the crown jewels of Zembla, represented by a black crown on the title page, just below the author’s name and just above the Putnam’s logo.

When it came to cover illustrations, Nabokov strongly preferred plain text on a simple background to any kind of representative image of characters or situations, and the publishers of his first editions largely adhered to his wishes. Later editions, however, were beyond Nabokov’s control. In Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (Print Books, 2013), John Bertram and Yuri Leving present a brilliant overview of the ways book designers have molded, and been molded by, the public’s image of Lolita (the character). Also be sure to check out Dieter Zimmer’s web gallery of Lolita editions from around the world.

For all the egregious distortions and vulgarities apparent on the covers of books, we should not forget the damage that can be done by the blurbs and summaries on the back cover. One of the worst is from the 1989 Vintage paperback of Despair. (The whole Vintage 1989 reissue was, by the way, a design nightmare: awful photographs, ugly colors, inaccurate lepidoptera, etc.) The description reads thus:

Extensively revised by Nabokov in 1965–thirty years after its original publication–DESPAIR is the wickedly inventive and richly derisive story of Hermann, a man who undertakes the perfect crime: his own murder.

Immediately below this we find a blurb from Newsweek:

“A beautiful mystery plot, not to be revealed.”

But of course, one of the main elements of that plot–an element that is not fully revealed until quite late in the novel–is Hermann’s plan to murder his alleged double, Felix, and collect the insurance money. So the Vintage description does, in fact, reveal an essential element of the plot that Newsweek says should not be revealed!

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I am a serious person!

Publicists seem to think that having their clients go out in public with Lolita is a good thing. Two recent sightings:

Snoop Dogg on a plane


Bradley Cooper in a park in Paris

(h/t to Sergey Karpukhin for posting the Snoop photo to the Nabokov listserv)

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Red Meat — Lolita

Perhaps the cleverest of the “Lolita” songs. Not particularly relevant to Nabokov’s novel, except that it, like many other Lolita songs (including the MC Lars song below), contains the “come back home” plea, a lament for Lolita lost.

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MC Lars – Lolita

Next year I will be teaching a seminar course on Lolita. As part of my preparation for talking about the book’s effect on popular culture, I have been using Spotify to listen to songs with “Lolita” in the title. There are an enormous number of them (well over 100 when I stopped looking). I find it fascinating to examine the various narratives, and narrative perspectives, these songs display. Some of the songwriters clearly know Nabokov’s book, while others seem wholly unaware of the source but have nevertheless inherited a set of associations (mostly spurious) that can be traced back to the novel. So to begin, here is a tongue-in-cheek (I hope) song by MC Lars, that mostly tracks with Humbert Humbert’s perspective, both in the sense that it is written after the loss of “Lolita” and in some of the justifications and evasions the speaker employs. Enjoy!

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