Tag Archives: Lolita

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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Process vs. Product

In the Intro to English Studies course that I teach each fall, we talk about underreading and overreading, the lamentable, though to some degree inevitable, twin poles of interpretive folly. Either pole tends to leave one isolated, outside the circle of interpretive communities that privilege certain readings over others. I wonder, though, if Nabokov’s puzzling nature—that is, his puzzle-making approach to his fictions—requires more than other authors a singular, expert solver, a Sherlock, who must go it alone and find the clues that others have missed. If we look at the history of Nabokov criticism, most of the major figures—Mary McCarthy, Alfred Appel, Jr., Carl Proffer, Andrew Field, Donald Barton Johnson, Brian Boyd, et. al.—have spent considerable energy, and placed great value, on the task of deciphering VN’s fictions. And despite the legitimate insight that Nabokov’s works are, of course, much more than just puzzles, contemporary criticism—Eric Naiman’s Nabokov, Perversely and Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, among the better examples—continues to employ a hermeneutic that requires the reader to scan the text for hidden keys that open the door to the implied author’s ultimate intentions. This can be an isolating experience for the critic, since many may not agree that the key is, in fact, a key, or that the door it opens leads anywhere worth going. Surely many Nabokovians have felt, along with the exhilaration of finding a new interpretation, an equal share of disappointment upon discovering that the transformative emotional experience of the quest is largely non-transferable. While others may be more or less grateful for the key, they have missed a great part of the point by not finding it for themselves. This is the double-edged sword, especially, of Appel’s Annotated Lolita. It is a tremendous scholarly accomplishment and a wonderful tool (especially for those who can’t read French), but it also pre-empts the experience that I think Nabokov himself wanted for his readers, the experience of looking for,  and then finding, the secrets embedded in the book.

This is all preamble for my next post, in which I will have the hubris to argue that readers have been underreading one of Nabokov’s stories for the past eight decades (but I have found the key!).

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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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