In chapter three we learn about Annabel, Lolita’s precursor - an essential setup for the main thrust of the novel as Annabel is, for H.H., the first “one who got away,” to whom all others will be compared - until he meets Lo. But crucially, this chapter lulls us readers into a tender nostalgic mood, as we shall see...
Annabel was, like the writer…
Another reminder that all this information is coming not through an omniscient, unnamed narrator but through the fallible mind of H.H.
I remember her features far less distinctly today than I did a few years ago, before I knew Lolita.
This sentence accomplishes two things: first, the hazy memory and reminiscent tone reinforce our dear H.H.’s unreliability as a narrator. For its part the second clause reinforces the important fact that in his life, and therefore in this story, there are two sections: before Lolita and after Lolita. Already Lolita has been set up as a kind of mythological figure in his life, and again, this only builds our anticipation of meeting her.
(and then I see Annabel in such general terms as: “honey-colored skin,” “thin arms,” “brown bobbed hair,” “long lashes,” “big bright mouth”)
This rather excellent parenthetical gives us a quick thumbnail sketch of Annabel, only as much as we need to know.
Our brains were turned the way those of intelligent European preadolescents were in our day and set, and I doubt if much individual genius should be assigned to our interest in the plurality of inhabited worlds, competitive tennis, infinity, solipsism and so on. The softness and fragility of baby animals caused us the same intense pain. She wanted to be a nurse in some famished Asiatic country; I wanted to be a famous spy.
Does the reader not immediately remember an Annabel in their own life? Although I shudder at the word “relatable,” H.H.’s reminiscing here cannot but remind us of our own first adolescent trysts.
After one wild attempt we made to meet at night in her garden (of which more later)...
Among some treasures I lost during the wanderings of my adult years, there was a snapshot taken by my aunt which showed Annabel, her parents and the staid, elderly, lame gentleman, a Dr. Cooper, who that same summer courted my aunt, grouped around a table in a sidewalk café. Annabel did not come out well, caught as she was in the act of bending over her chocolat glacé, and her thin bare shoulders and the parting in her hair were about all that could be identified (as I remember that picture) amid the sunny blur into which her lost loveliness graded; but I, sitting somewhat apart from the rest, came out with a kind of dramatic conspicuousness: a moody, beetle-browed boy in a dark sport shirt and well-tailored white shorts, his legs crossed, sitting in profile, looking away.
The photograph serves not just as a thumbnail of the time, place, and people, but of Humbert Humbert himself and how he fits - or rather, does not fit - into it: “but I, sitting somewhat apart from the rest… his legs crossed, sitting in profile, looking away.” From the start H.H. has emphasized how special he is (“everybody liked me, everybody petted me”) and now we are starting to discover that beneath that glimmering exterior there is something powerfully ominous.
I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.
THIS. SENTENCE. “Bearded bathers,” a lovely alliteration, “the old man of the sea” reference to Hemingway, but most of all, that slap-in-the-face last clause, “and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.” It’s not technically a periodic sentence, but it achieves the same effect, closing the chapter with sudden tragedy that strikes the reader just as it must have struck poor Humbert as a child.
Most importantly, “tenderizing” us this way is not only an attempt to help us sympathize with H.H., but it sets us up for the sexual frustration of the next chapter, a dam that will withhold the waters that vex and torture H.H. all his life - until Lolita.