Chapter two is, in the simplest terms, a character exposition. By the end of it, we know exactly what sort of man Humbert Humbert is; but perhaps more importantly, we know what is important to him - his childhood. And this, as you know, is a crucial element, given his later proclivities. His nostalgic romanticization of his memories also leads us to suspect that he romanticizes quite a lot...
Delving into his own history also prolongs our anticipation of the mysterious Lolita - who is she, and when will we meet her? By the time we do, we will feel as if we’ve waited as long as Humbert Humbert did. So let’s get into this chapter.
I was born in 1910, in Paris…
In sharp contrast to the poetic first chapter, in chapter two we jump to a factual, autobiographical tone.
I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards.
H.H. persists with the implicit “you”, a subtle but powerful reminder that this is a very intimate telling - you are so special, dear reader! Equally important, this line about “glossy-blue picture-postcards” puts us immediately in the mind of idealistic reminiscing, which is exactly what H.H. is about to do.
My father… His father and two grandfathers…
The iteration of his forefathers’ occupations spells out H.H.’s genteel heritage, which will become an important part of how others perceive him; this contrasts with the dark interior we will soon come to know. I’ve read it argued that H.H.’s sophistication is supposed to make the reader more sympathetic to him, but I wholeheartedly disagree. If anything, it makes him a snob. The true purpose of his erudite manner is to conceal his interior “tangle of thorns”, both from other characters and from us as readers, inasmuch as we wouldn’t read such a book if it didn’t have a “fancy prose style.”
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…
This!! First off, “my very photogenic mother” is a fantastic little thumbnail - what more do we need to know about a woman than whether or not she is pretty? (Joking.) But more than that, there is the genius of Nabokov’s parenthetical pirouette here: the offhanded (picnic, lightning). mon cher petit papa The mental snapshot we get is both jarring and picturesque, forcing us to envision the whole scene: a wealthy European family strewn across a checkered blanket on a green lawn, a basket of food, a tree leaning over them protectively, jolted by a sudden strike that leaves husband and son in a panic, mother dead and sizzling on the ground. But this is just a miniature story crammed into two bisyllabic words, between two parentheses, within a larger sentence, and the story continues, we haven’t time to stop and imagine it…
...if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation)...
Humbert’s self-consciousness about his style is at once charming and a little patronizing, don’t you think? Here again we have a direct address to “you” and a break of that obtrusive fourth wall. The parenthetical about being under observation raises the red flag of a question in the reader’s mind, spurring us on.
...surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.
This is an almost random image, more about feeling than fact, that serves the same purpose as the “glossy-blue picture-postcards” - to put us in a nostalgic mood.
My mother’s sister, Sybil, whom a cousin of my father’s had married and then neglected, served in my immediate family as a kind of unpaid governess and housekeeper. Somebody told me later that she had been in love with my father, and that he had lightheartedly taken advantage of it one rainy day and forgotten it by the time the weather cleared.
Another wonderful story within the story, mentioned almost offhandedly. Again the reader can imagine scenes upon scenes, a whole drama worth exploring in another novel, for another time. And who is this “somebody” who thought to mention the weather on this particular day?
I grew, a happy, healthy child in a bright world of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces... everybody liked me, everybody petted me… on perfect terms with schoolmates and teachers...
We can, if we’re feeling generous, attribute H.H.’s self-centeredness to his being so doted upon. His idyllic childhood both preludes and contrasts his preoccupation with young girls like Lolita. But we must also wonder if his memory is entirely correct - so within us the seed of doubt is planted! (And of course, the images of that first sentence are vivid.)
mon cher petit papa
You don’t need to speak a word of French to guess what this means, and it’s the first instance of H.H.’s irritating habit of inserting French phrases unnecessarily into the text. The purpose of this, I can only guess, is to constantly remind us of his foreign and lofty background, an element essential to his sometimes patronizing tone and to how other characters perceive him.
...and I had nobody to complain to, nobody to consult.
This conclusion to the second chapter is ominous, raising more questions in our minds and leading us further on.
So already we know H.H.’s whole childhood, and well. We might not know every detail (of which more soon) but more importantly, Nabokov has effectively conveyed the mood of Humbert’s childhood as he himself remembers it. This is crucial: we are led to doubt everything this man tells us, no matter how earnestly he tells us. And thanks to his childhood recollections, we have a strong picture of what sort of man he is. The idea of Lolita has been introduced and repeated, as well as ample ominous foreshadowings and raised questions about his current location and incarceration.
And we are only halfway through page two!