This chapter is a brief four paragraphs. In it, Nabokov takes us through (1) H.H.’s own tortured theories analysing his "Annabel phase"; (2) her death and their spiritual affinity, the idea of her haunting him; (3) the excruciating erotic incident in the mimosa grove; (4) its abrupt and premature dissolution, how she haunts him, that he will "incarnate her in another" - and it all leads to Lolita.
The purpose here is to elicit our empathy for poor Humbert Humbert, especially by taking us into the scene in the mimosa grove, where we get a taste of his stifled eroticism. And of course, the chapter builds further anticipation of the elusive Lolita we still haven’t met yet.
I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity? ...I am convinced, however, that in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel.
One can read this little paragraph as a critique of psychoanalysis, which Nabokov reportedly hated. But it also serves to elicit the reader’s sympathy: he’s only trying to recover his lost first love! How tragic! Poor darling! We get a hint of the torture H.H. deals with internally - and who among us has not “leafed again and again through miserable memories”, trying to reason themselves out of their passions?
The spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today. Long after her death I felt her thoughts floating through mine. Long before we met we had had the same dreams…
H.H.’s romanticism is overwhelming and intoxicating. This all feeds into his tone of obsession, leading into-
Oh, Lolita, had you loved me thus!
These constant reminders of Lolita, usually at the end of a long periodic sentence or paragraph, continue to build in the reader’s mind an opaque aura around the object of H.H.’s obsession, a girl we will not meet for several chapters more. The anticipation (of a release!) builds - in us just as it does in Humbert Humbert.
I have reserved for the conclusion of my “Annabel” phase the account of our unsuccessful first tryst.
Another wall break to remind us that this is H.H.’s telling, that we rely on a possibly untrustworthy narrator…
She trembled and twitched as I kissed the corner of her parted lips and the hot lobe of her ear. A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves; that vibrant sky seemed as strangely distinct, as if it emitted a faint radiance of its own. Her legs, her lovely live legs, were not too close together, and when my hand located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure, half-pain, came over those childish features. She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious passion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face. She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion.
I include such a large swath of text simply as a testament to Nabokov’s linguistic luxury. Talk about caressing the detail! This scene will haunt us (as well as Humbert) for (p)ages. Note that he withholds any notation of his own pleasure for last, and then it is minimal, only hinted at; the focus is on her. Although he begins the paragraph with “I” (above is only the latter part of it) he does not return to himself until the end, building tension all the while. He begins the next paragraph with “I recall the scent…”, snapping us somewhat abruptly out of the reverie. This rhythm of beginning and ending each paragraph with a self-reference and using the bulk of the paragraph to delve into exquisite detail will continue.
But that mimosa grove - the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since - until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.
What a note to end on! The anticipation is unendurable, especially after that titillating scene with Annabel. And here Nabokov tells us directly why he includes it: to bridge the gap between past and future, childhood and adulthood, Annabel and Lolita, a stifled satisfaction and at long last, release.