Chapter eight is a bender. It contains nine long paragraphs in which H.H. details his brief marriage to Valeria before playing a hilarious scene in which she leaves him for a Russian taxi driver. But this turn of events segues quickly as Humbert’s train of thought is derailed, leading us at long last to a name he has not invoked since chapter five.
Although I told myself I was looking merely for a soothing presence, a glorified pot-au-feu, an animated merkin, what really attracted me to Valeria was the imitation she gave of a little girl. She gave it not because she had divined something about me; it was just her style - and I fell for it.
This paragraph serves not only as a thumbnail of his wife but also to measure her up against his ideal. And note the way he continues to characterize her as somehow inherently deceptive:
...even her passport lied… I, on my part, was as naive as only a pervert can be… [she] knew how to stress the white of a bare instep by the black of a velvet slipper…
Yes, even in a marriage he chose purely for the purpose of concealing his true sexuality, H.H. manages to paint himself as the victim of a woman who “knew how” to tantalize him seemingly on purpose - assuming, of course, that even the choice of what slippers to wear is made with him in mind. The unthinking reader skimming through Lolita might be deceived into truly thinking Valeria is purposely manipulating poor Humbert, but we dissectors of the text know exactly how it is Humbert manipulating the reader, even deceiving himself.
After a brief ceremony at the mairie, I took her to the new apartment I had rented and, somewhat to her surprise, had her wear, before I touched her, a girl’s plain nightshirt that I had managed to filch from the linen closet of an orphanage. I derived some fun from that nuptial night and had the idiot in hysterics by sunrise. But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root…
Now, this is rich. After making Valeria unknowingly wear an orphan girl’s stolen frock, H.H. manages (after calling her an idiot and invoking the word hysterics, probably overestimating his own sexual prowess) to paint her as the one deceiving him.
...and presently, instead of a pale little gutter girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba… Her only asset was a muted nature which did help to produce an odd sense of comfort...
And then he promptly reduces her to a mere body, before saying that he actually enjoyed her “muted nature” - which will soon come into play. One wonders at what she was thinking, this poor Bovary trapped in a loveless, sexless marriage!
And next door, an art dealer displayed in his cluttered window a splendid, flamboyant, green, red, golden and inky blue, ancient American estampe - a locomotive with a gigantic smokestack, great baroque lamps and a tremendous cowcatches, hauling its mauve coaches through the stormy prairie night and mixing a lot of spark-studded black smoke with the furry thunder clouds.
Appel puts it best in his Annotated Lolita when he writes that “H.H.’s ‘moral apotheosis’ at the end of the book parallels the way the landscape evolves from this flat, unpeopled, cliched scene to the rich landscape depicted [at the end of the book]. The reader is reminded that a landscape is a construct, a symbolic unit - while ‘nature’ is random phenomena.”
During the last weeks I had kept noticing that my fat Valeria was not her usual self; had acquired a queer restlessness; even showed something like irritation at times, which was quite out of keeping with the stock character she was supposed to impersonate.
In the midst of diction betraying a patronizing sense of ownership (my fat Valeria), Nabokov notes Humbert’s humorous lack of empathy/obliviousness to the feelings of other humans through "something like irritation". The funny "stock character she was supposed to impersonate" could very well be a self-aware acknowledgement on H.H.’s part that her individuality inconvenienced him, contradicting his preferences and expectations.
I decided it was the necessity of queuing in the prefecture, and other formalities, that had made her so listless, despite my patiently describing to her America, the country of rosy children and great trees, where life would be such an improvement on dull dingy Paris.
Excellent. “I decided” why she was “so listless” - as if he could guess, much less determine, the cause of Valeria’s unhappiness, which he cannot even identify, given her “muted nature” in his presence.
Note how Nabokov uses every descriptor as an opportunity not to tell us the reality of things, but to show us Humbert’s interpretation of reality. The diction is heavy with his attitude. “Despite my patiently describing" is another patronizing dig, as H.H. ironically treats Valeria like a child, despite apparently being angry that she isn’t one. One is led to wonder why exactly H.H. prefers children: perhaps because he can mold them, has the power to make them do whatever he wants, can deny their individuality and personality because they've not yet developed it themselves, and so he is able freely to project - while real adult women defy him by being fully human? It is no wonder Humbert has no friends his own age.
We were coming out of some office building one morning, with her papers almost in order, when Valeria, as she waddled by my side, began to shake her poodle head vigorously without saying a word. I let her go on for a while and then asked if she thought she had something inside. She answered (I translated from her French which was, I imagine, a translation in its turn of some Slavic platitude): “There is another man in my life.”
This short paragraph, expertly composed by Nabokov, reduces Valeria further to the status of an animal (waddled, poodle head) before delivering a huge blow to his ego.
To beat her up in the street, there and then, as an honest vulgarian might have done, was not feasible. Years of secret sufferings had taught me superhuman self-control.
One must admire the gall H.H. has to follow a casual reference to his desire for violence with the view of himself as a martyr enduring "secret sufferings" and achieving the virtue of "superhuman self-control." Boy, Valeria sure is lucky her husband is such a noble man.
...matters of legal and illegal conjunction were for me alone to decide, and here she was, my Valeria, the comedy wife, brazenly preparing to dispose in her own way of my comfort and fate.
Slipping from “for me alone to decide” to Valeria “brazenly preparing to dispose in her own way” of “my comfort and fate” is a succinct linguistic example of a shift in power - which is what truly bothers Humbert about this situation. No, it isn’t that he gives two cents about Valeria herself, as he’s pointed out. It’s that suddenly, she is the one seemingly taking her own “comfort and fate” into her own hands - at least, sort of. Keep in mind that H.H. asked Valeria’s father for her hand in marriage, and now she is about to be transferred again from one man to another.
I do not remember his ridiculous name… the Tsarist ordered wine… the taxi-colonel… Oh, he was quite a scholar, Mr. Taxovich.
These among numerous more instances of H.H. privately ridiculing other men is poignant. It's natural that he should demean his wife's lover, but have you noticed that Humbert has no friend in the world, none? Not only is he incapable of conceiving of women as human, he doesn't seem able to form even homosocial bonds. Everyone to him is a stock character in a play directed by Humbert, just as his childhood at the Mirana revolved entirely around him ("everybody loved me, everybody petted me"), and anyone who speaks out of turn or disobeys his silent will is discredited and demolished in his mind.
...Valeria, after applying a wet napkin to her knee, went on talking - into me rather than to me; she poured words into this dignified receptacle with a volubility I had never suspected she had in her. And every now and then she would volley a burst of Slavic at her stolid lover.
Now this is fascinating. As she nurses a small wound he gave her, H.H. is offended that she talks "into" rather than "to" him. He is somehow able to consider himself the victim no matter what. Second (after the hilarious self-description as "this dignified receptacle"), the volubility he never suspected of her reminds us of his previous statement that he enjoyed how quiet she normally was. Following this with the "burst of Slavic at her stolid lover" is the most genius part - Humbert literally cannot speak their language, cannot understand his wife or communicate with her in the way her lover does.
...his child-wife Valeria. She by now was preening herself, between him and me, rouging her pursed lips, tripling her chin to pick at her blouse-bosom and so forth, and he spoke of her as if she were absent. And also as if she were a kind of little ward that was in the act of being transferred, for her own good, from one wise guardian to another even wiser one; and although my helpless wrath may have exaggerated and disfigured certain impressions, I can swear that he actually consulted me on such things as her diet, her periods, her wardrobe and the books she had read or should read. “I think,” he said, “she will like Jean Christophe?” Oh, he was quite a scholar, Mr. Taxovich.
This is rich. Besides H.H.'s pedophiliac predilections, has he not consistently characterized Valeria as his own "child-wife"? Is that not what he just said made her appealing to him? Forget that the use of the word "preening" subliminally aligns her with a peacock or other animal. The picture Humbert here paints of two men discussing the transfer of an adult woman like "a kind of little ward", even noting that the "taxi-colonel" speaks of Valeria "as if she were absent", is nothing if not blindly hypocritical. His ability to contradict himself at nearly every turn continues to undermine his narrative credibility while producing mixed feelings in the reader. Note that he again calls himself "helpless." Ask yourself if at this point, as a reader, you sympathize with Humbert Humbert. And did you feel the same way after chapter six? What roller coaster of emotions is Nabokov leading us on?
Reverting to his professional state, he drove the Humberts to their residence…
Yes, now everyone resumes their social functions while, unbeknownst to anyone, Humbert plots a double murder and casually refers to a previous plan to kill himself after raping a child.
...the days (I have not spoken of them, I think, but never mind) when I toyed with the idea of enjoying his little sister…
The parenthetical here leaves us to wonder what else H.H. has left out of his telling, what else may paint him in a less "helpless" light?
Valechka (as the colonel called her)
This is another little signal of how little he knows his wife of four years. Hereafter, he switches to calling her Valechka - as a mockery or as a nod to his utter ignorance of her throughout their marriage, one can only project.
the theatricals I had been inveigled in
The passive voice displaces blame, makes himself a victim.
...but he seemed to be all over the place at once, le gredin, agreeing his frame with the anatomy of the flat, reading in my chair my newspaper, untying a knotted string, rolling a cigarette, counting the teaspoons, visiting the bathroom, helping his moll to wrap up the electric fan her father had given her, and carrying streetward her luggage. I sat with arms folded, one hip on the window sill, dying of hate and boredom.
Just genius. Nabokov entertains by delineating Mr. Taxovich's humorous movements, while Humbert's proprietary descriptions (my chair, my newspaper) cast a territorial humor over the whole sideshow. Following the long (13-line) sentence about him with a comparatively curt "I sat with arms folded, one hip on the window sill [yes, dying to get out], dying of hate and boredom" is just genius. We feel profoundly H.H.'s hate and boredom before he ever mentions it, for the language is laden with his disgust and judgment.
...the door I had slammed after them still rang in my every nerve, a poor substitute for the backhand slap with which I ought to have hit her across the cheekbone according to the rules of the movies. Clumsily playing my part...
A classic contrast between wish and reality sets H.H. up in contrast against the Macho Men of the Movies - and aye, there's the rub, eh?
...the former Counselor of the Tsar, after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult…
One has got to love Nabokov's florid descriptions of human beings' most embarrassingly animal functions (re: the lead-up to Pale Fire's climax).
...the heroic decision of attacking him barefisted…
The rather rich characterization of violence as "heroic" flashes back to the bold backhand slap of "the movies."
The void of the street, revealing nothing of my wife’s departure except a rhinestone button that she had dropped in the mud after preserving it for three unnecessary years in a broken box, may have spared me a bloody nose. But no matter. I had my little revenge in due time.
The space between “a bloody nose” and “But no matter” is a natural place for a paragraph break - why doesn't Nabokov deliver it? Because H.H. is now caught up in his fantastical memory, and it will lead to a necessary segway shortly. The uninterrupted ramble is a key stylistic choice on Nabokov's part that tells us what state of mind H.H. is in.
I hope they will be illustrated with good photographs when they do get printed, although it is not very likely that a prison library will harbor such erudite works. The one to which I am restricted these days…
Mark here the derailed rambling - the paragraph that began with Valechka and Maximovich packing up in H.H.'s apartment has transited through their eventual fate and landed us in prison with the Humbert presently writing to us. Promptly it will deliver us to - yes, it has been too long since H.H. last mentioned her name - Lolita.
This paragraph also contains very sudden break of the fourth wall and raises alarming questions about how, exactly, he will end up in prison. Note that this is the first time H.H. has mentioned prison; we knew he was confined somewhere, but where exactly - we now know.
There follows a curiously detailed record of such formal annotations leaps far from the chapter's emotion leading up to this point. We find ourselves suddenly studying a catalogue of Who's Who in the Limelight, riddled with allusions to the actions of the nove. As Appel writes, “The three entries in this imaginary yearbook represent H,H,m Lolita, and, obviously, Quilty.” It is the first time Quilty’s full name is referenced. For a detailed reveal of all the hidden meanings in the Who's Who list, refer to Appel’s Annotated Lolita.
(I notice the slip of my pen in the preceding paragraph, but please do not correct it, Clarence)
He wrote "has disappeared since" instead of "appeared" for the actor's bio. Clarence is Humbert’s lawyer, to whom his “unrevised” manuscript is entrusted. This parenthetical reminds us that we are reading a text that has been “corrected,” edited for our eyes, and we know not what is left out.
...The Murdered Playwright. Quine the Swine. Guilty of killing Quilty. Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!
But how gorgeous these words are! As Appel writes, “the reader must consider the implications of his extraordinary control of them.” It’s not entirely credible that this is an unedited manuscript written in the fifty-plus days H.H. spent in jail - the very style of the novel undermines his credibility. Note that Nabokov withholds her name until the very last sentence. The as yet insensible foreshadowing lures us ever on, ever tantalized by Humbert's dear love Lolita.