Chapter eleven is a rubber band that Nabokov is delightedly playing with, stretching and loosening, heightening and releasing tension, preparing us for its long-awaited snap. It is the longest chapter by far, spanning 5,555 words, excluding the class list. (The second-longest so far is Chapter Eight with 2,339 words, excluding the Who’s Who entries.) It consists of diary entries from seventeen consecutive days Humbert spent in the Haze house.
It’s worth noting first of all that, as discussed previously, Nabokov is constantly leading the reader to question the authenticity of the novel - and this chapter does so through a parodic use of the literary diary. As Appel notes in his Annotated Lolita, “‘Manifold self-awareness’ (as [Nabokov] calls it in Speak, Memory) is not to be achieved through solemn introspection, certainly not through the diarist’s compulsive egotism, candid but totally self-conscious self-analysis, carefully created ‘honesty,’ willful irony, and studied self-deprecation. Nabokov burlesqued the literary diary as far back as 1934. Near the end of Despair, Hermann’s first-person narrative ‘degenerates into a diary’ - ‘the lowest form of literature’ - and this early parody is fully realized in Lolita, especially in the present chapter.” It deliberately mocks a “jejeune or degenerating prose - the cliches of popular ‘feminine’ fiction; the half-baked writing of the diarist; verbal laziness of any kind that figuratively places Shakespeare in parentheses.”
H.H. starts ominously with “Exhibit number two,” reminding us of the courtroom he will inevitably end up in. The diary he purports to remember in such detail (“by courtesy of a photographic memory,” he writes, and if you are not immediately suspicious you are not thinking critically - in fact, he will soon contradict this statement) really could be used as evidence in a trial. He notes that it was destroyed five years ago, but not how. All these little ticks raise questions in the reader’s mind, questions that compel us forward.
He also hints, in these introductory paragraphs, at his obsessive and secretive (even comparing himself to a spy) behavior: writing the diary twice, with obvious abbreviations in his “smallest, most satanic, hand in the little black book.” How sinful.
His urging that the reader fact-check him by looking up weather data reminds us of proud criminals. (I am reminded of Poe’s narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” who urges, “But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded…”) But is any reader really going to do this? No. Actually, Humbert’s continued mentions of publishers and fact-checking in external sources (the encyclopedias, et al.) undermine his credibility rather than help it, as they remind us that this is only his own biased account: he may be manipulating us as easily as he did Lolita and everyone else.
Before we proceed into a dissection of the diary entries themselves, I want to note a few linguistic motifs that play like urging violins along with the driving narrative beat:
Humbert repeatedly characterizes himself as a predator - most notably as a spider one Monday (the spider being a principal predator of the butterfly). Later he will become Humbert the Wounded Spider. During scenes in which Nabokov wants us to see H.H. through the eyes of other characters, he switches to third person. This characterization of himself as predator and Lolita as prey will ultimately be turned on its head.
Humbert consistently denigrates Charlotte Haze. Bland Mrs. Haze, phocine mamma, fat Haze, mother Haze (very fairy tale), Mamma, her mother who thinks she knows French, the Haze woman, the old girl, the woman, Haze (never Charlotte), my indefatigable landlady creeping stealthily, the old cat, motherly mockery, her detested mamma, the obnoxious lady. She is defined solely by her motherhood to Lolita, but rather than making her a saint (a la Virgin Mary) it makes her an obnoxious obstacle, especially because she fancies him. (So, at least, H.H. fancies.) She also acts to repress Lolita’s attempts to join Humbert.
Humbert usually refers to Lolita with the possessive pronoun. My L., my darling, my sweetheart, my beauty, my Lolita, “this Lolita, my Lolita,” my twelve-year-old flame, my nymphet, my darling, my hot downy darling. The only times he does not refer to her in the possessive are when he is detailing a scene in which he is “preying” on her somehow.
He also continuously notes how Lolita is not the archetypal feminine ideal: her speech is slangy, her voice harsh and high, she speaks crude nonsense, I really think she should wash her hair once in a while, she has an "eerie vulgarity," she wears rough tomboy clothes, she’s not one to miss a tale about “a dead something.”
Of course, we still have the regular reminders that this is all H.H.’s own untrustworthy version of the story: exhibit number two, the reader, beginning perhaps amended, my academic publishers, all this amended perhaps, I cannot tell my learned reader.
Now, on to the diary!
Thursday. The purpose of this entry is to set Lolita above and apart from all others: from other girls, from a specific girl, and from grown women.
...began to pick up the pebbles between her feet - pebbles, my God, then a curled bit of milk-bottle glass resembling a snarling lip - and chuck them at a can. Ping. You can’t a second time - you can’t hit it - this is agony - a second time. Ping. Marvelous skin…
Note that no quotations surround the speech, but H.H. as a narrator is completely lost in memory, indeed reliving it in his mind as he writes, the remembered speech and thoughts and detail all colliding together, and we are right there with him.
Marvelous skin - oh, marvelous: tender and tanned, not the least blemish. Sundaes cause acne. The excess of the oily substance called sebum… But nymphets do not have acne although the gorge themselves on rich food...
The tangent further de-legitimizes his credibility, as he seems to be rambling almost like a madman. One can nearly see him rocking back and forth in his miserable jail cell, telling and retelling this memory. But here he is also furthering the mythification of Lolita, and all nymphets, as being separate from and superior to other girls.
He next contrasts Lo with the “mean, lame” Ginny McCoo with whom he would have otherwise lived. Finally “bland Mrs. Haze… grew up like a fakir’s fake tree” on the lawn, another pale foil for Lolita.
Friday. A volley of details about Lolita’s manner which drive H.H. wild.
Why does the way she walks - a child, mind you, a mere child! - excite me so abominably? Analyze it.
Stunning sentence. "Why" begs that he himself does not understand his cravings; "a child, mind you, a mere child" chillingly reminds us of the situation at hand; "abominably" suggests torture. Follow this poetic line with the short, direct command to "analyze it." But he goes on to analyze her walk, not his desires. With her slangy speech, a harsh high voice, and crude nonsense, Dolores is no lady - as H.H. will continue to indicate.
Saturday begins with a fourth wall break followed by some potent foreshadowing: “(Beginning perhaps amended.) I know it is madness to keep this journal but it gives me a strange thrill to do so; and only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script.” A loving wife will indeed decipher it.
H.H. goes on to describe how his social anxiety prevents him even from being in the garden at the same time as Lo, “afraid that the horrible, insane, ridiculous and pitiful tremor that palsied me might prevent me from making my entree with any semblance of casualness” in front of Charlotte and “some other woman.”
Sunday. H.H. has amended his plan so as to gain the upper hand, going out onto the “piazza” before Lo’s arrival. This deliberated strategy reminds us of his cunning. Disappointed that Charlotte has joined Lolita outside, he at least essays his first attempt at orgasm without touching her, purely based on visual stimuli: “her slightly raised shoulder blades, and the bloom along the incurvation of her spine, and the swellings of her tense narrow nates clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs.” But Charlotte, per usual, interrupts - obstacle that she always is. (Classic cockblocking, amiright?) She does so by “starting a make-believe conversation about a fake book by some popular fraud” - reminding us of H.H.’s own fakery. There is, however, one very important line in this chapter:
...she smelt almost exactly like the other one, the Riviera one, but more intensely so…
It encapsulates the whole comparison between Lolita and Annabel - Lolita as a more intense form of her predecessor.
Monday. “Delectatio morosa” is Latin for “morose pleasure,” a monastic term. “I spend my doleful days in dumps and dolors.” H.H. plays often with the etymology of Lolita’s given name. As Appel notes in his Annotated Lolita, H.H. doesn’t correct “errors” in this “unrevised” draft, including the confusion between Hourglass Lake and Our Glass Lake. Appel writes, “Whether right or wrong, both the names are significant, underscoring H.H.’s solipsism (the circumscribing mirror of ‘our glass’) and obsession with time (‘hourglass’).” This is the first mention of the pseudo-family’s plan to go to the lake, an event that will be much-anticipated and frequently thwarted. Remember how Nabokov teased us by mentioning Lo for pages and pages before introducing her? Get ready to be tantalized again.
But the bulk of the Monday entry is dedicated to a pseudo-scientific analysis of the sexual interests of pubescent girls, couching within it a brief mention of Edgar Allan Poe’s marriage to his cousin Virginia. (She thirteen, he twenty-seven. Nabokov had originally intended to call Lolita “Virginia” and title the book Ginny, according to Appel. H.H. will often use Poe’s name as a pseudonym.) “I have all the characteristics which, according to writers on the sex interests of children, start the responses stirring in a little girl… Moreover, I am said to resemble some crooner or actor chap on whom Lo has a crush.” Yes, H.H. is proposing that Lolita might not be opposed to the idea, might actually be receptive, might be awakening sexually. A girl's sexual awakening from the point of view of an old pervert will invariably lead him to justify himself. A slippery slope from here to “she was asking for it.”
Tuesday we have a strange and tantalizing scene in which H.H. licks a speck of dust from Lolita’s eyeball, followed by a short pining paragraph about how it’s impossible to describe her physically, and a longer one attempting to describe her physically.
But the purpose of this little diary entry is much larger than what it seems: because in each paragraph, H.H. asserts a detail showing that Lolita is not, in fact, perfectly “feminine” in any traditional sense. In the first paragraph, a light criticism (“I really think she should wash her hair once in a while”); in the next, it’s her mother chastising: “‘Dolores Haze, ne montrez pas vos zhambes’”; and in the last, H.H. writes outright: “And neither is she the fragile child of a feminine novel.” It seems to give himself permission, too, not to fit perfectly into the box of adult manhood, as we shall see.
Let’s first look at the paragraph with the eye-licking: staccato half-sentences with absent subjects set the tone. (“Rain. Lake of the rains. Mamma out shopping.”)
Held her roughly by the shoulders, then tenderly by the temples, and turned her about. “It’s right there,” she said. “I can feel it.” “Swiss peasant would use the tip of her tongue.” “Lick it out?” “Yeth. Shly try?” “Sure,” she said. Gently I pressed my quivering sting along her rolling salty eyeball. “Goody-goody,” she said nictating. “It is gone” “Now the other?” “You dope,” she began, “there is noth-” but here she noticed the pucker of my approaching lips. “Okay,” she said co-operatively, and bending toward her warm upturned russet face somber Humbert pressed his mouth to her fluttering eyelid. She laughed, and brushed past me out of the room. My heart seemed everywhere at once. Never in my life - not even when fondling my child-love in France - never -
Night. Never have I experienced such agony...
Notice that in such moments as these Nabokov almost forgoes the first person entirely, until the point of their touching - "gently I pressed,” after which he returns to third person until his thoughts intrude (“My heart…”). There are no breaks between each character's speech, and at the end he slips into stream of consciousness that is abruptly punctuated in the following paragraph. If this paragraph were a car crash, the initial impact would be at “gently I pressed”, and the vehicle would spin until coming to an abrupt halt at the trunk of a tree (“Night.”).
Now the admission that it’s impossible for H.H. to describe her, because “my own desire for her blinds me when she is near.” There follows some delightful imagistic detail.
The third paragraph of this entry follows with more lovely details. Notably, H.H. contradicts himself here too - remember how he began this chapter by saying he has a photographic memory, and that’s how he can recall these diary entries? Now he writes, “I composed a madrigal... but I tore it up and cannot recall it today.”
Oh, that I were a lady writer who could have her pose naked in a naked light!
Sure, if he were female, perhaps all his problems would be solved, he would be able to fondle Lolita with impunity. (See homosociality.) Here Nabokov is referring to “the kind of deathless trite prose” of Harlequin romances, written by and for women, and whose male authors adopt female pseudonyms to be ‘credible.’
There follows H.H.’s self-demeaning description of his body (again he is a “monster”), the fact that he is not as he seems, followed by the fact that Lolita is not what she seems either - both are a bundle of contradictions, contradicting gender norms.
...through the dirt and the death, oh God, oh God. And what is most singular is that she, this Lolita, my Lolita, has individualized the writer’s ancient lust, so that above and over everything there is - Lolita.
Appel points out that “H.H. sees himself in a line descending from the great Roman love poets, and he frequently imitates their locutions. The intonational stresses of ‘this Lolita, my Lolita’ are borrowed from a donnish English translation of a Latin poem… H.H.’s ‘ancient’ models include Propertius on Cynthia, Tibullus on Delia, and Horace on any of the sixteen women to whom he wrote poems.”
(I would love to include more quotation here of that perfect paragraph, but this is a long chapter and we must go onward, onward!)
Wednesday. This paragraph is another finger pointing towards the lake, followed by Nabokov lolling in the details. A cute inside joke between Lo and H.H. hints at a genuine friendship, almost as if he were her father. The Carmen allusions are noteworthy, but this chapter’s analysis is already too long for us to go into them. See Appel if you are interested.
Thursday. This entry is a counterpoint to Tuesday, and in this one the Mother intrudes. Like Tuesday’s entry, this one is composed of three paragraphs: in the first, Lolita sits tantalizingly close to H.H.; in the second, short one, Lo flounces off after her mother dismisses her; and in the last Charlotte complains not only of Lo but of the difficulty of being a girl - compare this with that last Tuesday paragraph.
In the first paragraph with have another notable example of how Nabokov uses run-on sentences to heighten tension:
All the while I was acutely aware of L.’s nearness and as I spoke I gestured in the merciful dark and took advantage of those invisible gestures of mine to touch her hand, her shoulder and a ballerina of wool and gauze which she played with and kept sticking into my lap; and finally, when I had completely enmeshed my glowing darling in this weave of ethereal caresses, I dared stroke her bare leg along the gooseberry fuzz of her shin, and I chuckled at my own jokes, and trembled, and concealed my tremors, and once or twice felt with my rapid lips the warmth of her hair as I treated her to a quick nuzzling, humorous aside and caressed her plaything.
And this, in the middle of the paragraph! He begins the second with “But I knew it was all hopeless,” and thus our hopes vacillate with his own: time again for some despairing.
In the third paragraph, H.H. relays Charlotte’s biographical sketch of Lo’s “spiteful” behavior, but H.H. does not directly quote “the woman” until he interrupts her with a question. Again, no paragraph breaks between speech.
“Why was she unhappy there?” “Oh,” said Haze, “poor me should know, I went through that when I was a kid: boys twisting one’s arm, banging into one with loads of books, pulling one’s hair, hurting one’s breasts, flipping one’s skirt..."
A subtle reminder of classic gender roles: boys are cruel torturers, girls are victims. The conversation segues into future plans and Charlotte’s pressing pursual of Humbert.
Friday: a repetition of the melody - medical mentions of child sexuality and puberty, H.H.’s desires driving him to the point of insanity, a dash of Poe, a dig at Freudian dream analysis, motherly mockery of Lo’s crush, Our Glass Lake is off again.
Incidentally: if I ever commit a serious murder… Mark the “if.” ...If and when you wish to sizzle me to death, remember that only a spell of insanity could ever give me the simple energy to be a brute (all this amended, perhaps).
What foreshadowing! And another little reminder that this work is “perhaps” amended.
The dream of the pistol is an hilarious jab at psychoanalysis, the gun being an obvious metaphor for the penis, the whole thing being about impotence and feeling powerless and emasculated - so a Freudian would think.
The entry ends with “the two rivals” fighting over him, females, one young, one old. Of course, of course.
Saturday. Another close encounter with Lolita: H.H. characterizes himself as predator (“the trap,” “my bared eyetooth”), then slips into third, self-deprecating person when she’s near (“Humbert the Hoarse”), Lo bucks ladylike conventions (“her rough tomboy clothes”), a fourth wall break (“I cannot tell my learned reader”), possessive pronoun (“my limpid nymphet”), mentions of movieland manhood (“the glamorous lodger”), Lo leaves abruptly to hear a tale about “a dead something.”
A modern child, an avid reader of movie magazines, an expert in dream-slow close-ups…
I’ve read it argued that Lolita is truly about Nabokov’s love affair with America. That’s not what this dissection is about, but do keep it in mind if it interests you.
Sunday. One perfect image of Lolita in a full-skirted gingham frock. A crucial, crucially tantalizing image. The entry opens “with a burst of cheap-fiction cliches - prose as ready-made as ‘the black ready-made bow and bobby pins holding [Lo’s] hair in place’” (Appel).
Monday: Nabokov takes us through anticipation, disappointment, then the delightful surprise of Lo, however fleeting. In this extended spider metaphor H.H. is once again the predator watching his trap. More importantly, he also paints himself as a kind of omniscient being who not only understands instantly the true thoughts, feelings, and motives of everyone around him but can expertly manipulate them as well - it’s about power, after all. But in the end his prey teases and escapes his clutches.
Tuesday. These brief three sentences are packed. Mention of the lake heightens anticipation further; you can see Appel’s notes on Fate in Lolita; and last, H.H.’s aesthetic insecurities.
On Wednesday the roles reverse: now Charlotte plays predator and H.H. is the prey, portraying himself as infinitely desirable. Charlotte, now as in the piazza and other scenes, attempts to suppress Lolita’s apparent crush on “the handsome lodger.” Nabokov again does not break paragraphs between speech, running straight through the action often contained in parentheticals:
“You! Where are you going? I’m coming too! Wait!” “Ignore her,” yelped Haze (killing the motor); alas for my fair driver; Lo was already pulling at the door on my side. “This is intolerable,” began Haze, but Lo had scrambled in, shivering with glee. “Move your bottom, you,” said Lo. “Lo!” cried Haze (sideglancing at me, hoping I would throw rude Lo out). “And behold,” said Lo (not for the first time), as she jerked back, as I jerked back, as the car leapt forward.
There follow some tantalizing touches, and more of their “chaperon’s” oppression. A Freudian could perhaps argue that Charlotte, as the mother, represents the societal superego.
Thursday details the list of names of Lolita’s classmates. As Appel points out, the list serves “as a kind of magical mirror,” much like the earlier Who’s Who in the Limelight. “The list is printed on the back of an unfinished map of the United States, drawn by Lolita, suggesting the scale of the gameboard on which the action is played. The image of the map secreted in the Young People’s Encyclopedia prefigures their journeys (on which H.H. will ‘finish’ the map by showing Lolita the country), just as the class list prefigures and mirrors an extraordinary number of other things.” For details on those “other things,” check out Alfred Appel, Jr.’s Annotated Lolita.
I care to note only a couple other details, firstly Aubrey McFate. He is an auditor, not a true classmate, and the reference is placed closely together with another four pages on, giving “the reader a fighting chance to make the association, and to realize its implications” (Appel). McFate is cited as a devilish “force” responsible for all of Humbert’s misfortunes, invoked at least six times in the book. Quilty, of course, is the worst manifestation of this.
The other is the prevalence of double names, double initials, and other phonetic effects in this list and throughout the book. These mirror the doubling of the characters: Annabel and Lolita, Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty.
Is “mask” the keyword?
As in so many of Nabokov’s books, yes - yes it is. The masked author has been mirrored in the class list.
Friday is quite another foreshadowing: H.H. longs “for some terrific disaster” that would leave him alone with Lolita. These are more dreams of movieland manhood: dreams of himself as a hero and savior and above all, conqueror. The point here is that in a post-apocalyptic world - in other words, without “the prison of society, man” - he would have true freedom. (Lolita would not.) H.H. goes on to contrast what he could do if he were "truly a monster" and what he actually does (as a gentleman), but he also compares (ironically) what the movieland man would do and what he (the coward) actually does, or rather does not, do. Being a gentleman in society’s eyes ironically sets him up as a coward, in contrast to the conquering idylls of movieland manhood - thus a male’s role in society is as inherently contradictory as a female’s. “Despite my manly looks, I am horribly timid…” His shuddering recollection of “those ribald sea monsters” shows just how powerfully he feels shame.
In the next paragraph, H.H. is scheming about just what he would do without those social shackles: Our Glass Lake is a paradise where he can escape “into the woods” (as in a fairy tale), searching for his sunglasses with Lolita. (Sunglasses are continually associated with her and her predecessor, and here he even mentions imported mimosas - remember that erotic scene with Annabel in the mimosa grove?) There follows another jab at psychoanalysis, such parodies being perhaps a caution against psychoanalyzing H.H.’s “condition.”
Saturday, first paragraph, two sentences: shame and anticipation.
This entry is the culmination of its counterparts before: Sunday, notably Tuesday and Thursday, Saturday, and Monday. Now Humbert is thwarted in his attempts as a predator: again the self-deprecating characterizations (“Humbert the Wounded Spider”) and third-person slips. Defeat. Then finally, in a sublime parallel, Lolita becomes the predator, H.H. the prey, and she is victorious (despite Charlotte’s interruption). Note also that the “old gray tennis ball” has reappeared. Tennis will figure prominently on later.
This longest chapter so far thus serves the purpose of playing with the reader’s anticipation, straining and loosening tension to a nearly exhausting degree. The point, ultimately, is that Lolita is the true predator here, at least in Humbert Humbert’s telling.
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