And now, at long last, we reach the chapter in which Humbert Humbert consummates his relationship with Lolita - and whatever you think it will be like, you are wrong. Nabokov manages to confound our expectations profoundly.
The first paragraph is a single, unusually stiff, almost bland sentence that sets up the tension. The two semicolons stagger us, as if we take two halting steps into the room ourselves.
Second paragraph: the image of Lolita on the bed.
Third paragraph: H.H.’s action, skipping cleanly to the moment he sets his knee upon the bed, stirring Lolita.
Fourth paragraph. Pause. Pull out to third person, in which H.H. refers to himself as “the intruder.” His expectations, much like our own, have been thwarted - the sleeping pills haven’t worked their magic quite as promised.
The fifth paragraph persists the pause in action as we linger in the moment. Here Nabokov peppers in a continuing theme: the idea that it is H.H. who is the victim of deceit. I had been deceived, a sham one, even her unfair amount of pillow all portray him this way, capped with the fear that Lolita - whom he’s currently calling Dolores, the legal name she would give the police - will scream the moment he touches her. The paragraph caps off with a brilliant call to the reader that breaks the fourth wall so absolutely that Nabokov writes directly, “I shall not exist if you do not imagine me”! Yes, yes, we know: it’s only a book, it’s only a book…
The next paragraph continues to delay as H.H. debates his options, concluding in the plural first person, “Let us wait.” Yes, we readers are certainly in on the action.
And as he always does, Nabokov heightens tension by delaying action further in his description of the environment. Thus the seventh paragraph details all the comic and very un-romantic sounds keeping H.H. alert. One of them, Appel asserts, is Quilty: “Then someone in a southern direction was extravagantly sick, almost coughing out his life with his liquor, and his toilet descended like a veritable Niagara, immediately beyond our bathroom.” But I don’t see exactly how he identified this.
And then the focus returns to Lolita, whom H.H. is once again calling by his pet name for her. You’d be forgiven for thinking he might finally get to the main event now, but in fact he’s still procrastinating. There is some further comic relief: Lolita striking H.H. in her sleep, H.H. (in third person again) “burning with desire and dyspepsia.”
The ninth paragraph: more delay as H.H. retrieves water and gives some to Lo. We might be hopeful now that she’s awake, but she promptly drops off again.
In the following paragraph we drift with Humbert into a wonderland of romanticism, as he references Carroll’s wonderland indirectly. There are many references to Alice in Wonderland, whose author Nabokov called Lewis Carroll Carroll, “because he was the first Humbert Humbert.” Nabokov actually translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian and knew a great deal about the author, as one can glean from interviews. Appel notes that it “might seem as though Nabokov did allude to Carroll in Lolita, through what might be called ‘the photography theme’: H.H. cherishes his worn old photograph of Annabel, has in a sense been living with this ‘still,’ tries to make Lolita conform to it, and often laments his failure to capture her on film. Quilty’s hobby is announced as ‘photography,’ and the unspeakable films he produces at the Duk Duk Ranch would seem to answer Carroll’s wildest needs. Asked about this, Nabokov replied, ‘I did not consciously think of Carroll’s hobby when I referred to the use of photography in Lolita.’”
After beating around the bush so long, Nabokov uses the eleventh paragraph to tell us exactly why H.H. dwells on this languishing period of the night: “If I dwell at some length on the tremors and gropings of that distant night, it is because I insist upon proving that I am not, and never was, and never could have been, a brutal scoundrel.” His point is, as ever, that reality is more complicated than we might assume. Well, it is about to confound our assumptions even further. Humbert falls asleep. The following paragraph is dedicated the morning hours - further delay.
And then the event disappoints us completely.
In two short sentences, Nabokov - in a crime that no other writer would ever imagine committing - reduces the action he has spent 130-odd pages anticipating to mere summary.
Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! I had thought that months, perhaps years, would elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.
If you’re a writer, and you’re reading this novel from a technical perspective, wondering how Nabokov achieved what he did in this masterpiece, you must be aghast. How can he spend nearly half the book building up to this event, toying with us, stretching and releasing tension over and over, just to disappoint us with a mere two sentences - and it’s she who seduced him?
Well, that’s precisely the point. Now we’re wondering, what the hell? And that “what the hell?” is what spurs us onward, rather than throwing the book at the wall.
He then details the start. Lolita toys with Humbert for one long paragraph. They kiss. There is a brief exchange of dialogue. He feigns ignorance of sex.
However, I shall not bore my learned readers with a detailed account of Lolita’s presumption.
Won’t you?! No, he won’t. In fact, he blames “modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth” for Lolita’s “depravity” - not himself. And at this point, can we disagree?
And therein lies the genius of Lolita: there’s no explicit sex. There’s no graphic detail. There’s no titillating description. There is only the confused, contradicting, romantic, depraved ramblings of one man’s mind: “Oh, Lolita, I have only words to play with.”
But really these are irrelevant matters; I am not concerned with so-called “sex” at all. Anybody can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeavor lures me on: to fix once and for all the perilous magic of nymphets.
This literary pursuit takes hundreds of hours of work and my nonprofit day job doesn't pay much. If you find this dissection useful or interesting, please consider buying me a cup of coffee to help me get through the next chapter. :p