Whew. Here we come to the chapter that all of 11 and 12 were building up to: the sweet Sunday spasm. Let’s get right into it.
I gleaned the following situation... the only old things about me.
At first I thought the first paragraph was simply getting us from point A to point B - the "situation" H.H. gleaned. But then the last line, "the only old things about me," packed a powerful punch out of nowhere. Lesson learned: Nabokov never wastes an opportunity.
Before Nabokov can play the sexual scene, he must first pull us readers back, far back, must seat us in the courtroom from which we ought to judge the incident. In a single brief paragraph he uses the phrases my learned readers, examine, see for themselves, what my lawyer has called, impartial sympathy, I have a difficult job before me. He begins the next paragraph by setting the scene as if it were a play we were watching. Just as we are constantly moving between tension and release, we are also vacillating from being inside H.H.’s head to being far outside it, in that courtroom.
(the late Mr. Harold E. Haze - God bless the good man - had engendered my darling at the siesta hour in a blue-washed room, on a honeymoon trip to Vera Cruz, and mementos, among these Dolores, were all over the place)
Here, a fascinating parenthetical whose purpose I at first struggled to identify. The fatherly hints remind us of H.H.’s social role and age difference, but more than that the mementos of the past include Lo, who represents a long-lost something, it turns out, for more people than just H.H.
a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple
You could read into some symbolism here, or you could read Nabokov: Against Symbolism.
By the end of the fifth paragraph the scene has been set. The action begins: Lolita tosses the apple into the air, catching it. What is the catalyst for their interaction? “Humbert Humbert intercepted the apple.” So the games begin. H.H. forces us to watch his strategy here, between the play-setting of props and the sportslike commentary.
“Give it back,” she pleaded…
This is the only scrap of dialogue for a while; we may presume there is more in the rest of this paragraph, but it is unimportant. All action, all detail! Nabokov teaches: use dialogue sparingly and wisely.
Every word choice produces a psychological impact in the reader, however unconscious though it may be, and this is well exemplified by calling the apple "Eden-red," then "Delicious," "disfigured,” and finally “abolished” - an instructive sequence that denotes the amount of time passing as well as the concept of consumption.
But the most important point I want to highlight in this chapter is Nabokov’s use of the verb. He is, of course, precise. First we have pleaded, grasped, bit, snatched, flipped violently, rubbed and knocked impatiently, whisked, caught, escaped, twisted, recoiled, and lay back. There is a thrilling narrative contained even when you reduced the paragraph to its verbs. This whole eighth paragraph is about the dance, the back-and-forth of flight and pursuit.
Beginning in this but really peaking in the following (ninth) paragraph are words that connote deception or illusion: faked, stealthy, masked, divert, performed, trick, mimicking, a maniac’s inner eye, magic, illusional, material divide, hidden, unspeakable, recited, special spell, conceal, secret, and more.
Note also the volley between first and third person, as always happens in such scenes. Are we in Humbert’s head or in the courtroom?
By this time I was in a state of excitement bordering on insanity; but I also had the cunning of the insane… all the while keeping a maniac’s inner eye on my distant golden goal… and all the while I was mortally afraid that some act of God might interrupt me…
Just in case you were beginning to trust our dear Humbert’s account!
O my Carmen, my little Carmen, something, something, those something nights, and the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen
Appel notes that “the allusions to Carmen have nothing to do with Bizet’s opera. They refer only to the novella (1845) by Prosper Merimée… Like H.H., José Lizzarrabengoa, Carmen’s abandoned and ill-fated lover, tells his story from prison… The story of love, loss, and revenge is appropriate. The Carmen allusions also serve as a trap for the sophisticated reader who is misled into believing that H.H., like José, will murder his treacherous Carmen… H.H. quotes Merimee and frequently calls Lolita ‘Carmen,’ the traditional name of a bewitching woman.” See more in Appel’s Annotated Lolita.
...helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty - between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.
The structure of the whole paragraph is reflected, summated in this last line: Humbert the "insane" "cunning" beast in the first while and Lolita, the innocent beauty who's none the wiser of his trick.
Lolita had been safely solipsized.
This is an early glimpse of H.H.’s realization that, as he will address, “what I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita - perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness - indeed, no life of her own.”
I had ceased to be Humbert the Hound, the sad-eyed degenerate cur clasping the boot that would presently kick him away. I was above the tribulations of ridicule, beyond the possibilities of retribution.
And in the next line the word FREEDOM. Yes, this is more proof of my theory that more than anything, this is about escaping the shackles of the prison that is human society: only in ecstasy does H.H. find freedom - and salvation. (Yet “decency allowed” will follow, noting that society and shame persist.) Note also that this meta moment comes right on the brink of his coming, a pause at the top of the roller coaster before the plunge.
“Look, look!” -- I gasped -- “look what you’ve done, what you’ve done to yourself, ah, look”
Dialogue interrupts. We haven’t had any direct quotation since “Give it back” at the beginning on the scene, and the narrative interruption indicates the coming of the climax.
My huge hairy hand… there seemed to be nothing to prevent my muscular thumb…
The implication being that H.H., again, is the monster and Lo is vulnerable prey, left alone with him and unprotected.
...and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck…
This is a powerful place to pull us back to the courtroom and look at the incident from outside. Note also that this is the second time in the same sentence that Nabokov invokes the word “reach,” always giving us the sense that Humbert is reaching out for Lolita but never quite getting her…
...while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.
What a staggering periodic sentence, withholding H.H.’s climax until the last moment. Note that this last sentence alone is 160 words, taking up a full third of the paragraph. Talk about a buildup.
And what remains of this chapter is the comedown.
(as if we had been struggling and now my grip had eased)
As if that might not, in fact, be what happened.
There she stood and blinked, cheeks aflame, hair awry, her eyes passing over me as lightly as they did over the furniture…
These details reveal everything we can possibly know about Lo's feelings in this moment, what she may or may not have experienced - all up for ample debate. H.H. insists that “she had noticed nothing,” but do we really trust him?
“Busybody Haze” reminds us just now of characters other than H.H. and Lolita, and the hint of her “plotting” is quite the foreshadow. The “deluge of steaming water” Humbert sends “roaring into the tub” mimics his own release.
And Nabokov concludes with the Carmen lyrics.
And the gun I killed you with, O my Carmen,
The gun I am holding now.
(Drew his .32 automatic, I guess, and put a bullet through his moll’s eye.)
This is an allusion to the revenge murder of Lolita that does not actually end up taking place. Nabokov is playing with us here, tempting our imaginations.