Nabokov has spent the past couple chapters setting us up for the Enchanted Hunters hotel, and this is the last step before we reach the scene that Nabokov, Humbert, and we readers have been eagerly anticipating - and dreading - since page one. Thus, this is perhaps one of the most tense chapters in the book, and we are on the edge of our corn-popping seats. But first, Nabokov has to set us up for the event, and that’s what chapter 27 is about. Literally, he has to get H.H. and Lolita to the Enchanted Hunters hotel; but he also has to show us how Lolita has changed since we last saw her, and demonstrate the dynamic that now plays out between her and her stepfather. What he reveals is that the line between predator and prey is perhaps not as clear as we had assumed, which may complicate our judgment of H.H. and the novel as a whole. Watch, now, how Nabokov verily incepts us with doubt...
The first two paragraphs are the last exacerbation of tension before H.H. sees Lo again - he meets her in the third paragraph. In fact, the first couple paragraphs seem unnecessary altogether, but I believe Nabokov includes them here to draw out tension; if we saw Dolly right away in the first sentence, the impact would not be as strong. The second paragraph also achieves the purpose of painting for us an outsider’s (Holmes’s) perspective on H.H., who is to her a (soon-to-be-)widowed father. H.H.’s paraphrase of their conversation draws an excellent sketch of his facade without actually drawing out the dull dialogue. (Also, note that the “green-shirted, redheaded impish lad” Charlie has, in fact, taken Lolita’s virginity, an event to which she’ll soon allude and eventually admit.)
A brief fourth wall break at the opening of the third paragraph prefaces the long (138-word) periodic sentence leading us excitedly up to the moment Lo and H.H. meet again. We haven’t seen Lolita for eleven(!!) long chapters, and much has changed. Physical feeling and sound play signatory roles here, while outsider Holmes’s observations are framed in parentheses:
Let me retain for a moment that scene in all its trivial and fateful detail: hag Holmes writing out a receipt, scratching her head, pulling a drawer out of her desk, pouring change into my impatient palm, then neatly spreading a banknote over it with a bright “...and five!”; photographs of girl-children; some gaudy moth or butterfly, still alive, safely pinned to the wall (“nature study”); the framed diploma of the camp’s dietitian; my trembling hands; a card produced by efficient Holmes with a report of Dolly Haze’s behavior for July (“fair to good; keen on swimming and boating”); a sound of trees and birds, and my pounding heart… I was standing with my back to the open door, and then I felt the blood rush to my head as I heard her respiration and voice behind me. She arrived dragging and bumping her heavy suitcase. “Hi!” she said, and stood still, looking at me with sly, glad eyes, her soft lips parted in a slightly foolish but wonderfully endearing smile.
Nabokov takes the next paragraph to describe her physically, as she appears in H.H.’s gaze. Note that H.H. is again the predator with “tiger” heartbeats, Lolita the prey. Interestingly, his first impression is that she is “less pretty than the mental imprint [he] had cherished for more than a month” - however briefly, he glimpses her as she really is! But this image is quickly overtaken by H.H.’s fancy.
The first thing Lolita says in the car re-establishes tension and the problem we’re not yet sure how H.H. will solve: “Where’s Mother?” There follows a (hitherto) rare dialogue, but Nabokov intelligently skims the practical matters and only transcribes that which tells us most about their new, awkward relationship. We may remember the previous chapter and wonder how H.H. can possibly remember this dialogue exactly - and we may doubt him. But importantly, Nabokov reveals for the first time Lolita’s real personality, at least as far as we can know it.
“You know, I missed you terribly, Lo.”
“I did not. Fact I’ve been revoltingly unfaithful to you, but it does not matter one bit, because you’ve stopped caring for me, anyway…”
This is the first hint Lolita gives that she has actually lost her virginity. Then when H.H. obediently pulls the car over, she leaps into his arms. Have the roles reversed? Who is really the prey here? We’re left to wonder, doubt, and debate…
H.H.’s inner turmoil at this moment is interrupted, forebodingly, by a policeman. Nabokov, in parentheses, has also just dropped the word “rapist.” What tricks he plays on us readers! Throughout this chapter, he drops these subconscious bombs. The sedan the cop is after is, of course, Quilty’s - “shadow of us” indeed, H.
“Say, wouldn’t Mother be absolutely mad if she found out we were lovers?”
“Good Lord, Lo, let us not talk that way.”
“But we are lovers, aren’t we?”
“Not that I know of. I think we are going to have some more rain. Don’t you want to tell me of those little pranks of yours in camp?”
And thus the argument that Lolita comes onto H.H. as much as he does to her, or at least a little. I won’t come down on either side of this debate, but remember (as Nabokov urges us) that everything is coming to us through the filter of H.H.’s pen in prison, so how much do we trust our narrator?
But why does Nabokov drag out the dialogue in the car ride, even stopping at that candy bar? Sure, the server eyeing her reminds us that Lo is, in fact, starting to come of age. But throughout, the reader may notice the hard-to-get game Lo is playing: she verbally flirts with H.H., throws herself into his arms, kisses him, then rejects him when he tries, however meekly, to return her affection - then she changes her mind and is affectionate again:
She was on the whole an obedient little girl and I kissed her in the neck when we got back into the car.
“Don’t do that,” she said looking at me with unfeigned surprise. “Don’t drool on me. You dirty man.”
She rubbed the spot against her raised shoulder.
“Sorry,” I murmured. “I’m rather fond of you, that’s all.”
We drove under a gloomy sky, up a winding road, then down again.
“Well, I’m also sort of fond of you,” said Lolita in a delayed soft voice, with a sort of sigh, and sort of settled closer to me.
H.H., for his part, displays his restraint, as when he freezes when she leaps into his arms: “I was dreadfully afraid I might go too far and cause her to start back in revulsion and terror.” He is only anxious to reach the hotel.
“Oh, I want to see that picture. Let’s go right after dinner. Oh, let’s!”
“We might,” chanted Humbert - knowing perfectly well, the sly tumescent devil, that by nine, when his show began, she would be dead in his arms.
What bombs Nabokov drops! (I maintain that he would have made a great rapper.) What tension! What anticipation! Notice that H.H. is beginning to slip into third person. His narrative sanity begins to wobble anytime he reaches such tantalizing points in his story.
And then something weird happens: they can’t find the Enchanted Hunters. It’s as if the hotel really is enchanted, hidden in plain sight, to be found only by those destined few. Indeed, everything that follows, every detail about the place when they reach it, gives off a mysterious candy-house-in-the-woods vibe. As Appel notes, “Nabokov told his lecture classes at Cornell that a great writer was at once a storyteller, a teacher, and, most supremely, an enchanter.” I urge you to pay attention to the fairy-tale elements of Lolita, such as: Quilty’s house is on Grimm Road, H.H. gives Lolita a deluxe edition of The Little Mermaid for her birthday, and there are references to Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and more scattered throughout the text. Appel writes: “The simplicity of Lolita’s ‘story,’ such as it is - ‘plot,’ in the conventional sense, may be paraphrased in three sentences - and the themes of deception, enchantment, and metamorphosis are skin to the fairy tale; while the recurrence of places and motifs and the presence of three principal characters recall the formalistic design and symmetry of those archetypal tales. But the fate of Nabokov’s ‘fairy princess’ (p.52) and the novel’s denouement reverse the fairy-tale ending: ‘we shall live happily ever after’ (p.278).”
I find it interesting to isolate the parentheticals in Nabokov’s works; they’re like signposts to the subconscious tricks he plays on the reader. In this paragraph, he mentions a courthouse - H.H.’s ultimate destination - and McFate, or rather, “McFate’s inept secretary.” Toward the end of the paragraph he alludes to the real seediness of society’s underbelly. The point? Well, H.H. might fit into almost any of the categories he enumerates - and so might we:
...all along our route countless motor courts proclaimed their vacancy in neon lights, ready to accommodate salesmen, escaped convicts, impotents, family groups, as well as the most corrupt and vigorous couples. Ah, gentle drivers gliding through summer’s black nights, what frolics, what twists of lust, you might see from your impeccable highways if Kumfy Kabins were suddenly drained of their pigments and became as transparent as boxes of glass!
Yes, everyone is kinky, so let’s not get up on our moral high horse about a little pedophilia. Right? That’s what H.H. seems to be implying here. Sin is just barely concealed under the facade of daily life, as he mentions in the following paragraph.
The convertible at the Enchanted Hunters is, yes, Quilty, who keeps switching cars. Although the details of Humbert’s check-in at the hotel are interesting and entertaining (the caricature elves manning the hotel, the ancient age of everyone there, the name play, the Poe reference, the subtle anti-semitism), there’s not much to note in terms of linguistic technique. But what’s most fascinating is this:
A key (342!) was half-shown to me (magician showing object he is about to palm) - and handed over to Uncle Tom. Lo, leaving the dog as she would leave me some day, rose from her haunches; a raindrop fell on Charlotte’s grave; a handsome young Negress slipped open the elevator door, and the doomed child went in followed by her throat-clearing father and crayfish Tom with the bags.
The height of tension! Or so it feels. 342 is the Haze house number, and it will come up a few more times; H.H. refers to magic and tricks as he recognizes a fellow magician of sorts; Nabokov blatantly and yet casually tells us that Lolita will leave our narrator; a raindrop falls poetically, darkly, sentimentally on Charlotte’s grave; the child is doomed. Irony, magic, abandonment, death. And then the jarring juxtaposition:
Parody of a hotel corridor. Parody of silence and death.
I couldn’t say it better than Appel: "Parody to H.H. because nothing seems 'real' to him on this most crucial of nights; parody to Nabokov because the world within a work of art is 'unreal' (see Introduction)."
Then in the room, one paragraph, a single 66-word sentence:
There was a double bed, a mirror, a double bed in the mirror, a closet door with mirror, a bathroom door ditto, a blue-dark window, a reflected bed there, the same in the closet mirror, two chairs, a glass-topped table, two bedtables, a double bed: a big panel bed, to be exact, with a Tuscan rose chenille spread, and two frilled, pink-shaded nightlamps, left and right.
I will again unabashedly quote Appel (and urge you to pick up his book): "The room is a little prison of mirrors, a metaphor for his solipsism and circumscribing obsession... 'In our earthly house, windows are replaced by mirrors,' writes Nabokov in The Gift (p.322). His characters continually confront mirrors where they had hoped to find windows, and the attempt to transcend solipsism is one of Nabokov's major themes... Nabokov has placed these crooked reflectors everywhere in his fiction: Doubles and mock-Doubles, parodies and self-parodies," as in, for example, H.H. and his own double, Clare Quilty.
Lolita keeps referring to her mother, a source of tension and anticipation for us readers (“when dahrling Mother finds out she’ll divorce you and strangle me”). And then, here and there, Nabokov drops a bomb of a word - as he did earlier with the word “rapist” and now does with the word “incest.” Foreboding, dark foreshadowing, like a thing brushing against your leg in black water? Check. Reading Lolita feels sometimes like living in a psychological thriller, and Nabokov is quite the Hitchcock. (Also, have you ever noticed that Nabokov looked a lot like Hitchcock? They even once considered collaborating.)
She rejects his affections again. When H.H. “springs his surprise” of the suitcase full of gifts, Lolita is characterized as a predator; then she is affectionate again! The roles are constantly flipping, driving us as mad as poor H.H.
Then she crept into my waiting arms, radiant, relaxed, caressing me with her tender, mysterious, impure, indifferent, twilight eyes - for all the world, like the cheapest of cheap cuties. For that is what nymphets imitate - while we moan and die.
Oh, how we could almost believe Humbert to be the victim here! What manipulative tricks he plays on us readers… And note how “we” too moan and die for nymphets.
And then the nearly incomprehensible mishmash of Latin, English, French, German, and Italian. It’s not necessary to translate, but Appel notes: “At moments of extreme crisis, H.H. croaks incomprehensibly, losing more than his expropriated English; for his attempts ‘to fix once and for all the perilous magic of nymphets’ (p.134) almost resist language altogether, carrying him close to the edge of non-language and a figurative silence.” And yes, it is a parody of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness, a technique Nabokov found lacking.
Of course, “the lone diner in the loud checks” is Quilty, as Lolita suspects. And H.H. has this rare moment of self-awareness, as if seeing himself from a bird’s-eye view as he reminisces, breaking the fourth wall:
As I look back at those seasick murals, at that strange and monstrous moment, I can only explain my behavior then by the mechanism of that dream vacuum wherein revolved a deranged mind; but at the time, it all seemed quite simple and inevitable to me.
How Poe! Of course, Lolita falls for this magician’s trick, like that magic key half-shown before.
As we stood in the elevator, she leaned against me, faintly smiling - wouldn’t you like me to tell you? - half closing her dark-lidded eyes.
“Wouldn’t you like me to tell you?” You might have wondered what this meant. I did, anyway, and concluded: the implication is that Lo was not really as sleepy as H.H. would have us believe. As we will learn, she is not fully asleep during the event of the next few chapters.
Chapter 27 is, however, a doozy in and of itself. I'm not quite sure I've done it justice here. We may note that Nabokov has not only achieved his aim of getting his main characters to the anticipated destination and ready for the long-awaited event, but he has begun to dapple just enough details to fill most readers with doubt and conflict as to whether Lo herself might not be as unwilling a victim as we had imagined. Second to that, everything is becoming more suspiciously enchanted...
Don't miss out on the Extras!