Chapter two is a shimmering double-image of public presentation and private depravity in which a wide-angle shot of wild American vistas slowly zooms in on Humbert and Lo. The point of this chapter is double, at the least: to frighten us with the ease of H.H.'s deception of public society and to heighten the tension of the question - will Lo escape?
The first rough third of the chapter is devoted to American road trip scenes sketched lightly, with the occasional hint of dark reality. Then Nabokov segues via Glossy Feature Hitchhikers to H.H.’s jealous paranoia about somehow losing Lo. Apparently calming himself, he transitions to talk of close calls and his coercion of the captive child. Nabokov concludes on the frighteningly ironic scene: Lo reading in the paper a warning against child sex crimes even as she sits in her captor’s lap. Let us begin.
Nabokov continues from the first chapter with his cumulative sentences and list-making, setting a variety of scenes for his “dates” with Lolita - always, as his thesis states, to keep her “in passable humor from kiss to kiss.” I think the main purpose of this rolling narrative is to prolong the reader’s sense of the time that H.H. and Lo spend together, flashing from scene to shining scene. Its literal meaning is only secondary. Throughout all this Nabokov keeps our curiosity about their sex life bubbling on the backburner, giving us only the occasional hint: “sucked till I was gorged on her spicy blood”, “Pharaonic, phallic, ‘too prehistoric for words’ (blase Lo)”, “her orange-brown bare midriff, which I kissed five minutes later”, etc. He also occasionally mentions the possibility of their discovery: “children under 12 free, Lo a young captive”, for instance, and “(with Lo, in a hot, happy, wild, intense, hopeful, hopeless whisper - ‘Look, the McCrystals, please, let’s talk to them, please’ - let’s talk to them, reader! - ‘please! I’ll do anything you want, oh please…’)”.
And then the rows, “minor and major,” like any other sexual entanglement. Again Nabokov approaches even these more notable events with the listing method, naming the location of each in the detached fashion of a slideshow presenter.
Then the hitchhikers. Why mention them? I think Nabokov devotes time to them because, aside from being ornamentation to the listful scenery, they provide a segway into a more pertinent point: that H.H. is not the only grown male lusting after Lolita.
Oh, I had to keep a very sharp eye on Lo, little limp Lo! Owing perhaps to constant amorous exercise, she radiated, despite her very childish appearance, some special languorous glow which threw garage fellows, hotel pages, vacationists, goons in luxurious cars, maroon morons near blued pools, into fits of concupiscence which might have tickled my pride, had it not incensed my jealousy. For little Lo was aware of that glow of hers, and I would often catch her coulant un regard in the direction of some amiable male, some grease monkey, with a sinewy golden-brown forearm and watch-braceleted wrist, and hardly had I turned my back to go and buy this very Lo a lollipop, than I would hear her and the fair mechanic burst into a perfect love song of wisecracks.
It begs the question: is H.H. really that more culpable for doing exactly what those other men dream and even attempt to do, even if they don’t? Again Nabokov points out society’s pervasive hypocrisy.
He also highlights H.H.’s alienation, not only through his “otherness” as a European in the U.S., but as an adult who can never again be Lo’s same age. Nabokov illustrates this especially in the roller skating scene:
I remained in the car, among other (empty) cars with their noses to the canvas-topped open-air rink, where some fifty young people, many in pairs, were endlessly rolling round and round to mechanical music, and the wind silvered the trees.
Or else, at a ski lodge, I would see her floating away from me, celestial and solitary, in an ethereal chairlift, up and up, to a glittering summit where laughing athletes stripped to the waist were waiting for her, for her.
All this contributes to the growing fear that Lolita will be somehow stolen away from him. Nabokov has planted this seed early and continues to nurture it with tender care.
Pubescent sweetheart! How smugly would I marvel that she was mine, mine, mine…
So it goes on this way: H.H. marvelling at his own dumb luck, treasuring his coy possession, and fearing her sudden abandonment. Abandonment issues, the sudden deaths of mother, first love, every major female in his life? No, no psychoanalysis here… How Poe-like he is! And this compounded by his attempt to teach her tennis: to turn her into a refined young Annabel. It is no wonder that it is Charlotte’s face that appears to him the moment he thinks he’s lost Lo at the courts.
And then the burst: “I itemize these sunny nothings mainly to prove to my judges that I did everything in my power to give my Lolita a really good time.” Nabokov here breaks more than our fictive illusion as he follows with the reality that Lolita daily faces: H.H. captures her for a “quick connection” before dinner. Though he never specifically mentions any resistance on her part (perhaps those scratches), he does demonstrate the coerciveness of the situation.
There follow the cursory interactions with other parents and hotel guests, which bring the trope eerily close to home: for how many conversations have you, dear reader, witnessed like these?
“Long way from home!” Inquisitive parents, in order to pump Lo about me, would suggest her going to a movie with their children...
The last long paragraph is perhaps our closest glimpse into her yet, even as H.H. acknowledges her “unknown heart”.
There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove. Her eyes would follow the adventures of her favorite strip characters; there was one well-drawn sloppy bobby-soxer, with high cheekbones and angular gestures, that I was not above enjoying myself; she studied the photographic results of head-on collisions; she never doubted the reality of place, time, and circumstance alleged to match the publicity pictures of naked-thighed beauties; and she was curiously fascinated by the photographs of local brides, some in full wedding apparel, holding bouquets and wearing glasses.
All this leads to the final dialogue, a frighteningly ironic conversation about their reality as it is portrayed in the morning paper. How many of us acknowledge that those daily accounts are the stories of real people, of children like Dolores Haze? There she would be, a typical kid…
Like so many chapters, we finish this one tense, our shoulders hunched, flipping forward to find out what will happen to that typical kid...
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