Vladimir Nabokov

Reviving the "Virgil in single tone" question in Lolita

By olinko, 7 July, 2022

Hi, I know this has been discussed already, but the sentence in Chapter 5 of Lolita has been bothering me:

"Here is Virgil who could the nymphet sing in single tone, but probably preferred a lad’s perineum."

I know the consensus is that the "single tone" here is a reference to Robert Corbet Singleton who translated Virgil into English, and I would've been satisfied with that if it weren't for Nabokov's Russian translation:

"Вот Виргилий, который (цитирую старого английского поэта) «нимфетку в тоне пел одном», хотя по всей вероятности предпочитал перитон мальчика."

[~Here is Virgil, who (I'm quoting an old English poet) "could the nymphet sing in single tone"...]


So I'm wondering if this is some next level trickery like the beginning of Ada with the wrong translation of Tolstoy - in which case he's probably referring to Singleton being an old English poet for having translated Virgil - or is it actually a reference to someone else entirely, an actual English poet?

(It may be important to note that in his translation he does distinguish between "American" and "English" so it's not like he's thinking about a poet "writing in English")

Alexey Sklyarenko

2 years ago

Periton mal'chika is not a translation of "a lad's perineum" (preferred by Virgil) and seems to hint at Singleton (accented on the last syllable in Russian, the surname Singleton rhymes with ton (tone) and periton, a word invented by VN).

may be true, but I know that in the notes to the Annotated Lolita it says

"In the 1958 edition it read peritonium (the double serous membrane which lines the cavity of the abdomen). Although H.H.’s grotesque error is intentional on Nabokov’s part, he decided to correct it here because the mistake, if discerned, might be taken for the author’s, or remain ambiguous." 

So I just assumed he'd want to keep the original in the Russian translation, which is why it's periton there

(Although truthfully I don't understand what he was trying to do with peritonium in the first place, is it just for the alliteration sing in single tone (...) a lad's peritonium? Glad he changed it either way)

In his Postscript to the Russian Lolita VN says that everything what pertains to natural sciences and unnatural passions becomes in Russian rather clumsy:


Телодвижения, ужимки, ландшафты, томление деревьев, запахи, дожди, тающие и переливчатые оттенки природы, все нежно-человеческое (как ни странно!), а также все мужицкое, грубое, сочно-похабное, выходит по-русски не хуже, если не лучше, чем по-английски; но столь свойственные английскому тонкие недоговоренности, поэзия мысли, мгновенная перекличка между отвлеченнейшими понятиями, роение односложных эпитетов, все это, а также все, относящееся к технике, модам, спорту, естественным наукам и противоестественным страстям — становится по-русски топорным, многословным и часто отвратительным в смысле стиля и ритма. Эта невязка отражает основную разницу в историческом плане между зеленым русским литературным языком и зрелым, как лопающаяся по швам смоква, языком английским: между гениальным, но еще недостаточно образованным, а иногда довольно безвкусным юношей, и маститым гением, соединяющим в себе запасы пестрого знания с полной свободой духа. Свобода духа! Все дыхание человечества в этом сочетании слов.


I did not know that in the 1958 edition it read peritonium. Btw., in his EO Commentary VN says that in his duel with d'Anthes Pushkin was wounded in the lower abdomen and died of traumatic peritonitis at 2:45 P.M., January 29, 1837.

Alexey Sklyarenko

2 years ago

Gaston Godin (Humbert's friend and chess partner at Beardsley who loves little boys) brings to mind the gods mentioned by Virgil in The Aeneid (Book IX, Lines 184–185):


Do the gods light this fire in our hearts

or does each man's mad desire become his god?


Dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt, Euryale,

an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido?


A Roman burial vault in Naples is said to be the tomb of Virgil. Gaston Godin got involved in a sale histoire, in Naples of all places.


Nouvelles promenades archéologiques : Horace et Virgile (1886) is a book by Gaston Boissier (1823-1908), a French classical scholar.


In the surname Godin there is Odin. In the prologue of the medieval Icelandic Edda, Snorri Sturluson had identified Troy with Asgard, and Aeneas with Vidar, son of Odin and survivor of Ragnarok.

Alexey Sklyarenko

2 years ago

Describing his life in Paris, Humbert mentions uranists and quotes his Eliot pastiche:


The days of my youth, as I look back on them, seem to fly away from me in a flurry of pale repetitive scraps like those morning snow storms of used tissue paper that a train passenger sees whirling in the wake of the observation car. In my sanitary relations with women I was practical, ironical and brisk. While a college student, in London and Paris, paid ladies sufficed me. My studies were meticulous and intense, although not particularly fruitful. At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry as many manqué talents do; but I was even more manqué than that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds. Paris suited me. I discussed Soviet movies with expatriates. I sat with uranists in the Deux Magots. I published tortuous essays in obscure journals. I composed pastiches:

... Fräulein von Kulp
may turn, her hand upon the door;
I will not follow her. Nor Fresca. Nor
that Gull.

A paper of mine entitled “The Proustian theme in a letter from Keats to Benjamin Bailey” was chuckled over by the six or seven scholars who read it. I launched upon an “Histoire abrégé de la poesie anglaise ” for a prominent publishing firm, and then started to compile that manual of French literature for English-speaking students (with comparisons drawn from English writers) which was to occupy me throughout the fortiesand the last volume of which was almost ready for press by the time of my arrest. (1.5)


A pederast, Gaston Godin is Humbert's chess partner. At the beginning of A Game of Chess (Part II of The Waste Land) T. S. Eliot makes a reference to The Aeneid:


The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Glowed on the marble, where the glass

Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines

From which a golden Cupidon peeped out

(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)

Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra

Reflecting light upon the table as

The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,

From satin cases poured in rich profusion;

In vials of ivory and coloured glass

Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,

Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused

And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air

That freshened from the window, these ascended

In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,

Flung their smoke into the laquearia,

Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.


Eliot’s footnote on a single word, “laquearia,” sends us to the night in Virgil’s Aeneid when Dido, queen of Carthage, falls in love with Trojan hero Aeneas. He and his fellow refugees have just survived a hurricane that brought them to Carthage, where Aeneas discovers that he is a celebrity. The Carthaginians know all about the famous war between the Trojans and the Greeks, so they welcome their guests, and Dido throws a banquet. That night at the party, while Aeneas recounts the sack of Troy—giant wooden horse, fire everywhere, wishing to fight to the death but instructed by the gods to depart and found a city—the Carthaginian queen falls in love with him.


Humbert meets Lolita and falls in love with her, because on the eve McCoo's house (where Humbert was supposed to stay) has burnt down to the ground. When Humbert visits Lolita (now married to Dick Schiller and big with child) in Coalmont, she tells him that the luxurious rancho where Quilty lived with his friends has burnt down to the ground. Kassandra is a ballad by Schiller. A daughter of Priam (the last king of Troy), Cassandra was an Apollonian prophetess in Homer's The Iliad. As a prophetess, she was given the divine ability to see into the future. However, Apollo had cursed her so that no one would believe her accurate visions. Humbert's aunt Sybil correctly predicted her own death:


My mother’s elder sister, Sybil, whom a cousin of my father’s had married and then neglected, served in my immediate family as a kind of unpaid governess and housekeeper. Somebody told me later that she had been in love with my father, and that he had lightheartedly taken advantage of it one rainy day and forgotten it by the time the weather cleared. I was extremely fond of her, despite the rigidity - the fatal rigidity - of some of her rules. Perhaps she wanted to make of me, in the fullness of time, a better widower than my father. Aunt Sybil had pink-rimmed azure eyes and a waxen complexion. She wrote poetry. She was poetically superstitious. She said she knew she would die soon after my sixteenth birthday, and did. Her husband, a great traveler in perfumes, spent most of his time in America, where eventually he founded a firm and acquired a bit of real estate. (1.2)


In A Game of Chess T. S. Eliot mentions the lady's strange synthetic perfumes. In The Aeneid (Book Six) Aeneas comes to Cumae to consult the Sibyl, who tells him that he can enter the underworld only if he offers to Proserpina a golden bough. The Golden Bough (1834) is a painting by Turner. Gaston Godin is an amateur painter.


"By the time the weather cleared" brings to mind a good weather that in an ode addressed to Virgil (who was going to visit Greece to revise The Aeneid) Horace wishes to his friend. In his poem Davydovu ("To Davydov," 1824) Pushkin mentions this fact and calls Virgil "the consumptive father of a rather thin Aeneid:"


Нельзя, мой толстый Аристипп:
Хоть я люблю твои беседы,
Твой милый нрав, твой милый хрип,
Твой вкус и жирные обеды,
Но не могу с тобою плыть
К брегам полуденной Тавриды.
Прошу меня не позабыть,
Любимец Вакха и Киприды!
Когда чахоточный отец
Немного тощей Энеиды
Пускался в море наконец,
Ему Гораций, умный льстец,
Прислал торжественную оду,
Где другу Августов певец
Сулил хорошую погоду.
Но льстивых од я не пишу;
Ты не в чахотке, славу богу:
У неба я тебе прошу
Лишь аппетита на дорогу.

According to John Ray, Jr. (the author of the Foreword to Humbert’s manuscript), Mrs. “Richard F. Schiller” (Lolita’s married name) died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest. Gray Star seems to correspond to Juneau, a city in Alaska whose name sounds like Juno. Juno is a goddess, the wife of Jove and therefore queen of the gods. She loves Dido and Carthage, acting as a patron for that city. She also loves the Latin people and Turnus. (In Virgil's day, she was worshipped as the patron goddess of the Roman Empire.) She often sends her messenger, Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to deal with affairs on earth. Juno is Aeneas's main antagonist throughout the Aeneid. She hates the Trojans for a number of personal, rather petty reasons, including the fact that the Trojans Ganymede and Paris had once offended her pride. She is a wrathful, proud and vicious force, tirelessly harassing Aeneas and the Trojans, even though she knows that she can't ultimately stop them from achieving their fate.


On the other hand, Gray Star brings to mind Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie / Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum ("Dear friend, all theory is grey / and green the golden tree of life"), Mephistopheles’ words to Wagner in Goethe’s Faust (1808). In Pushkin's A Scene from Faust (1825) Mephistopheles mentions Virgil:


Я психолог... о вот наука!..
Скажи, когда ты не скучал?
Подумай, поищи. Тогда ли,
Как над Виргилием дремал,
А розги ум твой возбуждали?


I ask you, psychologist that I am,
(Ah, there’s a science!) when indeed
Were you not bored? Think. Was it when
You dozed to Virgil, and would need
Birch on your backside to rouse again?

(tr. A. Shaw)


Humbert's wife Charlotte (Lolita's mother) brings to mind Lotte, the heroine of Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers.