Vladimir Nabokov

Poet Humbert Wolfe

By William Dane, 17 November, 2022

This TLS review (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/humbert-tom-phillips-book-review-gill-partington/) mentions a book by one Humbert Wolfe called Cursory Rhymes (1927) (here: https://archive.org/details/CursoryRhymesDesktop/page/n1/mode/1up). Seems like it might be worth looking into. (A brief lit review reveals that some have identified Wolfe in connection with Lolita's protagonist, but I haven't seen anything yet about the content in Cursory Rhymes in particular.)

The Wikipedia page on Wolfe that includes a bibliography is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humbert_Wolfe

And here is the Web page of the contemporary author whose "artist's book" is the one reviewed in the TLS piece: https://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humbert/essays/item/6461-a-humbert-party-by-carole-richmond

Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year ago

Humbert Wolfe's "Cursory Rhymes" make me think of the two Russian precursors of Lolita: VN's poem Lilit ("Lilith," 1928) and his story Volshebnik ("The Enchanter," 1939). The story's anonymous hero is linked to the wolf in Charles Perrault's fairy tale Le petit chaperon rouge ("Little Red Riding Hood"). Humbert Wolfe was an Italian-born British poet. One cannot help recalling VN's instructive little jingle to his son:


In Italy, for his own good,

A wolf must wear a Riding Hood.


Humbert Wolfe died on his fifty-fifth birthday, January 5, 1940. January 5 is Vera Nabokov's birthday. In May, 1940, VN's family sailed to America.


On the other hand, Humbert Wolfe brings to mind Humbert the Hound (Gumbert Gustopsovyi in the Russian Lolita):


Everything was now ready. The nerves of pleasure had been laid bare. The corpuscles of Krause were entering the phase of frenzy. The least pressure would suffice to set all paradise loose. 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. In my self-made seraglio, I was a radiant and robust Turk, deliberately, in the full consciousness of his freedom, postponing the moment of actually enjoying the youngest and frailest of his slaves.


Теперь всё было готово. Нервы наслаждения были обнажены. Корпускулы Крауза вступали в фазу неистовства. Малейшего нажима достаточно было бы, чтобы разразилась райская буря. Я уже не был Гумберт Густопсовый, грустноглазый дог, охвативший сапог, который сейчас отпихнет его. Я был выше смехотворных злоключений, я был вне досягаемости кары. В самодельном моем серале я был мощным, сияющим турком, умышленно, свободно, с ясным сознанием свободы, откладывающим то мгновение, когда он изволит совсем овладеть самой молодой, самой хрупкой из своих рабынь. (1.13)

Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year ago

At the end of Lolita Humbert Humbert mentions his spectre and compares it to black smoke:


Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my spectre shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. (2.36)


Prizrak Aleksandra Vol'fa ("The Spectre of Aleksandr Wolf," 1947) is a novel by Gaito Gazdanov (Aleksandr Wolf is a Russian émigré who writes brilliant prose in English). The epigraph to Gazdanov's novel is from E. A. Poe's A Tale of Ragged Mountains: "Beneath me lay my corpse, with the arrow in my temple." The action in Poe's story takes place near Charlottesville, Virginia. Charlotte is the name of Lolita's mother. In his story Poe mentions the doctrines of Mesmer:


Doctor Templeton had been a traveller in his younger days, and at Paris, had become a convert, in great measure, to the doctrines of Mesmer.


Among the pseudonyms that Humbert toyed with was "Mesmer Mesmer:"


This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies. At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe. I have camouflaged what I could so as not to hurt people. And I have toyed with many pseudonyms for myself before I hit on a particularly apt one. There are in my notes “Otto Otto” and “Mesmer Mesmer” and “Lambert Lambert,” but for some reason I think my choice expresses the nastiness best. (2.36)


Clare Quilty (C. Q. whom Lolita should not pity) brings to mind Gazdanov's novel Vecher u Kler ("Evening at Claire's," 1929). It is mentioned in VN's story Tyazhyolyi dym ("The Torpid Smoke," 1935):


Он опять подвинулся к освещенному столу, с надеждой вспомнив, что куда-то засунул забытую однажды приятелем коробочку папирос. Теперь уже не видно было блестящей булавки, а клеенчатая тетрадь лежала иначе, полураскрывшись (как человек меняет положение во сне). Кажется - между книгами. Полки тянулись сразу над столом, свет лампы добирался до корешков. Тут был и случайный хлам (больше всего), и учебники по политической экономии (я хотел совсем другое, но отец настоял на своем); были и любимые, в разное время потрафившие душе, книги, "Шатер" и "Сестра моя жизнь", "Вечер у Клэр" и "Bal du compte d'Orgel", "Защита Лужина" и "Двенадцать стульев", Гофман и Гёльдерлин, Боратынский и старый русский Бэдекер. Он почувствовал, уже не первый,- нежный, таинственный толчок в душе и замер, прислушиваясь - не повторится ли? Душа была напряжена до крайности, мысли затмевались, и, придя в себя, он не сразу вспомнил, почему стоит у стола и трогает книги. Бело-синяя картонная коробочка, засунутая между Зомбартом и Достоевским, оказалась пустой. По-видимому, не отвертеться. Была, впрочем, еще одна возможность.


He examined again his lamp-lit island, remembering hopefully that he had put somewhere a pack of cigarettes which one evening a friend had happened to leave behind. The shiny safety pin had disappeared, while the exercise book now lay otherwise and was half-open (as a person changes position in sleep). Perhaps, between my books. The light just reached their spines on the shelves above the desk. Here was haphazard trash (predominantly), and manuals of political economy (I wanted something quite different, but Father won out); there were also some favorite books that at one time or another had done his heart good: Gumilyov’s collection of poems Shatyor (Tent), Pasternak’s Sestra moya Zhizn’ (Life, My Sister), Gazdanov’s Vecher u Kler (Evening at Claire’s), Radiguet’s Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel, Sirin’s Zashchita Luzhina (Luzhin’s Defense), Ilf and Petrov’s Dvenadtsat’ Stul’ev (Twelve Chairs), Hoffmann, Hölderlin, Baratynski, and an old Russian guidebook. Again that gentle mysterious shock. He listened. Would the thrill be repeated? His mind was in a state of extreme tension, logical thought was eclipsed, and when he came out of his trance, it took him some time to recall why he was standing near the shelves and fingering books. The blue-and-white package that he had stuck between Professor Sombart and Dostoyevski proved to be empty. Well, it had to be done, no getting out of it. There was, however, another possibility.

Trying to remember his family name, Vadim Vadimovich (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins!, 1974) mentions the surname or pseudonym of a presumably notorious Bulgarian, or Babylonian, or, maybe, Betelgeusian writer with whom scatterbrained émigrés from some other galaxy constantly confused him:


To the best of my knowledge my Christian name was  Vadim; so was my father's. The U.S.A. passport recently issued me--an elegant booklet with a golden design on its green cover perforated by the number 00678638--did not mention my ancestral  title; this had figured, though, on my British passport, throughout its several editions. Youth, Adulthood, Old Age, before the last one was mutilated beyond recognition by friendly forgers, practical jokers at  heart.  All this I  re-gleaned one night, as certain brain cells, which  had been frozen, now bloomed anew. Others, however, still puckered like retarded buds, and although I could freely twiddle (for the first time since I collapsed) my toes under  the  bedclothes, I just could not make out in that  darker corner of my mind what surname came after my Russian patronymic. I felt  it began with an N, as did the term for the beautifully spontaneous arrangement of words at moments of inspiration like the rouleaux of red corpuscles in freshly drawn blood under the microscope--a word I once used in See under Real, but could not remember either, something to do with a roll of coins, capitalistic metaphor, eh, Marxy? Yes, I definitely felt my family name began with an N and bore an odious resemblance to the surname or pseudonym of a presumably notorious (Notorov? No) Bulgarian, or Babylonian, or, maybe, Betelgeusian writer with whom scatterbrained émigrés from some other galaxy constantly confused me; but whether it was something on the lines of Nebesnyy or Nabedrin or Nablidze (Nablidze? Funny) I simply could not tell. I preferred not to overtax my willpower (go away, Naborcroft) and so gave up trying--or perhaps it began with a B and the n just clung to it like some desperate parasite? (Bonidze? Blonsky?--No, that belonged to the BINT business.) Did I have some princely Caucasian blood? Why had allusions to a Mr. Nabarro, a British politician, cropped up among the clippings I received from England concerning the London edition of A Kingdom by the Sea (lovely lilting title)? Why did Ivor call me "MacNab"? (7.3)


Vadim's novel A Kingdom by the Sea (1962) corresponds to VN's Lolita (1955). On Betelgeuse (1925) is a poem by Humbert Wolfe:


On Betelgeuse
the gold leaves hang in golden aisles
for twice a hundred million miles,
and twice a hundred million years
they golden hang and nothing stirs,
on Betelgeuse.

Space is a wind that does
not blow on Betelgeuse,
and time—oh time—is a bird,
whose wings have never stirred
the golden avenues of leaves
on Betelgeuse.

On Betelgeuse
there is nothing that joys or grieves
the unstirred multitude of leaves,
nor ghost of evil or good haunts
the gold multitude
on Betelgeuse.

And birth they do not use
nor death on Betelgeuse,
and the God, of whom we are
infinite dust, is there
a single leaf of those
gold leaves on Betelgeuse.


Humbert Wolfe brings to mind not only the narrator and main character in VN's Loilita, but also Prizrak Aleksandra Vol'fa ("The Spectre of Aleksandr Wolf," 1947), a novel by Gaito Gazdanov (1903-71), VN's fellow émigré writer (who earned his living as a cab driver in Paris). At the end of Lolita Humbert Humbert mentions his spectre:


Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my spectre shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. (2.36)


Btw., Vadim's princely surname that he remembers but never tells the reader is Yablonski. At the beginning of LATH Vadim mentions his three of four successive wives. Marriage of Harlequin (1927) is a novel by Pamela Frankau, Humbert Wolfe's mistress.


1 year ago

Will Dane,

That is a very intriguing "find." (If someone has "found" this before, it would be interesting to know who.) I looked into Humbert Wolfe a bit, and I think he fits very well as a model for HH.  He was a swarthy Jewish-Italian (raised in England) and there are suggestions throughout Lolita that HH was dark and may have been Jewish. Wolfe wrote clever "light verse" of the sort that I think VN would have enjoyed, such as "Cursory Rhymes" for a book of short Nursery rhymes. Like HH he was handsome, foppish, erudite, and amusing. He was separated from his wife and apparently was quite a ladies' man. He had a long-time affaire (until he died at 55) with Pamela Frankau, a young female writer 23 years his junior (suggesting a slightly aging nymphet). 

I think this fits nicely with "Humbert Hound," too.

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:


For the benefit of old-fashioned readers who wish to follow the destinies of “real” people beyond the “true” story, a few details may be given as received from Mr. “Windmuller,” of “Ramsdale,” who desires his identity suppressed so that “the long shadows of this sorry and sordid business” should not reach the community to which he is proud to belong. His daughter, “Louise,” is by now a college sophomore. “Mona Dahl” is a student in Paris. “Rita” has recently married the proprietor of a hotel in Florida. Mrs. “Richard F. Schiller” died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest. ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ has written a biography, ‘My Cue,’ to be published shortly, and critics who have perused the manuscript call it her best book. The caretakers of the various cemeteries involved report that no ghosts walk.


In his poem Susal'nym zolotom goryat ("With the gold leaves are shining," 1908) Mandelshtam mentions rozhdestvenskie yolki (the Christmas fir-trees) and igrushechnye volki (the toy wolves):


Сусальным золотом горят
В лесах рождественские елки;
В кустах игрушечные волки
Глазами страшными глядят.

О, вещая моя печаль,
О, тихая моя свобода
И неживого небосвода
Всегда смеющийся хрусталь!


The Christmas trees are shining
With tinsel gold in the forests,
The toy wolves are gazing
With scary eyes in the bushes.

O my prophetic sorrow,
O my silent freedom,
And the ever-laughing crystal
Of the lifeless heavenly vault!

(tr. Smirnov-Sadovski)


In his poem Za gremuchuyu doblest' gryadushchikh vekov ("For the sake of the resonant valor of ages to come," 1935) Mandelshtam says that he is no wolf by blood and mentions a pine that reaches up to the star:


За гремучую доблесть грядущих веков,
За высокое племя людей —
Я лишился и чаши на пире отцов,
И веселья, и чести своей.
Мне на плечи кидается век-волкодав,
Но не волк я по крови своей:
Запихай меня лучше, как шапку, в рукав
Жаркой шубы сибирских степей.

Чтоб не видеть ни труса, ни хлипкой грязцы,
Ни кровавых костей в колесе;
Чтоб сияли всю ночь голубые песцы
Мне в своей первобытной красе.

Уведи меня в ночь, где течет Енисей
И сосна до звёзды достает,
Потому что не волк я по крови своей
И меня только равный убьет.

[И неправдой искривлен мой рот]


1 For the sake of the resonant valor of ages to come,

for the sake of a high race of men,

I forfeited a bowl at my fathers' feast

and merriment, and my honour.

On my shoulders there pounces the wolfhound age,

but no wolf be blood I am;

better, like a fur cap, thrust me into the sleeve

of the warmly fur-coated Siberian steppes,

— so that I may not see the coward, the bit of soft muck,

the bloody bones on the wheel,

so that all night the blue-fox furs may blaze

12 for me in their pristine beauty.

Lead me into the night where the Enisey flows,

and the pine reaches up to the star,

because no wolf by blood am I,

16 and injustice has twisted my mouth.

(VN's translation)


Lolita dies in childbirth. At the end of his poem A nebo budushchim beremenno... ("And the sky is pregnant with the future..." 1923) Mandelshtam says that the sky is pregnant with the azure (zabremenevshee lazur'yu) and calls it al'fa i omega buri (alpha and omega of the tempest):  


А ты, глубокое и сытое,
Забременевшее лазурью,
Как чешуя многоочитое,
И альфа и омега бури;
Тебе — чужое и безбровое,
Из поколенья в поколение, —
Всегда высокое и новое
Передаётся удивление.


At the beginning of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN's novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions the false azure in the windowpane:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. (ll. 1-4)


Hazel Shade (the poet’s daughter) drowned in Lake Omega, the larger and sadder of the three conjoined lakes near New Wye:


Higher up on the same wooded hill stood, and still stands I trust, Dr. Sutton’s old clapboard house and, at the very top, eternity shall not dislodge Professor C.’s ultramodern villa from whose terrace one can glimpse to the south the larger and sadder of the three conjoined lakes called Omega, Ozero, and Zero (Indian names garbled by early settlers in such a way as to accommodate specious derivations and commonplace allusions). (note to Lines 47-48)


In Canto Three of his poem Shade describes his heart attack, calls 1958 (when Lolita was published in the USA) "a year of Tempests" and mentions Hurricane Lolita that swept from Florida to Maine:


It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane

Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.

Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.

Lang made your portrait. And one night I died. (ll. 679-682)


Btw., at the end of his poem Denmark Humbert Wolfe mentions the fir-trees and the evening-star:


I have seen great Kronborg standing in the red king's robes he wore
when Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was a prince at Helsingor –
I have seen Fredensborg whiter than the pale white hand of a queen,
and – a water-lily floating – Frederichsborg I have seen.
And yet these castles are shadows, lovely they were and are,
but all their man-made beauty fades by the light of the star,
that struck through the stems of the fir-trees – the evening-star, the pale
cool-throated star, that rises with the Danish nightingale.


Great Kronborg (a castle and stronghold in the town of Helsingør, Denmark) brings to mind Kronberg mentioned by Kinbote in his Commentary and Index to Shade's poem:


Kronberg, a snow-capped rocky mountain with a comfortable hotel, in the Bera Range, 70, 130, 149. (Index)


According to Kinbote, the King escaped from Zembla clad in bright red clothes. A bare bodkin mentioned by Hamlet in his famous monologue reminds one of botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto:


Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekin-maker, 71; bot, plop, and boteliy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto. (Index)


In his Parizhskaya poema (“The Paris Poem,” 1943) VN mentions kosmatye mamonty (the shaggy mammoths) that are dying out:


Вымирают косматые мамонты,

чуть жива красноглазая мышь.

Бродят отзвуки лиры безграмотной:

с кандачка переход на Буль-Миш.

С полурусского, полузабытого

переход на подобье арго.

Бродит боль позвонка перебитого

в чёрных дебрях Бульвар Араго.


Dying out are the shaggy mammoths,

barely alive is the red-eyed mouse.

Echoes of an illiterate lyre here wander,

from the slipshod to Boul’Mich you pass.

From a tongue half-Russian and half-forgotten

here you pass to a form of argot.

The pain of a severed vertebra wanders

in the black depths of Boulevard Arago.


François Arago (1786-1853) was a French astronomer. In The Paris Poem VN mention nekto Vul'f (a certain Wolf), a lean and red-haired engineer of about fifty who lives on rue Pierre Loti, 5:


А теперь мы начнем. Жил в Париже,

в пятом доме по рю Пьер Лоти,

некто Вульф, худощавый и рыжий

инженер лет пятидесяти.

А под ним - мой герой: тот писатель,

о котором писал я не раз,

мой приятель, мой работодатель.


Mandelshtam is the author of Oda Bethovenu ("Ode to Beethoven," 1914). In the final (fourth) movement of his Ninth Symphony Beethoven used Schiller's poem An die Freude ("Ode to Joy," 1785). When he composed the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven was deaf. A veteran of a distant war, Dick Schiller (Lolita's husband) is hard of hearing.


The author of The Spectre of Aleksandr Wolf (1947), Gaito Gazdanov was an Ossetian. In the last line of his poem "We live not feeling land beneath us" (1934) Mandelshtam mentions Stalin's broad chest of an Ossetian.

Describing the books of the prison library, Humbert Humbert mentions a comparatively recent (1946) Who’s Who in the Limelight:


I had my little revenge in due time. A man from Pasadena told me one day that Mrs. Maximovich née Zborovski had died in childbirth around 1945; the couple had somehow got over to California and had been used there, for an excellent salary, in a year-long experiment conducted by a distinguished American ethnologist. The experiment dealt with human and racial reactions to a diet of bananas and dates in a constant position on all fours. My informant, a doctor, swore he had seen with his own eyes obese Valechka and her colonel, by then gray-haired and also quite corpulent, diligently crawling about the well-swept floors of a brightly lit set of rooms (fruit in one, water in another, mats in a third and so on) in the company of several other hired quadrupeds, selected from indigent and helpless groups. I tried to find the results of these tests in the Review of Anthropology ; but they appear not to have been published yet. These scientific products take of course some time to fructuate. I hope they will be illustrated with photographs when they do get printed, although it is not very likely that a prison library will harbor such erudite works. The one to which I am restricted these days, despite my lawyer’s favors, is a good example of the inane eclecticism governing the selection of books in prison libraries. They have the Bible, of course, and Dickens (an ancient set, N. Y., G. W. Dillingham, Publisher, MDCCCLXXXVII); and the Children’s Encyclopedia  (with some nice photographs of sunshine-haired Girl Scouts in shorts), and A Murder Is Announced  by Agatha Christie; but they also have such coruscating trifles as A vagabond in Italy by Percy Elphinstone, author of Venice Revisited, Boston, 1868, and a comparatively recent (1946) Who’s Who in the Limelight - actors, producers, playwrights, and shots of static scenes. In looking through the latter volume, I was treated last night to one of those dazzling coincidences that logicians loathe and poets love. I transcribe most of the page:

Pym, Roland. Born in Lundy, Mass., 1922. Received stage training at Elsinore Playhouse, Derby, N. Y. Made debut in Sunburst . Among his many appearances are Two Blocks from Here, The Girl in Green, Scrambled Husbands, The Strange Mushroom, Touch and Go, John Lovely, I Was Dreaming of You.

Quilty, Clare, American dramatist. Born in Ocean City, N. J., 1911. Educated at Columbia University. Started on a commercial career but turned to playwriting. Author of The  Little Nymph, The Lady Who Loved Lightning  (in collaboration with Vivian Darkbloom), Dark Age, The strange Mushroom, Fatherly Love,  and others. His many plays for children are notable. Little Nymph  (1940) traveled 14,000 miles and played 280 performances on the road during the winter before ending in New York. Hobbies: fast cars, photography, pets.

Quine, Dolores. Born in 1882, in Dayton, Ohio. Studied for stage at American Academy. First played in Ottawa in 1900. Made New York debut in 1904 in Never Talk to Strangers.  Has disappeared since in [a list of some thirty plays follows].

How the look of my dear love’s name even affixed to some old hag of an actress, still makes me rock with helpless pain! Perhaps, she might have been an actress too. Born 1935. Appeared (I notice the slip of my pen in the preceding paragraph, but please do not correct it, Clarence) in The Murdered Playwright.  Quine the Swine. Guilty of killing Quilty. Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with! (1.8)


Pym, Roland brings to mind E. A. Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). At the end of E. A. Poe's A Tale of the Ragged Mountains (1850) the narrator quotes the saying (attributed to Lord Byron) "truth is stranger than fiction:"


I was speaking with the editor of the paper in question, upon the topic of this remarkable accident, when it occurred to me to ask how it happened that the name of the deceased had been given as Bedlo.

"I presume," I said, "you have authority for this spelling, but I have always supposed the name to be written with an e at the end."

"Authority?- no," he replied. "It is a mere typographical error. The name is Bedlo with an e, all the world over, and I never knew it to be spelt otherwise in my life."

"Then," said I mutteringly, as I turned upon my heel, "then indeed has it come to pass that one truth is stranger than any fiction - for Bedloe, without the e, what is it but Oldeb conversed! And this man tells me that it is a typographical error."


Chapter Five of Humbert Wolfe's Circular Saws (1923) is entitled "Truth is Stranger than Fiction." A very large and important book on the subject "Who's Who" is mentioned in it:


IT’S no good pretending that Petronella Gibbs was a good princess. For one thing, she was always asking questions. And if the nurses didn’t know the answer they were instantly beheaded. With the result that there was an unprecedented shortage in the supply of domestic labour. The Queen, her mother, indeed remarked to a friend of hers, another Queen living in the palace opposite, that “she never.” You may suppose therefore that things had reached a crisis.

But did Petronella care? She did not care. She could do without nurses, thank you. On the contrary, she decided to start answering questions. For instance. For a long time all the best people had wanted to know “Who’s Who.” And a very large and important book had been written about it. Petronella wrote as follows:

“Deer Editter.

Nobody is.

Yours evva,

Petronella P.”

This, which was the obvious solution, created considerable consternation. The Queen—her mother—had a long consultation with the King—her father—on his return from the Royal Exchange, where he kept his bulls, bears and hyenas, and remarked, “I never.” But the King only laughed. That is why so many women are Republicans.

At last Petronella became so celebrated that the King of America, colloquially known as the President of the United States, asked for her hand in marriage. He and his subjects had been guessing so long that they thought that the time had come to find someone who knew.

The flattering offer was accepted by her royal parents, and Petronella, with great pomp and ceremony, embarked. Upon her arrival she was met by the leading citizens, who asked her, “What do you think of America?” “I don’t,” she replied, which was the right answer. At which they, being accustomed to the latter, and never previously having met the former, exclaimed, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and adding, “not half so true either,” asked her with tears in their eyes to return where they asserted she belonged. Which she did. And both she and the King of America lived happily ever after.


The heroine of Chapter Seven, "A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing," is Miss Liddell:


THE father of Miss Liddell was favourably known to the general public as the man who had written to the public prints during a strike a bold letter beginning: “Sir,—Let all strikers be shot. Then let ...” and again during a lock-out an equally bold letter with the following introduction: “Sir,—Let all employers be shot. Then let ...” (It is believed that it is from this use of “let” in public correspondence that the word “letter” is derived.)

Miss Liddell, therefore, naturally objected to the fact that the Prince, over whose education she presided, disliked the manly game of football. “Don’t you know,” she would say from time to time, “what Wellington said about the playing fields of Eton?” “No,” the Prince used to reply, “who was Wellington? One of those professional footballers one reads about in their newspapers?” “Certainly not,” Miss Liddell was wont to reply. “He was a great general who beat the French.” “What did he do that for?” the Prince would ask. “Because they were his country’s enemies.” “Ah!” the Prince would say, “but I thought the French were England’s friends.” “So they are now,” Miss Liddell would say. “And did Wellington beat them because of football?” the Prince would inquire. “Wellington said so,” Miss Liddell (slightly flushed) would reply.

“Will you give me my paint-box?” the Prince would murmur politely.


Alice Liddell was the girl to whom Lewis Carroll presented the original manuscript of ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground:’


On 4 July 1862 the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a professor of mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford, set out on a rowing expedition up the Thames. With him on his rowing trip were the three young daughters of the University’s Vice-Chancellor. The middle child was Alice Liddell, then aged 10. As he rowed up the river Dodgson began to tell the girls a story about a bored child called Alice who follows a white rabbit and ends up having a series of surreal adventures. The story, as recorded in Dodgson’s diary, was initially called ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’. One year later, under his pen name of Lewis Carroll, the story was published in an expanded form with the new title Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The original manuscript of ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’ was ultimately presented to Alice Liddell herself, with the dedication: ‘A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day’.


Clare Quilty abducts Lolita from the Elphinstone hospital on July 4, 1949 (the Independence Day). Lolita dies in childbed on Christmas Day, 1952.


Lolita dies in Alaska (Gray Star is the capital town of the book). In Jack London's short novel The Call of the Wild (1903) a dog named Buck is stolen from his home in Santa Clara Valley, California, and is sold into service as a sled dog in Alaska. Jack London is the author of The Son of the Wolf (1900), a collection of stories mentioned in VN's novel Pnin (1957), The Sea-Wolf (1904) and White Fang (1906), a companion novel of The Call of the Wild (White Fang is the name of the book's eponymous character, a wild wolfdog). Humbert Wolfe is the author of London Sonnets (1920). At the end of Lolita Humbert mentions prophetic sonnets:


Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. (2.36)


The refuge of art brings to mind Ars Longa, Vita Brevis (the title of Chapter XII of Humbert Wolfe's Circular Saws) and Art Longwood, a local florist, in VN's poem The Ballad of Longwood Glen (1957). At the beginning of Dedication to his Requiem (1927) Humbert Wolfe mentions immortality:


This is your poem. I shall not write its fellow

earthsides of immortality. I sing

not here, as once, of love and his first swallow

that does not make, because it is, the spring.

Humbert Wolfe's collection of poetry Cursory Rhymes (1927) brings to mind R. L. Stevenson's Bedtime Stories & Nursery Rhymes. Describing his first road trip with Lolita across the USA, Humbert Humbert mentions R. L. Stevenson’s footprint on an extinct volcano:


Moreover, we inspected: Little Iceberg Lake, somewhere in Colorado, and the snow banks, and the cushionets of tiny alpine flowers, and more snow; down which Lo in red-peaked cap tried to slide, and squealed, and was snowballed by some youngsters, and retaliated in kind comme on dit.  Skeletons of burned aspens, patches of spired blue flowers. The various items of a scenic drive. Hundreds of scenic drives, thousands of Bear Creeks, Soda Springs, Painted Canyons. Texas, a drought-struck plain. Crystal Chamber in the longest cave in the world, children under 12 free, Lo a young captive. A collection of a local lady’s homemade sculptures, closed on a miserable Monday morning, dust, wind, witherland. Conception Park, in a town on the Mexican border which I dared not cross. There and elsewhere, hundreds of gray hummingbirds in the dusk, probing the throats of dim flowers. Shakespeare, a ghost town in New Mexico, where bad man Russian Bill was colorfully hanged seventy years ago. Fish hatcheries. Cliff dwellings. The mummy of a child (Florentine Bea’s Indian contemporary). Our twentieth Hell’s Canyon. Our fiftieth Gateway to something or other fide  that tour book, the cover of which had been lost by that time. A tick in my groin. Always the same three old men, in hats and suspenders, idling away the summer afternoon under the trees near the public fountain. A hazy blue view beyond railings on a mountain pass, and the backs of a family enjoying it (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…”). Indian ceremonial dances, strictly commercial. ART: American Refrigerator Transit Company. Obvious Arizona, pueblo dwellings, aboriginal pictographs, a dinosaur track in a desert canyon, printed there thirty million years ago, when I was a child. A lanky, six-foot, pale boy with an active Adam’s apple, ogling Lo and her orange-brown bare midriff, which I kissed five minutes later, Jack. Winter in the desert, spring in the foothills, almonds in bloom. Reno, a dreary town in Nevada, with a nightlife said to be “cosmopolitan and mature.” A winery in California, with a church built in the shape of a wine barrel. Death Valley. Scotty’s Castle. Works of Art collected by one Rogers over a period of years. The ugly villas of handsome actresses. R. L. Stevenson’s footprint on an extinct volcano. Mission Dolores: good title for book. Surf-carved sandstone festoons. A man having a lavish epileptic fit on the ground in Russian Gulch State Park. Blue, blue Crater Lake. A fish hatchery in Idaho and the State Penitentiary. Somber Yellowstone Park and its colored hot springs, baby geysers, rainbows of bubbling mudsymbols of my passion. A herd of antelopes in a wildlife refuge. Our hundredth cavern, adults one dollar, Lolita fifty cents. A chateau built by a French marquess in N. D. The Corn Palace in S. D.; and the huge heads of presidents carved in towering granite. The Bearded Woman read our jingle and now she is no longer single. A zoo in Indiana where a large troop of monkeys lived on concrete replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship. Billions of dead, or halfdead, fish-smelling May flies in every window of every eating place all along a dreary sandy shore. Fat gulls on big stones as seen from the ferry City of  Cheboygan , whose brown woolly smoke arched and dipped over the green shadow it cast on the aquamarine lake. A motel whose ventilator pipe passed under the city sewer. Lincoln’s home, largely spurious, with parlor books and period furniture that most visitors reverently accepted as personal belongings. (2.2)


Describing one of his quarrels with Lolita, Humbert compares himself to Mr. Hyde (who tramples a child in R. L. Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886):


With people in movies I seem to share the services of the machina telephonica and its sudden god. This time it was an irate neighbor. The east window happened to be agape in the living room, with the blind mercifully down, however; and behind it the damp black night of a sour New England spring had been breathlessly listening to us. I had always thought that type of haddocky spinster with the obscene mind was the result of considerable literary inbreeding in modern fiction; but now I am convinced that prude and prurient Miss East – or to explode her incognito, Miss Finton Lebone – had been probably protruding three-quarter-way from her bedroom window as she strove to catch the gist of our quarrel.
“…This racket… lacks all sense of…” quacked the receiver, “we do not live in a tenement here. I must emphatically…”
I apologized for my daughter’s friends being so loud. Young people, you know - and cradled the next quack and a half.
Downstairs the screen door banged. Lo? Escaped?
Through the casement on the stairs I saw a small impetuous ghost slip through the shrubs; a silvery dot in the dark - hub of bicycle wheel - moved, shivered, and she was gone.
It so happened that the car was spending the night in a repair shop downtown. I had no other alternative than to pursue on foot the winged fugitive. Even now, after more than three years have heaved and elapsed, I cannot visualize that spring-night street, that already so leafy street, without a gasp of panic. Before their lighted porch Miss Lester was promenading Miss Fabian's dropsical dackel. Mr. Hyde almost knocked it over. Walk three steps and run three. A tepid rain started to drum on the chestnut leaves. At the next corner, pressing Lolita against an iron railing, a blurred youth held and kissed - no, not her, mistake. My talons still tingling, I flew on.
Half a mile or so east of number fourteen, Thayer Street tangles with a private lane and a cross street; the latter leads to the town proper; in front of the first drugstore, I saw – with what melody of relief! – Lolita’s fair bicycle waiting for her. I pushed instead of pulling, pulled, pushed, pulled, and entered. Look out! some ten paces away Lolita, though the glass of a telephone booth (membranous god still with us), cupping the tube, confidentially hunched over it, slit her eyes at me, turned away with her treasure, hurriedly hung up, and walked out with a flourish. (2.14)


Lolita talks over the phone with her lover, Clare Quilty. Lolita’s treasure (the tube she cups) brings to mind R. L. Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island (1882). A copy of that book is used by Lolita as a hiding place:


I am now faced with the distasteful task of recording a definite drop in Lolita’s morals. If her share in the ardors she kindled had never amounted to much, neither had pure lucre ever come to the fore. But I was weak, I was not wise, my school-girl nymphet had me in thrall. With the human element dwindling, the passion, the tenderness, and the torture only increased; and of this she took advantage.

Her weekly allowance, paid to her under condition she fulfill her basic obligations, was twenty-one cents at the start of the Beardsley eraand went up to one dollar five before its end. This was a more than generous arrangement seeing she constantly received from me all kinds of small presents and had for the asking any sweetmeat or movie under the moonalthough, of course, I might fondly demand an additional kiss, or even a whole collection of assorted caresses, when I knew she coveted very badly some item of juvenile amusement. She was, however, not easy to deal with. Only very listlessly did she earn her three penniesor three nickelsper day; and she proved to be a cruel negotiator whenever it was in her power to deny me certain life-wrecking, strange, slow paradisal philters without which I could not live more than a few days in a row, and which, because of the very nature of love’s languor, I could not obtain by force. Knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managedduring one schoolyear!to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks! O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches; and in the margin of that leaping epilepsy she would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist, which, anyway, I used to pry open afterwards unless she gave me the slip, scrambling away to hide her loot. And just as every other day I would cruise all around the school area and on comatose feet visit drugstores, and peer into foggy lanes, and listen to receding girl laughter in between my heart throbs and the falling leaves, so every now and then I would burgle her room and scrutinize torn papers in the wastebasket with the painted roses, and look under the pillow of the virginal bed I had just made myself. Once I found eight one-dollar notes in one of her books (fittingly – Treasure Island), and once a hole in the wall behind Whistler’s ‘Mother’ yielded as much as twenty-four dollars and some change – say, twenty-four sixty – which I quietly removed, upon which, next day, she accused, to my face, honest Mrs. Holigan of being a filthy thief. Eventually, she lived up to her I.Q. by finding a safer hoarding place which I never discovered; but by that time I had brought prices down drastically by having her earn the hard and nauseous way permission to participate in the school’s theatrical program; because what I feared most was not that she might ruin me, but that she might accumulate sufficient cash to run away. I believe the poor fierce-eyed child had figured out that with a mere fifty dollars in her purse she might somehow reach Broadway or Hollywood – or the foul kitchen of a diner (Help Wanted) in a dismal ex-prairie state, with the wind blowing, and the stars blinking, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen, and everything soiled, torn, dead. (2.7)


According to Humbert, Lolita had him in thrall. In Keats' poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci the lady has the hero in thrall:


I saw pale kings, and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

Who cried---"La belle Dame sans merci

Hath thee in thrall!"


La belle Dame sans merci takes the knight to her elfin grot:


She took me to her elfin grot,

And there she gazed and sighed deep,

And there I shut her wild, sad eyes---

So kissed to sleep.


Elfin grot brings to mind Percy Elphinstone (the author of A Vagabond in Italy and Venice Revisited) and the Elphinstone hospital from which Lolita is abducted by Quilty.


Chapter XXI (the twenty-first story) of Humbert Wolfe's Circular Saws is entitled "Quis Separabit?":


TWO statesmen of well-merited celebrity in their own countries and times, having for a moment escaped the vigilance of their warders, met in a comparatively cool corner of hell to discuss the possibility of forming a new government.

“I do not feel,” said the first, “that H.H. any longer really represents the feeling in the circles.”

“I entirely agree,” said the second; “he is still, I fear, a hopeless reactionary and continues to believe that there is a distinction between evil and good—a doctrine which all advanced thought has long since abandoned.”

“And not only that,” said the first, “he is still a prey to the war spirit. He is for ever thinking in terms of the great conflict in which he thinks he was defeated. As a matter of fact, if he could only realise the truth, heaven was by far the greater sufferer, and is greatly embarrassed by the reparation exacted from him.”

“There is only one way,” said the second, “to repair the ravages of that unfortunate misunderstanding, and that is to recognise frankly that heaven and hell are necessary to one another and to arrange for a policy of goodwill and intercelestial understanding.”

“Nor should we stop at that,” replied the first, taking fire, as well he might, at the enunciation of sentiments so lofty; “mere understanding is not enough. We must have a pact, co-operation, even coalition.”

“With a common policy,” broke in the second, “resting on the best of evil and the worst of good.”

“The only difficulty,” said the first, “that I can see is one of the leadership.”

“We must not,” replied the second, “permit these wretched personalities to interfere with policies of universal benefit. Moreover, I am sure that the two forces are both too large-minded to let their personal inclinations stand in the way. And in any case, is it not possible that as a result of this great movement they may come to realise——”

“Yes,” cried the first breathlessly.

“—that they themselves are one and the same personality?”


H. H. mentioned by the first statesman has the same initials as Humbert Humbert (Humbert Wolfe's namesake). Quis separabit? ("Who will separate [us]?") is a Latin motto derived from the Vulgate translation of Romans 8:35, Quis nos separabit a caritate Christi? ("Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?").


The three main characters in VN's novel Pale Fire (1962), the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus, seem to represent three different aspects of one and the same personality (Professor Vsevolod Botkin). Shade's birthday, July 5, is also Kinbote's and Gradus' birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). Humbert Wolfe's birthday, January 5, is also Vera Nabokov's birthday (while Humbert Wolfe was born in 1885, Vera Nabokov was born in 1902). In 1923, when VN met her at a Russian ball in Berlin, Vera Slonim wore a wolf mask. 1915 − 1898 = 1902 − 1885 = 17. Humbert Wolfe died on his fifty-fifth birthday (January 5, 1940). The action in VN's play Sobytie ("The Event," 1938) takes place on Antonina Pavlovna Opayashin's fiftieth birthday, and at her birthday party Antonina Pavlovna (a lady writer) mentions a Hindu author who says that only great people die on their birthdays. Shade is killed by Gradus on July 21, 1959. In VN's novel Ada (1969) July 21 is Ada's birthday. Van and Ada are the children of Demon Veen and Marina Durmanov. Marina's affair with Demon begins on her, Demon's and Daniel Veen's birthday, January 5:


Marina’s affair with Demon Veen started on his, her, and Daniel Veen’s birthday, January 5, 1868, when she was twenty-four and both Veens thirty. (1.2)