Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026402, Sun, 30 Aug 2015 14:44:26 -0700

“…which might have tickled my pride, had it not incensed my jealousy”— Nabokov’s ultra-sly wink at Pride & Prejudice in L_o_l_i_t_a
Before I conclude my latest round of sleuthing into Nabokov’s covert but
extremely significant allusions to *Mansfield Park* in *L_o_l_i_t_a*, I
want to add one more tantalizing wrinkle---which is that in the course of
following up on the MP in *L_o_l_i_t_a*, I serendipitously stumbled on an
extraordinary bit of textual evidence supporting my already existing belief
that Nabokov was not merely focused on *Mansfield Park*, he was also an
admirer of *Pride & Prejudice *as well.

My claim of course goes against the longstanding dogma of Nabokov studies
vis a vis Austen, as most authoritatively voiced by the very influential
Nabokov scholar and biographer Brian Boyd:

“[In 1950, regarding potential authors he would teach in his ‘European
Fiction’ class] Nabokov reacted with a Russian disdain for lady novelists:
‘I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers.
They are in another class. Could never see anything in *Pride and
Prejudice.*” He thought he would choose *Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde *instead.
By mid-May, he was halfway through *Bleak House *(‘great stuff’), taking
copious notes, and had decided, after all, to follow Wilson’s advice and
teach *Mansfield Park*.” END QUOTE

In 2010, when I first engaged with the subject of Nabokov’s attitude toward
Jane Austen, I first drew the parallel I saw between Nabokov’s apparent
disdain for P&P, on the one hand, and Mark Twain’s suspiciously similar
apparent disdain for P&P (also expressed in a letter to an earnest Janeite
American literary friend of *his*, William Dean Howells), on the other. I
asserted, and still assert today, that Nabokov had deliberately channeled
Twain’s tweaking of *his *earnest Janeite friend’s love of P&P, by
expressing exactly the same faux-disdain to *his* own esteemed literary pal!

But it was only just the other day that I came upon Nabokov’s smoking gun
in this regard, in the following passage in which Humbert Humbert describes
his paranoid jealous monitoring of L_o_l_i_t_a’s every move during stops
along their road trip across the United States:

“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.”

Surely no Janeite with an acute ear can fail to hear the unmistakable
echoing by Nabokov of the following famous passage in P&P, when Charlotte
and Eliza discuss Darcy’s apparent disdain for Eliza:

"His pride," said Miss Lucas, "does not offend *me* so much as pride often
does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very
fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should
think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a *right* to be

*"That is very true," replied Elizabeth, "and I could easily forgive his
pride, if he had not mortified mine." *

It’s not just the rhythm of the phrasing that is so strikingly similar, or
that the word “pride” appears in both---it’s that the first part of the
phrase refers to the possibility of a positive feeling relating to
someone’s pride (HH’s pride might have been tickled, and Eliza might have
forgiven Darcy’s pride) which however is, ironically, prevented by a
simultaneous adverse effect (HH’s jealousy was incensed by L_o_l_i_t_a’s
attractiveness, and Eliza’s pride was mortified by Darcy’s pride). This is
clearly a sly and intentional allusion by Nabokov.

And that would have been enough to confirm that Nabokov was actually a
lover of P&P when he wrote his 1950 letter to Wilson, and remained one as
he wrote *L_o_l_i_t_a *thereafter. But Nabokov, the trickster, does not end
his winking there, he extends it one more iteration, to allay the doubt of
even the most hardened skeptic. He adds the following bit of (seemingly)
insignificant background detail, immediately after the above quoted
passage, without any gap:

“When, during our longer stops, I would relax after a particularly violent
morning in bed, and out of the goodness of my lulled heart allow
her--indulgent Hum!--to visit the rose garden or children's library across
the street with a motor court neighbor's plain little Mary and Mary's
eight-year-old brother, Lo would come back an hour late, with barefoot Mary
trailing far behind, and the little boy metamorphosed into two gangling,
golden-haired high school uglies, all muscles and gonorrhea…”

Now, is it just a coincidence that Eliza Bennet’s *plain *sister, *Mary*,
whose favorite place in the world was a *library *(“Mary petitioned for the
use of the library at Netherfield”), just happens to be the very next
speaker after Eliza tosses off her above-quoted *bon mot*?:

"Pride," observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her
reflections, "is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever
read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is
particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not
cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or
other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the
words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being
vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we
would have others think of us."

And we might profitably ask how Mary Bennet’s reflections illuminate the
character of Humbert Humbert—is he proud, vain, or both? I say “Both!”.

And I believe that Vladimir Nabokov was also both vain and proud in Mary
Bennet’s sense, and also piqued *himself *upon the cleverness and
erudition of his covert allusions, and on his ability to gull his learned
friend Edmund Wilson so completely regarding same. And I suspect he’d have
been doubly piqued, had he lived long enough to know that his little trick
lasted another 60 years, and took in almost the entire world of
Nabokovians, and I pique myself on finally discovering and explaining it
all in this post today.

Cheers, ARNIE

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