Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026788, Sun, 10 Jan 2016 22:39:28 +0100

Re: Charlotte's "maroon slacks, yellow silk blouse"

My thanks to anyone on the list who answered my query regarding Charlotteʼs “maroon slacks, yellow silk blouse” in /Lolita/, and suggested clues. Belated thanks as I have been away from my computer for a while.

I am personally convinced such details are meaningful and deliberate. And then, with Humbert, a layman in several domains familiar to him, Nabokov may have derived keen pleasure from suggesting to his readers through his narrator shades of meanings quite alien to the latter.

Like Malynne Sternstein I had been thinking of Lepidoptera: what I had in mind was not the type species she suggests, though, but /Eurema lisa/, a sulphur with a yellow ground color and maroon margins. In /Pale Fire/, one reads about “that vortex of yellow and maroon butterflies that so pleased Chateaubriand on /his/ arrival in America.” Dieter Zimmer conjectures they are Eurema butterflies [or /Phoebis sennae eubule/]. Despite the help of Brian Boyd, Abdellah Bouazza and Chateaubriand scholars, the specific page referred to could not be found in Chateaubriandʼs writings (an earlier query of mine—admittedly, Kinbote is no reliable authority).

But Christopher Columbus, another newcomer to America, saw such yellow-and-maroon swarms off Cuba on his first voyage (they must have been little yellows or cloudless giant sulphurs, /Phoebis sennae/). In the fall of 1946, in Wellesley, immigrant Nabokov witnessed the same phenomenon, redolent of his childhood. Darwin enjoyed it too from the Beagle off the coast of Northern Patagonia (“the main part [of those butterflies],” he writes, “belonged to a kind very similar to, but not identical with, the common English /Colias edusa/” but he refers them to the migrations of /Vanessa cardui/, the painted lady Nabokov alludes to several times in his fiction). Only /Eurema lisa/ matches the yellow-maroon color scheme.

It makes sense that Humbert should experience his own version of what met the eyes of quite different conquerors and travelers. Yet, I see no reason why individual Charlotte should be referred to a swarm (though she is “a type”). And I am at a loss to account for her wearing the same outfit on that last day of their shared life as on the first.

Puzzled as ever,

Didier Machu

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