Adam & his apple orchard in Lolita; miragarl & verbalala in Pale Fire

Submitted by dana_dragunoiu on Sat, 07/07/2018 - 06:37

In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character) identifies himself as Adam:


So Humbert the Cubus schemed and dreamed – and the red sun of desire and decision (the two things that create a live world) rose higher and higher, while upon a succession of balconies a succession of libertines, sparkling glass in hand, toasted the bliss of past and future nights. Then, figuratively speaking, I shattered the glass, and boldly imagined (for I was drunk on those visions by then and underrated the gentleness of my nature) how eventually I might blackmail — no, that it too strong a word — mauvemail big Haze into letting me consort with the little Haze by gently threatening the poor doting Big Dove with desertion if she tried to bar me from playing with my legal stepdaughter. In a word, before such an Amazing Offer, before such a vastness and variety of vistas, I was as helpless as Adam at the preview of early oriental history, miraged in his apple orchard. (1.17)


In a poem that Clare Quilty is made to read aloud before his death Humbert Humbert says that he “stood Adam-naked before a federal law and all its stinging stars.” Humbert Humbert does not allow Quilty to smoke his last Drome cigarette:


I slapped down his outstretched hand and he managed to knock over a box on a low table near him. It ejected a handful of cigarettes.

“Here they are,” he said cheerfully. “You recall Kipling: une femme est une femme, mais un Caporal est une cigarette? Now we need matches.”

“Quilty,” I said. “I want you to concentrate. You are going to die in a moment. The hereafter for all we know may be an eternal state of excruciating insanity. You smoked your last cigarette yesterday. Concentrate. Try to understand what is happening to you.”

He kept taking the Drome cigarette apart and munching bits of it. (2.35)


In his poem The Betrothed (1886) Kipling says: “And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.” In the first and penultimate lines of his poem Kipling mentions a Cuba:


Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout

For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out…


Light me another Cuba -- I hold to my first-sworn vows.

If Maggie will have no rival, I'll have no Maggie for Spouse!

“A Cuba stout” and “another Cuba” bring to mind “Humbert the Cubus.” In his Russian translation (1967) of Lolita VN renders “Humbert the Cubus” as GumbertVyvoroten’. A rare and obscure word, vyvoroten’ sounds almost like oboroten’ (werewolf). The characters of Slovo o polku Igoreve (“The Song of Igor’s Campaign”) include Vseslav of Polotsk, a prince who was deemed a magician and werewolf. One of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962), Kinbote imagines that he is Charles Xavier Vseslav (aka Charles the Beloved), the last self-exiled king of Zembla. In his Commentary to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions Arnor’s poem about a miragarl ("mirage girl"):


Our Prince was fond of Fleur as of a sister but with no soft shadow of incest or secondary homosexual complications. She had a small pale face with prominent cheekbones, luminous eyes, and curly dark hair. It was rumored that after going about with a porcelain cup and Cinderella's slipper for months, the society sculptor and poet Arnor had found in her what he sought and had used her breasts and feet for his Lilith Calling Back Adam; but I am certainly no expert in these tender matters. Otar, her lover, said that when you walked behind her, and she knew you were walking behind her, the swing and play of those slim haunches was something intensely artistic, something Arab girls were taught in special schools by special Parisian panders who were afterwards strangled. Her fragile ankles, he said, which she placed very close together in her dainty and wavy walk, were the "careful jewels" in Arnor’s poem about a miragarl ("mirage girl"), for which "a dream king in the sandy wastes of time would give three hundred camels and three fountains.”


          /                      /                 /            /

On sagaren werem tremkin tri stana
            /                    /            /            /
Verbalala wod gev ut tri phantana


(I have marked the stress accents.) (note to Line 80)

Verbalala hints at verblyud (Russian for “camel”). Dromedary being a one-humped camel, the Drome cigarettes correspond to Camel (an American brand of cigarettes).


“The sandy wastes of time” bring to mind vremya, veter i pesok (time, wind and sand) mentioned by Hodasevich in the last line of his poem Pamyatnik (“Monument,” 1928):


Во мне конец, во мне начало.

Мной совершённое так мало!

Но всё ж я прочное звено:

Мне это счастие дано.


В России новой, но великой,

Поставят идол мой двуликий

На перекрестке двух дорог,

Где время, ветер и песок...


In me is the beginning, in me the end.
What’s been accomplished by me is so small!
But still I am a reliable chain link:
This happiness to me has been given.


In the new but great Russia

they will erect to me a two-faced idol

at the intersection of two roads
where is time, wind and sand…


In Speak, Memory (1951) VN describes his years in Paris and mentions Hodasevich and the half of a Caporal Vert cigarette:


Vladislav Hodasevich used to complain, in the twenties and thirties, that young émigré poets had borrowed their art form from him while following the leading cliques in modish angoisse and soul-reshaping. I developed a great liking for this bitter man, wrought of irony and metallic-like genius, whose poetry was as complex a marvel as that of Tyutchev or Blok. He was, physically, of a sickly aspect, with contemptuous nostrils and beetling brows, and when I conjure him up in my mind he never rises from the hard chair on which he sits, his thin legs crossed, his eyes glittering with malevolence and wit, his long fingers screwing into a holder the half of a Caporal Vertcigarette. There are few things in modern world poetry comparable to the poems of his Heavy Lyre, but unfortunately for his fame the perfect frankness he indulged in when voicing his dislikes made him some terrible enemies among the most powerful critical coteries. Not all the mystagogues were Dostoevskian Alyoshas; there were also a few Smerdyakovs in the group, and Hodasevich’s poetry was played down with the thoroughness of a revengeful racket. (Chapter Fourteen, 2)


Hodasevich’s collection Tyazhyolaya lira (“Heavy Lyre,” 1923) brings to mind VN’s story Tyazhyolyi dym (“Torpid Smoke,” 1935) which, in turn, reminds one of Turgenev’s novel Dym (“Smoke,” 1867). Turgenev is the author of Zapiski okhotnika (“A Hunter’s Notes,” 1852). For the first time Humbert Humbert and Lolita see Quilty in the dining room of The Enchanted Hunters (a hotel in Briceland where HH and Lolita spend their first night together):

The dining room met us with a smell of fried fat and a faded smile. It was a spacious and pretentious place with maudlin murals depicting enchanted hunters in various postures and states of enchantment amid a medley of pallid animals, dryads and trees. A few scattered old ladies, two clergymen, and a man in a sports coat were finishing their meals in silence. The dining room closed at nine, and the green-clad, poker-faced serving girls were, happily, in a desperate hurry to get rid of us.
“Does not he look exactly, but exactly, like Quilty?” said Lo in a soft voice, her sharp brown elbow not pointing, but visibly burning to point, at the lone diner in the loud checks, in the far corner of the room.
“Like our fat Ramsdale dentist?”
Lo arrested the mouthful of water she had just taken, and put down her dancing glass.
“Course not,” she said with a splutter of mirth. “I meant the writer fellow in the Droms ad.”
Oh, Fame! Oh, Femina! (1.27)

On the porch of the hotel Quilty offers HH a smoke and quotes a Persian saying:


Suddenly I was aware that in the darkness next to me there was somebody sitting in a chair on the pillared porch. I could not really see him but what gave him away was the rasp of a screwing off, then a discreet gurgle, then the final note of a placid screwing on. I was about to move away when his voice addressed me:

“Where the devil did you get her?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: the weather is getting better.”

“Seems so.”

“Who’s the lassie?”

“My daughter.”

“You lie - she’s not.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: July was hot. Where’s her mother?”


“I see. Sorry. By the way, why don’t you two lunch with me tomorrow. That dreadful crowd will be gone by then.”

“We’ll be gone too. Good night.”

“Sorry. I’m pretty drunk. Good night. That child of yours needs a lot of sleep. Sleep is a rose, as the Persians say. Smoke?”

“Not now.”

He struck a light, but because he was drunk, or because the wind was, the flame illumined not him but another person, a very old man, one of those permanent guests of old hotels - and his white rocker. Nobody said anything and the darkness returned to its initial place. Then I heard the old-timer cough and deliver himself of some sepulchral mucus. (1.28)


Caporal Vert brings to mind Soleil Vert, an old perfume mentioned by Humbert Humbert in his poem “Wanted” (composed in a madhouse after Lolita was abducted by Quilty):


My Dolly, my folly! Her eyes were vair,

And never closed when I kissed her.

Know an old perfume called Soleil Vert?

Are you from Paris, mister? (2.25)


Soleil Vert means “green sun” and brings to mind Balmont’s collection of poetry Budem kak solntse (“Let Us Be Like the Sun,” 1903). In a letter of January 1 (Lolita’s birthday), 1902, to Balmont Chekhov (the author of “On the Harm of Tobacco”) says that he has in his library two books by E. A. Poe in Balmont’s translation: Tainstvennye rasskazy (Tales of Mystery and Imagination) and Poe, Edgar, vol. 1 (Poems, Fairy Tales) and adds that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow he will start reading Edgar Poe: 


Из Ваших книг у меня имеются: 1) «Под северным небом»; 2) Шелли, вып<уск> 2-й и 7-й (Ченчи); 3) «В безбрежности»; 4) «Тишина»; 5) Кальдерон, т. 1; 6) «Таинственные рассказы»; 7) По Эдгар, т. 1. 

За книгу всей душой благодарю. Я теперь не работаю, а только читаю, и завтра-послезавтра примусь за Эдг. По.


In the Society Column of the Ramsdale Journal Humbert Humbert appears as “Mr. Edgar H. Humbert:”


Oh, she was very genteel: she said "excuse me" whenever a slight burp interrupted her flowing speech, called an envelope and ahnvelope, and when talking to her lady-friends referred to me as Mr. Humbert. I thought it would please her if I entered the community trailing some glamour after me. On the day of our wedding a little interview with me appeared in the Society Column of the Ramsdale Journal, with a photograph of Charlotte, one eyebrow up and a misprint in her name ("Hazer"). Despite this contretempts, the publicity warmed the porcelain cockles of her heart-and made my rattles shake with awful glee. by engaging in church work as well as by getting to know the better mothers of Lo's schoolmates, Charlotte in the course of twenty months or so had managed to become if not a prominent, at least an acceptable citizen, but never before had she come under that thrilling rubrique, and it was I who put her there, Mr. Edgar H. Humbert (I threw in the "Edgar" just for the heck of it), "writer and explorer." McCoo's brother, when taking it down, asked me what I had written. Whatever I told him came out as "several books on Peacock, Rainbow and other poets." It was also noted that Charlotte and I had known each other for several years and that I was a distant relation of her first husband. I hinted I had had an affair with her thirteen years ago but this was not mentioned in print. To Charlotte I said that society columns should contain a shimmer of errors. (1.18)


In a letter of Oct. 17/29, 1897, to Suvorin Chekhov asks Suvorin to bring him Le Rire (a French humor magazine) with the portrait of Gumbert (as Chekhov calls the Italian king Umberto I):


Привезите журнал «Le rire» с портретом Гумберта, если попадётся на глаза.


In Chekhov’s story Skuchnaya istoriya (“A Dreary Story,” 1889) the old Professor compares himself to verblyud (a camel):


Я трудолюбив и вынослив, как верблюд, а это важно, и талантлив, а это ещё важнее.

I have the industry and power of endurance of a camel, and that is important, and I have talent, which is even more important. (chapter I)


At the end of E. A. Poe’s story The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade (1845) Scheherazade says the days have long gone by since it was possible to distinguish a woman from a dromedary:


“ ‘The wives and daughters of these incomparably great and wise magi,’ ” continued Scheherazade, without being in any manner disturbed by these frequent and most ungentlemanly interruptions on the part of her husband — “ ‘the wives and daughters of these eminent conjurers are every thing that is accomplished and refined; and would be every thing that is interesting and beautiful, but for an unhappy fatality that besets them, and from which not even the miraculous powers of their husbands and fathers has, hitherto, been adequate to save. Some fatalities come in certain shapes, and some in others — but this of which I speak has come in the shape of a crotchet.’ ” 

“A what?”said the king.

“ ‘A crotchet,’ ” said Scheherazade. “ ‘One of the evil genii who are perpetually upon the watch to inflict ill, has put it into the heads of these accomplished ladies that the thing which we describe as personal beauty, consists altogether in the protuberance of the region which lies not very far below the small of the back. Perfection of loveliness, they say, is in the direct ratio of the extent of this hump. Having been long possessed of this idea, and bolsters being cheap in that country, the days have long gone by since it was possible to distinguish a woman from a dromedary — ’”

“Stop!” said the king — “I can’t stand that, and I won’t. You have already given me a dreadful headache with your lies. The day, too, I perceive is beginning to break. How long have we been married? —my conscience is getting to be troublesome again. And then that dromedary touch — do you take me for a fool? Upon the whole, you might as well get up and be throttled.” 

These words, as I learn from the Isitsöornot, both grieved and astonished Scheherazade; but, as she knew the king to be a man of scrupulous integrity, and quite unlikely to forfeit his word, she submitted to her fate with a good grace. She derived, however, great consolation, (during the tightening of the bowstring,) from the reflection that much of the history remained still untold, and that the petulance of her brute of a husband had reaped for him a most righteous reward, in depriving him of many inconceivable adventures.


Scheherazade is the story-teller in A Thousand and One Nights. It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs not only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”), but also a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). In killing Clare Quilty Humbert Humbert seems to kill his own double. Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski, a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok and a poem (1906) by Vyacheslav Ivanov:


Ты запер меня в подземельный склеп,

И в окно предлагаешь вино и хлеб,

И смеёшься в оконце: «Будь пьян и сыт!

Ты мной обласкан и не забыт».


И шепчешь в оконце: «Вот, ты видел меня:

Будь же весел и пой до заката дня!

Я приду на закате, чтоб всю ночь ты пел:

Мне люб твой голос - и твой удел...»


И в подземном склепе я про солнце пою.

Про тебя, моё солнце, - про любовь мою,

Твой, солнце, славлю победный лик...

И мне подпевает мой двойник.


«Где ты, тёмный товарищ? Кто ты, сшедший в склеп;

Петь со мной моё солнце из-за ржавых скреп?»

«-Я пою твоё солнце, замурован в стене, -

Двойник твой. Презренье - имя мне».


In V. Ivanov’s poem the poet’s double (whose name is Contempt) sings of the sun in a dungeon. After the death of his wife, Lydia Zinoviev-Annibal (the author of “Thirty-Three Abominations”), V. Ivanov married his stepdaughter. Humbert Humbert’s manuscript (written in confinement) is subtitled “Confession of a White Widowed Male.”


In the first poem of Part Four of his melopoeia Chelovek (“Man,” 1939), “Adame!” – Mat’-Zemlya stenaet… (“Adam!” – Mother Earth moans…”), V. Ivanov mentions dvoyniki (the doubles) who hate each other:


«Адаме!» — Мать-Земля стенает,
Освободитель, по тебе.
А человек не вспоминает,
В братоубийственной борьбе,
О целого единой цели...
И Солнце тонет в багреце;
И бродит мысль — не о конце ли? — 
На бледном Каина лице.


Когда ж противники увидят
С двух берегов одной реки,
Что так друг друга ненавидят,
Как ненавидят двойники?
Что Кришна знал и Гаутама, — 
По ужаснувшимся звездам
Когда ж прочтут творцы Адама,
Что в них единый жив Адам?


Part Three of V. Ivanov’s “melopoeia,” a garland of sonnets Dva grada (“Two Cities”), brings to mind Gradus (Shade’s murderer whom Kinbote mockingly calls “Vinogradus” and “Leningradus”).


In his memoirs Mezhdu dvukh revolyutsiy (“Between Two Revolutions,” 1934) Andrey Bely (whose penname means “white”) mentions Vyacheslav Ivanov’s verses about 333 embraces:


Не любил я привздохов таких, после них пуще прежнего изобличая политику группочки; гневы мои заострились напрасно на Г. И. Чулкове; в прямоте последнего не сомневался; кричал благим матом он; очень бесили "молчальники", тайно мечтавшие на чулковских плечах выплыть к славе, хотя бы под флагом мистического анархизма; открыто признать себя "мистико-анархистами" они не решались; по ним я и бил, обрушиваясь на Чулкова, дававшего повод к насмешкам по поводу лозунгов, которые компрометировали для меня символизм; примазь уличной мистики и дешевого келейного анархизма казались мне профанацией; каждый кадетский присяжный поверенный в эти месяцы, руки засунув в штаны, утверждал: "Я, ведь, собственно... гм... анархист!" Я писал: Чехов более для меня символист, чем Морис Метерлинк; а тут - нате: "неизречённость" вводилась в салон; а анархия становилась свержением штанов под девизами "нового" культа; этого Чулков не желал; но писал неумно; вот "плоды" - лесбианская повесть Зиновьевой-Аннибал и педерастические стихи Кузмина; они вместе с программной лирикой Вячеслава Иванова о "333" объятиях брались слишком просто в эротическом, плясовом, огарочном бреде; "оргиазм" В. Иванова на языке жёлтой прессы понимался упрощенно: "свальным грехом"; почтенный же оргиаст лишь хитренько помалкивал: "Понимайте, как знаете!"


333 × 3 = 999. In its unfinished form Shade’s poem has 999 lines.


According to Andrey Bely, for him Chekhov was a symbolist much more than Maurice Maeterlinck. According to Quilty, he has been called “the American Maeterlink:”


I asked him if he had anything serious to say before dying. The automatic was again ready for use on the person. He looked at it and heaved a big sigh.

“Now look here, Mac,” he said. “You are drunk and I am a sick man. Let us postpone the matter. I need quiet. I have to nurse my impotence. Friends are coming in the afternoon to take me to a game. This pistol-packing face is becoming a frightful nuisance. We are men of the world, in everything - sex, free verse, marksmanship. If you bear me a grudge, I am ready to make unusual amends. Even an old-fashioned rencontre, sword or pistol, in Rio or elsewhere - is not excluded. My memory and my eloquence are not at their best today, but really, my dear Mr. Humbert, you were not an ideal stepfather, and I did not force your little protégée to join me. It was she made me remove her to a happier home. This house is not as modern as that ranch we shared with dear friends. But it is roomy, cool in summer and winter, and in a word comfortable, so, since I intend retiring to England or Florence forever, I suggest you move in. It is yours, gratis. Under the condition you stop pointing at me that [he swore disgustingly] gun. By the way, I do not know if you care for the bizarre, but if you do, I can offer you, also gratis, as house pet, a rather exciting little freak, a young lady with three breasts, one a dandy, this is a rare and delightful marvel of nature. Now, soyons raisonnables. You will only wound me hideously and then rot in jail while I recuperate in a tropical setting. I promise you, Brewster, you will be happy here, with a magnificent cellar, and all the royalties from my next play - I have not much at the bank right now but I propose to borrow - you know, as the Bard said, with that cold in his head, to borrow and to borrow and to borrow. There are other advantages. We have here a most reliable and bribable charwoman, a Mrs. Vibrissa - curious name - who comes from the village twice a week, alas not today, she has daughters, granddaughters, a thing or two I know about the chief of police makes him my slave. I am a playwright. I have been called the American Maeterlinck. Maeterlinck-Schmetterling, says I. Come on! All this is very humiliating, and I am not sure I am doing the right thing. Never use herculanita with rum. Now drop that pistol like a good fellow. I knew your dear wife slightly. You may use my wardrobe. Oh, another thing - you are going to like this. I have an absolutely unique collection of erotica upstairs. Just to mention one item: the in folio de-luxe Bagration Island  by the explorer and psychoanalyst Melanie Weiss, a remarkable lady, a remarkable work - drop that gun - with photographs of eight hundred and something male organs she examined and measured in 1932 on Bagration, in the Barda Sea, very illuminating graphs, plotted with love under pleasant skies - drop that gun - and moreover I can arrange for you to attend executions, not everybody knows that the chair is painted yellow” (2.35)

“Adam at the preview of early oriental history, miraged in his apple orchard” is a reference to Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament). In his “Afterword to Chekhov’s story The Darling” (1902) Tolstoy (the author of “War and Peace”) compares Chekhov (the author of “The Cherry Orchard”) to Balaam, in the Book of Numbers (the fourth book of the Old Testament) a prophet who blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them. In his “Introduction to the Works of Guy de Maupassant” (1894) Tolstoy also quotes the Book of Numbers and compares Maupassant to the same prophet Balaam. Near the end of his “Introduction” Tolstoy calls one last deception, something that appears to be always true and beautiful, “a tantalizing illusion of oasis, when we know that there is none and that all is sand:”


Но мало того, что нет жизни в том, в чём казалась жизнь, сам начинаешь уходить из неё, сам слабеешь, дуреешь, разлагаешься, другие на твоих глазах выхватывают у тебя те наслаждения, в которых было всё благо жизни. Мало и этого: начинает брезжиться какая-то другая возможность жизни, что-то другое, какое-то другое единение с людьми, со всем миром, такое, при котором не может быть всех этих обманов, что-то другое такое, которое не может ничем нарушиться, которое истинно и всегда прекрасно. Но этого не может быть. Это только дразнящий вид оазиса, когда мы знаем, что его нет и что всё песок.


Maupassant’s stories Sur l’eau (“Afloat”) and Le Horla (praised by Tolstoy in his “Introduction”) bring to mind Humbert Humbert’s plans to drown his wife Charlotte in Hourglass Lake. Above Humbert Humbert’s bed in the Haze house is a reproduction of René Prinet’s Kreutzer Sonata. “The Kreutzer Sonata” (1889) is a story by Tolstoy. René François Xavier Prinet (the artist’s full name) brings to mind Charles Xavier Vseslav and John Francis Shade (the poet’s full name).


According to Lolita, Quilty wanted her to play in a pornographic movie:


“Where is the hog now?”

He was not a hog. He was a great guy in many respects. But it was all drink and drugs. And, of course, he was a complete freak in sex matters, and his friends were his slaves. I just could not imagine (I, Humbert, could not imagine!) what they all did at Duk Duk Ranch. She refused to take part because she loved him, and he threw her out.

“What things?”

“Oh, weird, filthy, fancy things. I mean, he had two girls and tow boys, and three or four men, and the idea was for all of us to tangle in the nude while an old woman took movie pictures.” (Sade’s Justine was twelve at the start.)

“What things exactly?”

“Oh, things… Oh, I - really I” - she uttered the “I” as a subdued cry while she listened to the source of the ache, and for lack of words spread the five fingers of her angularly up-and-down-moving hand. No, she gave it up, she refused to go into particulars with that baby inside her.

That made sense.

“It is of no importance now,” she said pounding a gray cushing with her fist and then lying back, belly up, on the divan. “Crazy things, filthy things. I said no, I’m just not going to [she used, in all insouciance really, a disgusting slang term which, in a literal French translation, would be souffler] your beastly boys, because I want only you. Well, he kicked me out.” (2.29)

In his essay Komu u kogo uchit’sya pisat’, krest’yanskim rebyatam u nas ili nam u krest’yanskikh rebyat? (“Who Should Learn Writing of Whom; Peasant Children of Us, or We of Peasant Children?” 1862) Tolstoy mentions children whom idle and debauched old men compel to display themselves and to present voluptuous pictures so as to stir their frigid and enfeebled imaginations:


Я оставил урок, потому что был слишком взволнован.

«Что с вами, отчего вы так бледны, вы, верно, нездоровы?» — спросил меня мой товарищ. Действительно, я два-три раза в жизни испытывал столь сильное впечатление, как в этот вечер, и долго не мог дать себе отчета в том, что я испытывал. Мне смутно казалось, что я преступно подсмотрел в стеклянный улей работу пчёл, закрытую для взора смертного; мне казалось, что я развратил чистую, первобытную душу крестьянского ребёнка. Я смутно чувствовал в себе раскаяние в каком-то святотатстве. Мне вспоминались дети, которых праздные и развратные старики заставляют ломаться и представлять сладострастные картины для разжигания своего усталого, истасканного воображения, и вместе с тем мне было радостно, как радостно должно быть человеку, увидавшему то, чего никто не видал прежде его.


I put an end to the lesson, because I was too much excited.

" What is the matter? what makes you so pale? Truly you aren't well, are you?" my companion asked of me. 

In fact, only two or three times in my life had I ever experienced such a powerful emotion as I had that evening, and it was long before I could give a rational account to myself of what I had experienced. I was uneasy, and felt as if I had been criminally spying through a glass, into a hive, at the labors of the bees, hidden from mortal gaze. It seemed to me that I had done a wrong to the peasant lad's pure, innocent soul. I had an uneasy feeling as if I had been engaged in a sacrilege. I remembered children whom idle and debauched old men compelled to display themselves and to present voluptuous pictures so as to stir their frigid and enfeebled imaginations, and at the same time I felt a keen delight, such as a man must feel who has witnessed something that no one has ever seen before.


Tolstoy witnessed the work of artistic imagination in the heads of peasant boys. Kinbote (who once witnessed a man in the act of making contact with God) spies on Shade in the process of his poetical work:


Once, three decades ago, in my tender and terrible boyhood, I had the occasion of seeing a man in the act of making contact with God. I had wandered into the so-called Rose Court at the back of the Ducal Chapel in my native Onhava, during an interval in hymnal practice. As I mooned there, lifting and cooling my bare calves by turns against a smooth column, I could hear the distant sweet voices interblending in subdued boyish merriment which some chance grudge, some jealous annoyance with one particular lad, prevented me from joining. The sound of rapid steps made me raise my morose gaze from the sectile mosaic of the court - realistic rose petals cut out of rodstein and large, almost palpable thorns cut out of green marble. Into these roses and thorns there walked a black shadow: a tall, pale, long-nosed dark-haired young minister whom I had seen around once or twice strode out of the vestry and without seeing me stopped in the middle of the court. Guilty disgust contorted his thin lips. He wore spectacles. His chenched hands seemed to be gripping invisible prison bars. But there is no bound to the measure of grace which man may be able to receive. All at once his look changed to one of rapture and reverence. I had never seen such a blaze of bliss before but was to perceive something of that splendor, of that spiritual energy and divine vision, now, in another land, reflected upon the rugged and homely face of old John Shade. How glad I was that the vigils I had kept all through the spring had prepared me to observe him at his miraculous midsummer task! I had learned exactly when and where to find the best points from which to follow the contours of his inspiration. My binoculars would seek him out and focus upon him from afar in his various places of labor: at night, in the violet glow of his upstairs study where a kindly mirror reflected for me his hunched-up shoulders and the pencil with which he kept picking his ear (inspecting now and then the lead, and even tasting it); in the forenoon, lurking in the ruptured shadows of his first-floor study where a bright goblet of liquor quietly traveled from filing cabinet to lectern, and from lectern to bookshelf, there to hide if need be behind Dante's bust; on a hot day, among the vines of a small arborlike portico, through the garlands of which I could glimpse a stretch of oilcloth, his elbow upon it, and the plump cherubic fist propping and crimpling his temple. Incidents of perspective and lighting, interference by framework or leaves, usually deprived me of a clear view of his face; and perhaps nature arranged it that way so as to conceal from a possible predator the mysteries of generation; but sometimes when the poet paced back and forth across his lawn, or sat down for a moment on the bench at the end of it, or paused under his favorite hickory tree, I could distinguish the expression of passionate interest, rapture and reverence, with which he followed the images wording themselves in his mind, and I knew that whatever my agnostic friend might say in denial, at that moment Our Lord was with him. (note to Lines 47-48)


In his essay Tolstoy quotes Rousseau’s words “man is born perfect:”


В этом заключается вечная ошибка всех педагогических теорий. Мы видим свой идеал впереди, когда он стоит сзади нас. Необходимое развитие человека есть не только не средство для достижения того идеала гармонии, который мы носим в себе, но есть препятствие, положенное творцом, к достижению высшего идеала гармонии. В этом-то необходимом законе движения вперед заключается смысл того плода дерева познания добра и зла, которого вкусил наш прародитель. Здоровый ребенок родится на свет, вполне удовлетворяя тем требованиям безусловной гармонии в отношении правды, красоты и добра, которые мы носим в себе; он близок к неодушевленным существам — к растению, к животному, к природе, которая постоянно представляет для нас ту правду, красоту и добро, которых мы ищем и желаем. Во всех веках и у всех людей ребёнок представлялся образцом невинности, безгрешности, добра, правды и красоты. Человек родится совершенным,— есть великое слово, сказанное Руссо, и слово это, как камень, останется твёрдым и истинным. Родившись, человек представляет собой первообраз гармонии правды, красоты и добра. Но каждый час в жизни, каждая минута времени увеличивают пространства, количества и время тех отношений, которые во время его рождения находились в совершенной гармонии, и каждый шаг и каждый час грозит нарушением этой гармонии, и каждый последующий шаг и каждый последующий час грозит новым нарушением и не даёт надежды восстановления нарушенной гармонии.


This contains the eternal mistake of all pedagogical theories. We see our ideal before us when it is really behind us. The inevitable development of a man is not only not the means for the attainment of this ideal of harmony which we carry in ourselves, but is an impediment set by the Creator against the attainment of a lofty ideal of harmony. In this inevitable law of the forward motion is included the idea of that fruit of the tree of good and evil which our first parents tasted. 

The healthy child is born into the world, perfectly satisfying those demands of absolute harmony in the relations of truth, beauty, and goodness which we bear within us ; he is like the inanimated existences, — to the plant, to the animal, to nature, — which constantly present to us that truth, beauty, and goodness we are seeking for and desire. In all ages and among all people the child represents the model of innocence, sinlessness, goodness, truth, and beauty. 

Man is born perfect; — that is a great dictum that is enunciated by Rousseau, and that dictum stands like a rock, firm and true. Having been born, man sets up before himself his prototype of harmony, truth, beauty, and goodness. But every hour in his life, every minute of time, increases the distance, the size, and the time of those relations which at his birth were found in perfect harmony, and every step and every hour threatens the violation of this harmony, and every succeeding step threatens a new violation, and gives no hope of restoring the violated harmony.


In a conversation with Kinbote Shade says that he agrees with the old snuff-takers: L’homme est né bon:


SHADE: All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.

KINBOTE: Is it fair to base objections upon obsolete terminology?

SHADE: All religions are based upon obsolete terminology.

KINBOTE: What we term Original Sin can never grow obsolete.

SHADE: I know nothing about that. In fact when I was small I thought it meant Cain killing Abel. Personally, I am with the old snuff-takers: L'homme est né bon. (note to Line 549)


Describing his first night with Lolita in The Enchanted Hunters, Humbert Humbert calls himself “Jean-Jacques Humbert” (an allusion to Jean-Jacques Rousseau):


Let me explain. I was not unduly disturbed by her self-accusatory innuendoes. I was still firmly resolved to pursue my policy of sparing her purity by operating only in the stealth of night, only upon a completely anesthetized little nude. Restraint and reverence were still my motto - even if that “purity” (incidentally, thoroughly debunked by modern science) had been slightly damaged through some juvenile erotic experience, no doubt homosexual, at that accursed camp of hers. Of course, in my old-fashioned, old-world way, I, Jean-Jacques Humbert, had taken for granted, when I first met her, that she was as unravished as the stereotypical notion of “normal child” had been since the lamented end of the Ancient World B. C. and its fascinating practices. We are not surrounded in our enlighted era by little slave flowers that can be casually plucked between business and bath as they used to be in the days of the Romans; and we do not, as dignified Orientals did in still more luxurious times, use tiny entertainers fore and aft between the mutton and the rose sherbet. The whole point is that the old link between the adult world and the child world has been completely severed nowadays by new customs and new laws. Despite my having dabbled in psychiatry and social work, I really knew very little about children. After all, Lolita was only twelve, and no matter what concessions I made to time and place - even bearing in mind the crude behavior of American schoolchildren - I still was under the impression that whatever went on among those brash brats, went on at a later age, and in a different environment. (1.28)

In his essay Tolstoy compares himself to a man who suddenly discovered the philosopher’s stone:

Я чувствовал, что с этого дня для него раскрылся новый мир наслаждений и страданий,— мир искусства; мне казалось, что я подсмотрел то, что никто никогда не имеет права видеть,— зарождение таинственного цветка поэзии. Мне и страшно и радостно было, как искателю клада, который бы увидал цвет папортника: радостно мне было потому, что вдруг, совершенно неожиданно, открылся мне тот философский камень, которого я тщетно искал два года,— искусство учить выражению мыслей; страшно потому, что это искусство вызывало новые требования, целый мир желаний, несоответственный среде, в которой жили ученики, как мне казалось в первую минуту. Ошибиться нельзя было. Это была не случайность, но сознательное творчество.


I felt that from this time a new world of joys and sorrows had been revealed to Fedka,—the world of art; it seemed to me that I was witnessing what no one has the right to see,—the unfolding of the mysterious flower of poesy. To me it was both terrible and delightful; just as if a treasure-seeker should find the lady-fern in bloom. The pleasure consisted for me in suddenly, unexpectedly, discovering the philosopher's stone, for which I had been vainly seeking for two years — the art of expressing thought.

It was terrible, because this art would bring new demands and a whole world of desires incompatible with the sphere in which the pupils live — or so it seemed to me at the first moment. There could be no mistake. This was not chance, but conscious, creative genius.


The philosopher’s stone was vainly looked for by the alchemists. Describing Charlotte’s death under the wheels of a car, Humbert Humbert mentions her “eternal heaven among an eternal alchemy of asphalt and rubber and metal and stone:”


She swam beside me, a trustful and clumsy seal, and all the logic of passion screamed in my ear: Now is the time! And, folks, I just couldn’t! In silence I turned shoreward and gravely, dutifully, she also turned, and still hell screamed its counsel, and still I could not make myself drown the poor, slippery, big-bodied creature. The scream grew more and more remote as I realized the melancholy fact that neither tomorrow, nor Friday, nor any other day or night, could I make myself put her to death. Oh, I could visualize myself slapping Valeria’s breasts out of alignment, or otherwise hurting her - and I could see myself, no less clearly, shooting her lover in the underbelly and making him say “akh!” and sit down. But I could not kill Charlotte - especially when things were on the whole not quite as hopeless, perhaps, as they seemed at first wince on that miserable morning. Were I to catch her by her strong kicking foot; were I to see her amazed look, hear her awful voice; were I still to go through with the ordeal, her ghost would haunt me all my life. Perhaps if the year were 1447 instead of 1947 I might have hoodwinked my gentle nature by administering her some classical poison from a hollow agate, some tender philter of death. But in our middle-class nosy era it would not have come off the way it used to in the brocaded palaces of the past. Nowadays you have to be a scientist if you want to be a killer. No, no, I was neither. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill. Oh, my poor Charlotte, do not hate me in your eternal heaven among an eternal alchemy of asphalt and rubber and metal and stone - but thank God, not water, not water! (1.20)


Humbert Humbert was born in 1910 (the year of Tolstoy’s death) and dies in 1952 (a hundred years after Gogol’s death). In 1947, when he first meets Lolita, Humbert Humbert is thirty-seven. Pushkin (who was born in 1799, a hundred years before VN’s birth) died at the age of thirty-seven. In his poems Prorok (“The Prophet,” 1826) Pushkin mentions shestikrylyi serafim (a six-winged seraph) who appeared to him in a gloomy waste:


Духовной жаждою томим,

В пустыне мрачной я влачился, - 

И шестикрылый серафим

На перепутьи мне явился.

Перстами лёгкими как сон

Моих зениц коснулся он.

Отверзлись вещие зеницы,

Как у испуганной орлицы.

Моих ушей коснулся он, - 

И их наполнил шум и звон:

И внял я неба содроганье,

И горний ангелов полёт,

И гад морских подводный ход.

И дольней лозы прозябанье.

И он к устам моим приник,

И вырвал грешный мой язык,

И празднословный, и лукавый,

И жало мудрыя змеи

В уста замершие мои

Вложил десницею кровавой.

И он мне грудь рассек мечом,

И сердце трепетное вынул

И угль, пылающий огнём,

Во грудь отверстую водвинул.

Как труп в пустыне я лежал,

И бога глас ко мне воззвал:

"Восстань, пророк, и виждь, и внемли,

Исполнись волею моей,

И, обходя моря и земли,

Глаголом жги сердца людей".


Tormented by a spiritual thirst,

I stumbled through a gloomy waste,

And there a six-winged seraph

Appeared before me at the crossroad.

With touch as light as slumber,

He laid his fingers on my eyes,

Which opened wide in prophecy

Just as a startled eagle’s might.

Upon my ears his touch then fell,

And they were filled with noise and clangs:

I heard the heavens shift on high,

The whispering of angels' wings,

Sea monsters moving in the deep,

The growing grapevines in the vales.

And then he bent down towards my mouth,

My sinful tongue he ripped right out-

Its slander and its idle lies-

And with his bloody hand inserted

Between my still and lifeless lips

A cunning serpent's forked tongue.

And with his sword he cleaved my breast

Removed my shaking heart,

And then he seized a blazing coal,

And placed it in my gaping breast.

Corpse-like I lay upon the sand

And then God's voice called out to me:

"Arise, O Prophet, watch and hark,

Fulfill all my commands:

Go forth now over land and sea,

And with your word ignite men's hearts.


At the beginning of Lolita Humbert Humbert mentions the noble-winged seraphs:


Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns. (1.1)


In the Russian Lolita Gumbert Gumbert calls them Edgarovy serafimy (Edgar’s seraphs):


Уважаемые присяжные женского и мужеского пола! Экспонат Номер Первый представляет собой то, чему так завидовали Эдгаровы серафимы - худо осведомленные, простодушные, благороднокрылые серафимы... Полюбуйтесь-ка на этот клубок терний. (1.1)


Edgarovy serafimy are “the wingèd seraphs of Heaven” mentioned by E. A. Poe in his poem Annabel Lee (1849): 


I was a child and she was a child, 

   In this kingdom by the sea, 

But we loved with a love that was more than love— 

   I and my Annabel Lee— 

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven 

   Coveted her and me.


While Onhava (Zemblan capital) seems to hint at Heaven, the Bishop of Yeslove (mentioned by Kinbote in his Commentary) brings to mind Byron’s lines in The Giaour(1813):


Yes, Love indeed is light from heaven;
      A spark of that immortal fire
With angels shared, by Alla given,
      To lift from earth our low desire. (ll. 1132-1135)


In his poem She Walks in Beauty (1813) Byron mentions “one shade the more, one ray the less:”


She walks in beauty, like the night 

Of cloudless climes and starry skies; 

And all that’s best of dark and bright 

Meet in her aspect and her eyes; 

Thus mellowed to that tender light 

Which heaven to gaudy day denies. 


One shade the more, one ray the less, 

Had half impaired the nameless grace 

Which waves in every raven tress, 

Or softly lightens o’er her face; 

Where thoughts serenely sweet express, 

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place. 


And on that cheek, and o’er that brow, 

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent, 

The smiles that win, the tints that glow, 

But tell of days in goodness spent, 

A mind at peace with all below, 

A heart whose love is innocent!


“One shade the more” brings to mind the poet in Pale Fire, “one ray the less” reminds one of John Ray, Jr. (in Lolita the author of the Foreword to Humbert Humbert’s manuscript).