Arthur in Afterword to Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 02/21/2019 - 13:55

In his essay "On a Book Entitled Lolita" (1956) VN says that the name of the protagonist in his story Volshebnik ("The Enchanter," 1939), the Russian precursor to Lolita (1955), was Arthur:


The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris, at a time when I was laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia. As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcooled by an animal: This sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage. The impulse I record had no textual connection with the ensuing train of thought, which resulted, however, in a prototype of my present novel, a short story some thirty pages long. I wrote it in Russian, the language in which I had been writing novels since 1924 (the best of these are not translated into English, and all are prohibited for political reasons in Russia). The man was a central European, the anonymous nymphet was French, and the loci were Paris and Provence. I had him marry the little girl’s sick mother who soon died, and after a thwarted attempt to take advantage of the orphan in a hotel room, Arthur (for that was his name) threw himself under the wheels of a truck. I read the story one blue-papered wartime night to a group of friends — Mark Aldanov, two social revolutionaries, and a woman doctor; but I was not pleased with the thing and destroyed it sometime after moving to America in 1940.


Actually, the enchanter in VN's story (first published in 1986) remained nameless. Why does VN call him “Arthur” in his Afterword to Lolita?


On his way from Coalmont to Ramsdale Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in Lolita) reads “Gulflex Lubrication” (a sign board on a garage) as “genuflection lubricity:”


The rain had been canceled miles before. It was a black warm night, somewhere in Appalachia. Now and then cars passed me, red tail-lights receding, white headlights advancing, but the town was dead. Nobody strolled and laughed on the sidewalks as relaxing burghers would in sweet, mellow, rotting Europe. I was alone to enjoy the innocent night and my terrible thoughts. A wire receptacle on the curb was very particular about acceptable contents: Sweepings. Paper. No Garbage. Sherry-red letters of light marked a Camera Shop. A large thermometer with the name of a laxative quietly dwelt on the front of a drugstore. Rubinov’s Jewelry company had a display of artificial diamonds reflected in a red mirror. A lighted green clock swam in the linenish depths of Jiffy Jeff Laundry. On the other side of the street a garage said in its sleep – genuflection lubricity; and corrected itself to Gulflex Lubrication. An airplane, also gemmed by Rubinov, passed, droning, in the velvet heavens. How many small dead-of-night towns I had seen! This was not yet the last. (2.30)


In the Russian version (1967) of Lolita “Gulflex Lubrication” becomes avtomobili (automobiles) and “genuflection lubricity” is turned into avtora ubili (the author was killed):


Дождь был давно отменён. Чернела тёплая аппалачская ночь. Изредка проезжали мимо меня автомобили: удаляющиеся рубины, приближающиеся бриллианты; но городок спал. Не было на тротуарах той веселой толкучки прохлажлающихся граждан, какую видишь у нас по ночам в сладкой, спелой, гниющей Европе. Я один наслаждался тут благотворностью невинной ночи и страшными своими думами. Проволочная корзина у панели была чрезвычайно щепетильна насчёт принимаемого: "Для Сора и Бумаги, но не для Отбросов" говорила надпись. Хересовые литеры светились над магазином фотоаппаратов. Громадный градусник с названием слабительного прозябал на фронтоне аптеки. Ювелирная лавка Рубинова щеголяла витриной с искусственными самоцветами, отражавшимися в красном зеркале. Фосфористые часы с зелёными стрелками плавали в полотняных глубинах прачешной "Момент". По другой стороне улицы гараж сквозь сон говорил "Автора убили" (на самом деле - "Автомобили"). Самолёт, который тот же Рубинов разукрасил камушками, пролетел, с гудением, по бархатным небесам. Как много перевидал я спавших мёртвым сном городишек! Этот был ещё не последний. (2.30)


I always thought that avtora ubili signals the murder of Quilty in one of the next chapters. But it also seems to hint at La mort de l’auteur (“The Death of the Author,” 1967), an essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes (1915–80). Its title is a play on Le Morte d’Arthur, a reworking by Sir Thomas Malory of existing tales about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table.


At the beginning of his essay Roland Barthes mentions Balzac:


In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking of a castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: “It was Woman, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovoked bravado, her daring and her delicious delicacy of feeling.” Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero, concerned to ignore the castrato concealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.


In Lolita Mona Dahl (Lolita's friend at Beardsley) asks Humbert Humbert to tell her about Ball Zack:


I am anticipating a little, but I cannot help running my memory all over the keyboard of that shcool year. In the meeting my attempts to find out what kind of boys Lo knew, Miss Dahl was elegantly evasive. Lo who had gone to play tennis at Linda’s country club had telephoned she might be a full half hour late, and so, would I enteretain Mona who was coming to practice with her a scene from The Taming of the Shrew. Using all the modulations, all the allure of manner and voice she was capable of and staring at me with perhaps - could I be mistaken? - a faint gleam of crystalline irony, beautiful Mona replied: “Well, sir, the fact is Dolly is not much concerned with mere boys. Fact is, we are rivals. She and I have a crush on the Reverend Rigger.” (This was a joke - I have already mentioned that gloomy giant of a man, with the jaw of a horse: he was to bore me to near murder with his impressions of Switzerland at a tea party for parents that I am unable to place correctly in terms of time.)

How had the ball been? Oh, it had been a riot. A what? A panic. Terrific, in a word. Had Lo danced a lot? Oh, not a frightful lot, just as much as she could stand. What did she, languorous Mona, think of Lo? Sir? Did she think Lo was doing well at school? Gosh, she certainly was quite a kid. But her general behavior was -? Oh, she was a swell kid. But still? “Oh, she’s a doll,” concluded Mona, and sighed abruptly, and picked up a book that happened to lie at hand, and with a change of expression, falsely furrowing her brow, inquired: “Do tell me about Ball Zack, sir. Is he really that good?” She moved up so close to my chair that I made out through lotions and creams her uninteresting skin scent. A sudden odd thought stabbed me: was my Lo playing the pimp? If so, she had found the wrong substitute. Avoiding Mona’s cool gaze, I talked literature for a minute. Then Dolly arrivedand slit her pale eyes at us. I left the two friends to their own devices. One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical position - a knight’s move from the top - always strangely disturbed me. (2.9)


According to Humbert Humbert, the girls called Reverend Rigger "Rev. Rigor Mortis:"


Except for the Rev. Rigor Mortis (as the girls called him), and an old gentleman who taught non-obligatory German and Latin, there were no regular male teachers at Beardsley School. But on two occasions an art instructor on the Beardsley College faculty had come over to show the schoolgirls magic lantern pictures of French castles and nineteenth-century paintings. I had wanted to attend those projections and talks, but Dolly, as was her wont, had asked me not to, period. I also remembered that Gaston had referred to that particular lecturer as a brilliant garçon; but that was all; memory refused to supply me with the name of the château-lover. (2.24)


Rigor mortis means "postmortem rigidity" (the third stage of death, one of the recognizable signs of death, caused by chemical changes in the muscles post mortem, which cause the limbs of the corpse to stiffen) and brings to mind Le Morte d’Arthur and La mort de l’auteur.


In his postscript to Lolita VN mentions Balzac, Gorki and Thomas Mann:


No writer in a free country should be expected to bother about the exact demarcation between the sensuous and the sensual; this is preposterous; I can only admire but cannot emulate the accuracy of judgment of those who pose the fair young mammals photographed in magazines where the general neckline is just low enough to provoke a past master's chuckle and just high enough not to make a postmaster frown. I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called "powerful" and "stark" by the reviewing hack. There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray's assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash corning in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.


Balzac is the main character in Mark Aldanov's Povest' o smerti ("The Tale of Death," 1952). According to VN, among the people to whom he read Volshebnik in Paris was Mark Aldanov.


Lolita's friend and confidant, Mona Dahl brings to mind dal' svobodnogo romana (the far stretch of a free novel) mentioned by Pushkin in the penultimate stanza of Eugene Onegin (Eight: L: 12):


Прости ж и ты, мой спутник странный,
И ты, мой верный идеал,
И ты, живой и постоянный,
Хоть малый труд. Я с вами знал
Всё, что завидно для поэта:
Забвенье жизни в бурях света,
Беседу сладкую друзей.
Промчалось много, много дней
С тех пор, как юная Татьяна
И с ней Онегин в смутном сне
Явилися впервые мне ―
И даль свободного романа
Я сквозь магический кристалл
Ещё не ясно различал.


You, too, farewell, my strange traveling companion,
and you, my true ideal,
and you, my live and constant,
though small, work. I have known with you
all that a poet covets:
obliviousness of life in the world's tempests,
the sweet discourse of friends.
Rushed by have many, many days
since young Tatiana, and with her
Onegin, in a blurry dream
appeared to me for the first time ―
and the far stretch of a free novel
I through a magic crystal
still did not make out clearly.


When he wrote Volshebnik, VN through a magic crystal still did not make out clearly the far stretch of Lolita. Magicheskiy kristal (a magic crystal) brings to mind McCrystal, Lolita's classmate at the Ramsdale school. In the list of Lolita's class Vivian McCrystal (whose sex is unclear and who has the same first name as Vivian Darkbloom, Clare Quilty's co-author) is followed by Aubrey McFate (1.11). Aubrey McFate brings to mind Aubrey Beardsley (an English author and illustrator, 1872-98) and "gnarled McFate" in a poem composed by Humbert Humbert in a madhouse after Lolita was abducted from him by Quilty:


Happy, happy is gnarled McFate

Touring the States with a child wife,

Plowing his Molly in every State

Among the protected wild life. (2.25)


In the last stanza of EO (Eight: LI: 8) Pushkin says that fate has snatched much, much away:


Но те, которым в дружной встрече
Я строфы первые читал...
Иных уж нет, а те далече,
Как Сади некогда сказал.
Без них Онегин дорисован.
А та, с которой образован
Татьяны милый идеал...
О много, много рок отъял!
Блажен, кто праздник жизни рано
Оставил, не допив до дна
Бокала полного вина,
Кто не дочёл её романа
И вдруг умел расстаться с ним,
Как я с Онегиным моим.


But those to whom at amicable meetings
its first strophes I read -
"Some are no more, others are distant,"
as erstwhiles Sadi said.
Without them was Onegin's picture finished.
And she from whom was fashioned
the dear ideal of "Tatiana"...
Ah, much, much has fate snatched away!
Blest who left life's feast early,
not having to the bottom drained
the goblet full of wine;
who never read life's novel to the end
and all at once could part with it
as I with my Onegin.


Inykh uzh net, a te daleche (“Some are no more, others are distant”) brings mind the people to whom VN read his Volshebnik. Like Humbert Humbert, Lolita (who outlives HH only by forty days and dies in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952) leaves life's feast early, not having to the bottom drained the goblet full of wine.


When a snowflake settles on his wrist watch, John Shade (the poet in VN's novel Pale Fire, 1962) says "crystal to crystal:"


He consulted his wrist watch. A snowflake settled upon it. "Crystal to crystal," said Shade. I offered to take him home in my powerful Kramler. "Wives, Mr. Shade, are forgetful." He cocked his shaggy head to look at the library clock. Across the bleak expanse of snow-covered turf two radiant lads in colorful winter clothes passed, laughing and sliding. Shade glanced at his watch again, and, with a shrug, accepted my offer. (Kinbote's Foreword)


Shade's words seem to hint at the phrase in the burial prayer of the Catholics and Protestants: "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."


At the beginning of his poem Shade mentions that crystal land and the falling snow:


And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake
Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,
A dull dark white against the day's pale white
And abstract larches in the neutral light. (ll. 9-16)


According to Shade, when he was a boy, all colors made him happy, even gray. Lolita dies in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest North-West, on Christmas Day 1952.


In Volshebnik the girl tells the protagonist (who has a rare wrist watch) that he has lost strelki (the clock hands):


«…Здоровье, конечно; а главное – прекрасная гимназия», – говорил далёкий голос, как вдруг он заметил, что русокудрая голова слева безмолвно и низко наклонилась над его рукой.

«Вы потеряли стрелки», – сказала девочка.

«Нет, – ответил он, кашлянув, – это так устроено. Редкость».

Она левой рукой наперекрест (в правой торчала тартинка) задержала его кисть, рассматривая пустой, без центра, циферблат, под который стрелки были пущены снизу, выходя на свет только самыми остриями – в виде двух чёрных капель среди серебристых цифр. Сморщенный листок дрожал у неё в волосах, у самой шеи, над нежным горбом позвонка, – и в течение ближайшей бессонницы он призрак листка всё снимал, брал и снимал, двумя, тремя, потом всеми пальцами.


By a prophetic coincidence, on Feb. 25, 1980, Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris (Humbert Humbert’s home city) and died a month later. Jiffy Jeff Laundry with a lighted green clock swimming in its linenish (or Leninish) depths is a ghastly place!


Gromadnyi gradusnik (a large thermometer with the name of a laxative on the front of a drugstore) mentioned by Gumbert Gumbert in the Russian Lolita brings to mind Gradus (Shade's murderer). Shade, Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin's personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). There is a hope (nadezhda) that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.


Izmuchen zhizn’yu, kovarstvom nadezhdy… (“By life tormented, and by cunning hope…” 1864) is a poem by Fet. The husband of Maria Botkin, Afanasiy Fet (1820-92) was a son of Afanasiy Shenshin and Charlotte Becker. The maiden name of Lolita's mother is Charlotte Becker. Dolores Haze (Lolita's full name) brings to mind Hazel Shade (the poet's daughter whose "real" name is Nadezhda Botkin).


Fet's poem has the epigraph from Arthur Schopenhauer:


Die Gleichmässigkeit des Laufes der Zeit in allen Kopfen beweist mehr, als irgend etwas, dass wir Alle in denselben Traum versenkt sind, ja dass es Ein Wesen ist, welches ihn träumt.

That regularity of the passage of time in all our heads indicates, more than anything else, that we are all sunk in the same dream, and that it is a single Being that is dreaming it.


Schopenhauer is the author of Metaphysik der Geschlechtsliebe ("Metaphysics of Sexual Love"), a chapter in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (“The World as Will and Representation,” 1818). Schopenhauer mentions in it the dramatis personae who come on to the scene when we have made our exit:


As a matter of fact, love determines nothing less than the establishment of the next generation. The existence and nature of the dramatis personae who come on to the scene when we have made our exit have been determined by some frivolous love-affair.


In his Parizhskaya poema ("The Paris Poem," 1943) VN says that this life will be given with a different cast, in a different manner, in a new theater:


В этой жизни, богатой узорами
(неповторной, поскольку она
по-другому, с другими актёрами,
будет в новом театре дана),
я почел бы за лучшее счастье
так сложить ее дивный ковёр,
чтоб пришелся узор настоящего
на былое, на прежний узор;
чтоб опять очутиться мне -- о, не
в общем месте хотений таких,
не на карте России, не в лоне
ностальгических неразберих, --
но с далёким найдя соответствие,
очутиться в начале пути,
наклониться -- и в собственном детстве
кончик спутанной нити найти.
И распутать себя осторожно,
как подарок, как чудо, и стать
серединою многодорожного
громогласного мира опять.


In this life, rich in patterns (a life

unrepeatable, since with a different

cast, in a different manner,

in a new theater it will be given),

no better joy would I choose than to fold

its magnificent carpet in such a fashion

as to make the design of today coincide

with the past, with a former pattern,

in order to visit again—oh, not

commonplaces of those inclinations,

not the map of Russia, and not a lot

of nostalgic equivocations—

but, by finding congruences with the remote,

to revisit my fountainhead,

to bend and discover in my own childhood

the end of the tangled-up thread.


In his poem VN says that death is distant yet and that Author is not in the house:


Смерть ещё далека (послезавтра я
всё продумаю), но иногда
сердцу хочется "автора, автора".
В зале автора нет, господа.


Death is distant yet (after tomorrow

I’ll think everything through); but now and then

one’s heart starts clamoring: Author! Author!

He is not in the house, gentlemen.


Shakespeare (the Bard) said: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” In one of his salacious poems Mayakovski (VN’s “late namesake” whose style is parodied by VN in his poem "On Rulers," 1944) says that the whole world is bardak (a brothel) and all people are whores:


Все люди бляди,
Весь мир бардак!
Один мой дядя
И тот мудак.


All people are whores,
The whole world is a brothel!
My uncle alone…
But even he is a cretin.


Humbert Humbert finds out Clare Quilty's address from his uncle Ivor (the Ramsdale dentist). In an attempt to save his life Quilty tries to seduce Humbert Humbert with his collection of erotica and mentions the Barda Sea:


“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)


There is Bard in Barda and Barda in bardak. General Bagration was felled in the battle of Borodino. Borodino (1837) is a poem by Lermontov. Znakomyi trup (a familiar corpse) mentioned by Lermontov in his prophetic poem Son ("A Dream," 1841) brings to mind trupnoe okochenenie (Russian for rigor mortis).


Arthur + oda/ado = author + dar/Rad = art + hour + ad/da


oda - ode

Dar - The Gift (1937), a novel by VN

Rad - Germ., wheel

ad - hell

da - yes