Brewster, Oriental parlor & Drome cigarettes in Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 04/23/2019 - 06:37

In VN's novel Lolita (1955) Clare Quilty mistakes Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character who came to murder Quilty) for a man from the telephone company and calls him Brewster:


Master met me in the Oriental parlor.
“Now who are you?” he asked in a high hoarse voice, his hands thrust into his dressing-gown pockets, his eyes fixing a point to the northeast of my head. “Are you by any chance Brewster?”
By now it was evident to everybody that he was in a fog and completely at my so-called mercy. I could enjoy myself.
“That’s right,” I answered suavely. “Je suis Monsieur Brustère. Let us chat for a moment before we start.”
He looked pleased. His smudgy mustache twitched. I removed my raincoat. I was wearing a black suit, a black shirt, no tie. We sat down in two easy chairs.
“You know,” he said, scratching loudly his fleshy and gritty gray cheek and showing his small pearly teeth in a crooked grin, “you don’t look like Jack Brewster. I mean, the resemblance is not particularly striking. Somebody told me he had a brother with the same telephone company.”
To have him trapped, after those years of repentance and rage… To look at the black hairs on the back of his pudgy hands… To wander with a hundred eyes over his purple silks and hirsute chest foreglimpsing the punctures, and mess, and music of pain… To know that this semi-animated, subhuman trickster who had sodomized my darling - oh, my darling, this was intolerable bliss!
“No, I am afraid I am neither of the Brewsters.”
“He cocked his head, looking more pleased than ever.
“Guess again, Punch.”
“Ah,” said Punch, “so you have not come to bother me about those long-distance calls?”
“You do make them once in a while, don’t you?”
“Excuse me?”
I said I had said I thought he had said he had never –
“People,” he said, “people in general, I’m not accusing you, Brewster, but you know it’s absurd the way people invade this damned house without even knocking. They use the vaterre, they use the kitchen, they use the telephone. Phil calls Philadelphia. Pat calls Patagonia. I refuse to pay. You have a funny accent, Captain.”
“Quilty,” I said, “do you recall a little girl called Dolores Haze, Dolly Haze? Dolly called Dolores, Colo.?”
“Sure, she may have made those calls, sure. Any place. Paradise, Wash., Hell Canyon. Who cares?”
“I do, Quilty. You see, I am her father.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “You are not. You are some foreign literary agent. A Frenchman once translated my Proud Flesh as La Fierté de la Chair. Absurd.”
“She was my child, Quilty.” (2.35).


In E. A. Poe’s story The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall (1835) Brewster and Herschel are fictitious authorities on the theory of light:


It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to add, that all the suggestions attributed to Brewster and Herschel, in the beginning of the article, about "a transfusion of artificial light through the focal object of vision," etc., etc., belong to that species of figurative writing which comes, most properly, under the denomination of rigmarole.


"The denomination of rigmarole" brings to mind "the scholastic rigmarole and standardized symbols of the psychoanalytic racket" mentioned by Humbert Humbert:


Mid-twentieth century ideas concerning child-parent relationship have been considerably tainted by the scholastic rigmarole and standardized symbols of the psychoanalytic racket, but I hope I am addressing myself to unbiased readers. Once when Avis’s father had honked outside to signal papa had come to take his pet home, I felt obliged to invite him into the parlor, and he sat down for a minute, and while we conversed, Avis, a heavy, unattractive, affectionate child, drew up to him and eventually perched plumply on his knee. Now, I do not remember if I have mentioned that Lolita always had an absolutely enchanting smile for strangers, a tender furry slitting of the eyes, a dreamy sweet radiance of all her features which did not mean a thing of course, but was so beautiful, so endearing that one found it hard to reduce such sweetness to but a magic gene automatically lighting up her face in atavistic token of some ancient rite of welcomehospitable prostitution, the coarse reader may say. Well, there she stood while Mr. Byrd twirled his hat and talked, andyes, look how stupid of me, I have left out the main characteristic of the famous Lolita smile, namely: while the tender, nectared, dimpled brightness played, it was never directed at the stranger in the room but hung in its own remote flowered void, so to speak, or wandered with myopic softness over chance objectsand this is what was happening now: while fat Avis sidled up to her papa, Lolita gently beamed at a fruit knife that she fingered on the edge of the table, whereon she leaned, many miles away from me. Suddenly, as Avis clung to her father’s neck and ear while, with a casual arm, the man enveloped his lumpy and large offspring, I saw Lolita’s smile lose all its light and become a frozen little shadow of itself, and the fruit knife slipped off the table and struck her with its silver handle a freak blow on the ankle which made her gasp, and crouch head forward, and then, jumping on one leg, her face awful with the preparatory grimace which children hold till the tears gush, she was goneto be followed at once and consoled in the kitchen by Avis who had such a wonderful fat pink dad and a small chubby brother, and a brand-new baby sister, and a home, and two grinning dogs, and Lolita had nothing. (2.32)


Brewster and Herschel bring to mind Pilven and Zapel, the authors of a volume on the legal side of marriage consulted by Humbert Humbert:


The many books on marriage, rape, adoption and so on, that I guiltily consulted at the public libraries of big and small towns, told me nothing beyond darkly insinuating that the state is the super-guardian of minor children. Pilven and Zapel, if I remember their names right, in an impressive volume on the legal side of marriage, completely ignored stepfathers with motherless girls on their hands and knees. My best friend, a social service monograph (Chicago, 1936), which was dug out for me at great pains form a dusty storage recess by an innocent old spinster, said “There is no principle that every minor must have a guardian; the court is passive and enters the fray only when the child’s situation becomes conspicuously perilous.” A guardian, I concluded, was appointed only when he expressed his solemn and formal desire; but months might elapse before he was given notice to appear at a hearing and grow his pair of gray wings, and in the meantime the fair demon child was legally left to her own devices which, after all, was the case of Dolores Haze. Then came the hearing. A few questions from the bench, a few reassuring answers from the attorney, a smile, a nod, a light drizzle outside, and the appointment was made. And still I dared not. Keep away, be a mouse, curl up in your hole. Courts became extravagantly active only when there was some monetary question involved: two greedy guardians, a robbed orphan, a third, still greedier, party. But here all was in perfect order, and inventory had been made, and her mother’s small property was waiting untouched for Dolores Haze to grow up. The best policy seemed to be to refrain from any application. Or would some busybody, some Humane Society, butt in if I kept too quiet? (2.3)


A "pair of gray wings" brings to mind the noble-winged seraphs (an allusion to E. A. Poe's poem Annabel Lee) mentioned by Humbert Humbert at the beginning of Lolita:


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)


According to Humbert Humbert, Lolita was theoretically willing to enjoy the Arabian Nights:


I decided that at Beardsley (the site of Bearsley College for Women) I would have access to works of reference that I had not yet been able to study, such as Woerner’s Treatise “On the American Law of Guardianship” and certain United States Children’s Bureau Publications. I also decided that anything was better for Lo than the demoralizing idleness in which she lived. I could persuade her to do so many things - their list might stupefy a professional educator; but no matter how I pleaded or stormed, I could never make her read any other book than the so-called comic books or stories in magazines for American females. Any literature a peg higher smacked to her of school, and though theoretically willing to enjoy A Girl of the Limberlost or the Arabian Nights, or Little Women, she was quite sure she would not fritter away her “vacation” on such highbrow reading matter. (2.3)


The "Arabian Nights" are mentioned by E. A. Poe at the beginning of his story The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade (1845):


Having had occasion, lately, in the course of some Oriental investigations, to consult the Tellmenow Isitsoornot, a work which (like the Zohar of Simeon Jochaides) is scarcely known at all, even in Europe; and which has never been quoted, to my knowledge, by any American -- if we except, perhaps, the author of the "Curiosities of American Literature"; -- having had occasion, I say, to turn over some pages of the first -- mentioned very remarkable work, I was not a little astonished to discover that the literary world has hitherto been strangely in error respecting the fate of the vizier's daughter, Scheherazade, as that fate is depicted in the "Arabian Nights"; and that the denouncement there given, if not altogether inaccurate, as far as it goes, is at least to blame in not having gone very much farther.


Among the wonders mentioned by Scheherazade in E. A. Poe’s story are telephone and telegraph:


‘Another [magician] had cultivated his voice to so great an extent that he could have made himself heard from one end of the world to the other.’


At the end of the story 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 "Isitsoornot," 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.


Humbert Humbert imagines Lolita becoming a tennis champion and endorsing a Dromedary cigarette:


She preferred acting to swimming, and swimming to tennis; yet I insist that had not something within her been broken by me – not that I realized it then! – she would have had on the top of her perfect form the will to win, and would have become a real girl champion. Dolores, with two rackets under her arm, in Wimbledon. Dolores endorsing a Dromedary. Dolores turning professional. Dolores acting a girl champion in a movie. Dolores and her gray, humble, hushed husband-coach, old Humbert. (2.20)


Clare Quilty is "the writer fellow in the Droms ad:"


“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 Dromes ad.”

Oh, Fame! Oh, Femina! (1.27).


On the pillared porch of The Enchanted Hunters (a hotel in Briceland where Humbert Humbert and Lolita spend their first night together) Quilty offers Humbert a smoke:


I left the loud lobby and stood outside, on the white steps, looking at the hundreds of powdered bugs wheeling around the lamps in the soggy black night, full of ripple and stir. All I would doall I would dare dowould amount to such a trifle… 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 lieshe’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 hotelsand 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)


Before murdering Quilty (who keeps taking the Drome cigarette apart and munching bits of it), Humbert Humbert tells him that he (Quilty) smoked his last cigarette yesterday:


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)


Humbert Humbert murders Quilty at the end of September, 1952, writes Lolita in imprisonment and dies (officially, of coronary thrombosis) on Nov. 16, 1952. Mrs. 'Richard F. Schiller' (Lolita's married name) outlives Humbert Humbert by forty days and dies in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest. 1952 was a leap year. In The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade E. A. Poe mentions leap-year:


Accordingly, and although we do not find it to be leap-year (which makes the sacrifice more meritorious), she deputes her father, the grand vizier, to make an offer to the king of her hand. This hand the king eagerly accepts -- (he had intended to take it at all events, and had put off the matter from day to day, only through fear of the vizier), -- but, in accepting it now, he gives all parties very distinctly to understand, that, grand vizier or no grand vizier, he has not the slightest design of giving up one iota of his vow or of his privileges. When, therefore, the fair Scheherazade insisted upon marrying the king, and did actually marry him despite her father's excellent advice not to do any thing of the kind -- when she would and did marry him, I say, will I, nill I, it was with her beautiful black eyes as thoroughly open as the nature of the case would allow.


According to Humbert Humbert, Lolita's eyes are vair (grey):


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 (Green Sun) brings to mind a Caporal Vert cigarette mentioned by VN in his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951):


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 Vert cigarette. 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)


See also my post of July 22, 2017: “Drome cigarettes & Brewster in Lolita” (


Today is VN's 120th birthday!