Otto Otto & Mesmer Mesmer in Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 07/26/2020 - 18:42

According to Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN's novel Lolita, 1955), he wanted to call himself "Otto Otto" and "Mesmer Mesmer:"


This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies. At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe. I have camouflaged what I could so as not to hurt people. And I have toyed with many pseudonyms for myself before I hit on a particularly apt one. There are in my notes “Otto Otto” and “Mesmer Mesmer” and “Lambert Lambert,” but for some reason I think my choice expresses the nastiness best. (2.36)


Humbert’s pseudonym seems to hint at Umberto I, the King of Italy in 1878-1900. In a letter of October 17 (29), 1897, to Suvorin Chekhov (who stayed in Pension Russe in Nice) asks Suvorin to bring from Paris Le Rire, zhurnal s portretom Gumberta (the magazine issue with King Umberto’s portrait):


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

Bring the issue of Le Rire with Umberto’s portrait, if you catch sight of it.


The Russian spelling of the cognomen Humbert Humbert is Gumbert Gumbert.


Otto is Italian for “eight.” The number 8 resembles a pince-nez (and brings to mind Hourglass Lake in which Humbert wants to drown his wife Charlotte). In a letter of Sept. 29, 1886, to Maria Kiselyov (who sent to Chekhov her story “Galoshes”) Chekhov says that her pseudonym Pince-nez is felicitous:


Вчера получил от А<лексея> С<ергеевича> Ваши «Калоши», уважаемая Мария Владимировна. Получил и тотчас же, злорадно ухмыляясь, подмигивая глазом и ехидно потирая руки, стал читать...

Ответ на «Калоши» получите в будущем. Скажу пока, что рассказ написан литературно, бойко, кратко, относительно и приблизительно. Думаю, что ответ будет благоприятный.

Псевдоним Pince-nez удачен.


Otto Otto is a palindrome, and VN used to compare the hourglass to a palindrome. Russian for "hourglass" is pesochnye chasy. In Chekhov’s story V sude (“In the Court,” 1886) the chairman tells the prosector that Koreyski (the old investigator) is razvalina, pesochnye chasy (“a wreck dropping to bits”):


Михаил Владимирович, — нагнулся прокурор к уху председателя: — удивительно неряшливо этот Корейский вёл следствие. Родной брат не допрошен, староста не допрошен, из описания избы ничего не поймёшь...
— Что делать... что делать! — вздохнул председатель, откидываясь на спинку кресла: — развалина... песочные часы!


"Mikhail Vladimirovich," said the assistant prosecutor, bending down to the chairman’s ear, "amazingly slovenly the way that Koreyski conducted the investigation. The prisoner's brother was not examined, the village elder was not examined, there's no making anything out of his description of the hut…"
"It can't be helped, it can't be helped," said the chairman, sinking back in his chair. "He's a wreck . . . dropping to bits!"


In Chekhov’s story the prisoner (who is charged with the murder of his wife) turns out to be the father of one of the escorts. In Lolita Humbert Humbert manages to convince the Farlows that Lolita is his daughter:


"Well, you are the doctor," said John a little bluntly. "But after all I was Charlotte's friend and adviser. One would like to know what you are going to do about the child anyway."
"John," cried Jean, "she is his child, not Harold Haze's. Don't you understand? Humbert is Dolly's real father."
"I see," said John. "I am sorry. Yes. I see. I did not realize that. It simplifies matters, of course. And whatever you feel is right." (1.23)


Chekhov was a doctor. The surname Koreyski comes from Korea. When Humbert revisits Ramsdale in 1952, Mrs. Chatfield tells him that Charlie Holmes (Lolita’s first lover who had debauched her in Camp Q.) was just killed in Korea:


It was Mrs. Chatfield. She attacked me with a fake smile, all aglow with evil curiosity. (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done o eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?) Very soon I had that avid glee well under control She thought I was in California. How was? With exquisite pleasure I informed her that my stepdaughter had just married a brilliant young mining engineer with a hush-hush job in the Northwest. She said she disapproved of such early marriages, she would never let her Phillys, who was now eighteen -
“Oh yes, of course,” I said quietly. “I remember Phyllis. Phyllis and Camp Q. yes, of course. By the way, did she ever tell you how Charlie Holmes debauched there his mother’s little charges?”
Mrs. Chatfield’s already broken smile now disintegrated completely.
“For shame,” she cried, “for shame, Mr. Humbert! The poor boy has just been killed in Korea.”
I said didn’t she think “vient de,” with the infinitive, expressed recent events so much more neatly than the English “just,” with the past? But I had to be trotting off, I said. (2.33)


Charlie is the son of Shirley Holmes, the camp director whose name hints at Sherlock Holmes (the private detective in the Conan Doyle stories). In his memoir essay “On Chekhov” Vasiliy Nemirovich-Danchenko mentions a Russian lady (“one of our most furious compatriots”) whom he and Chekhov met in Nice and who preferred Sherlock Holmes to Maupassant (the author of Sur l’Eau to whom Chekhov was often compared):


Я не могу забыть встречи в Ницце с одною из самых неистовых наших соотечественниц. На беду А. П. Чехова мы с ним как-то пошли завтракать в "Reserve". Я был ей накануне представлен. Она оказалась за соседним столом. Ей сказали, кто со мной, и вдруг, не успели мы ещё заказать себе, как она на всю залу мне:
-- C'est monsieur Tchekoff.
И произнесла, как будто забыла русские "ч" и "х" -- Tшekoff.
-- Alors presentez le moi, je veux faire sa connaissance... Пришлось представить. Какой-то недоносок рядом взбросил монокль в глаз и тоже: "Tiensi c'est monsieur Tchekoff" И французу около -- и француз-то был поганый с лакированной мордашкой и усами штопором: "Это русский писатель... Celebre!" И во все глаза на Антона Павловича... Дама, разумеется, захотела сейчас же поразить всех своей образованностью, и с места:
-- Ах, я так люблю писателей... У меня бывают... M-sieur Forcer... Вы его знаете, он в Petit Niçois Когда я приехала, он обо мне целую статью: La belle de Moscou... Хотите, я вас ему представлю? Скажите, М. Tшekoff, вы в каком роде пишете?.. Вот князь (кивок по направлению к своему кавалеру) уверяет, что вы почти русский Мопассан... C'est tres joli -- Maupassant... Хоть я больше люблю Шерлока Гольмса... У нас так не умеют. Я вашего Толстого не выношу, хоть он и граф... У него всё а la moujik... А что вы теперь творите? (Не пишете, а творите!)
И Чехов мрачно:
-- "Хороший тон" Германа Гоппе.
-- Это что же, роман?
-- Вроде...


In the Pension Russe in Nice where Chekhov and Nemirovich lived at the end of the 1890s one of their neighbors, a young man from Warsaw, turned out to be a spy:


Второй, совсем уж шут гороховый, явился из Варшавы и с первой же встречи огорошил Чехова. За общим столом он оказался рядом. Я передаю точно всё это -- хоть порою оно сбивает на анекдот.
-- Извините, я, может быть, неприятен вам, -- шёпотом обратился он к А. П. Чехову.
-- Почему?
-- По роду своих занятий.
Бледный. Усы ещё не пробиваются, глаза испуганные, наивные. Весь в веснушках. Губы по-детски пухлые... Из чудом выживших недоносков.
-- А вы кто же будете? Какие у вас занятия?.. -- Вижу, Чехов серьёзен, а в глазах у него загораются весёлые искорки.
-- Я... извините... шпион.
-- Что?
-- Шпион.


According to Humbert, spies are generally shot:


From the debouchment of the trail came a rustle, a footfall, and Jean Farlow marched down with her easel and things.
“You scared us,” said Charlotte.
Jean said she had been up there, in a place of green concealment, spying on nature (spies are generally shot), trying to finish a lakescape, but it was no good, she had no talent whatever (which was quite true). - “And have you ever tried painting, Humbert?” Charlotte, who was a little jealous of Jean, wanted to know if John was coming.
He was. He was coming home for lunch today. He had dropped her on the way to Parkington and should be picking her up any time now. It was a grand morning. She always felt a traitor to Cavall and Melampus for leaving them roped on such gorgeous days. She sat down on the white sand between Charlotte and me. She wore shorts. Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as those of a chestnut mare. She showed her gums when she smiled.
“I almost put both of you into my lake,” she said. “I even noticed something you overlooked. You [addressing Humbert] had your wrist watch on in, yes, sir, you had.”
“Waterproof,” said Charlotte softly, making a fish mouth.
Jean took my wrist upon her knee and examined Charlotte’s gift, then put back Humbert’s hand on the sand, palm up.
“You could see anything that way,” remarked Charlotte coquettishly.

Jean sighed. “I once saw,” she said, “two children, male and female, at sunset, right here, making love. Their shadows were giants. And I told you about Mr. Tomson at daybreak. Next time I expect to see fat old Ivor in the ivory. He is really a freak, that man. Last time he told me a completely indecent story about his nephew. It appears - ”
“Hullo there,” said John’s voice. (1.20)


In Chekhov’s story Poprygun’ya (“The Grasshopper,” 1891) Olga Ivanovna (like Jean Farlow, an amateur artist) wears a waterproof (raincoat):


Приехала она домой через двое с половиной суток. Не снимая шляпы и ватерпруфа, тяжело дыша от волнения, она прошла в гостиную, а оттуда в столовую.

She arrived home two and a half days later. Breathless with excitement, she went, without taking off her hat or waterproof, into the drawing-room and thence into the dining-room. (chapter V)


“Mesmer Mesmer” hints at Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), a German physician. The terms hypnosis and mesmerism were once synonyms. In Chekhov’s story Udav i krolik (“Boa Constrictor and Rabbit,” 1887) an old lady killer describes a method of seducing a woman when one hypnotizes her not with one’s look but with the poison of one’s tongue:


– А вот, mon cher, если хотите, ещё один способ. Этот способ самый тонкий, умный, ехидный и самый опасный для мужей. Понятен он только психологам и знатокам женского сердца. При нем conditio sine qua non: терпение, терпение и терпение. Кто не умеет ждать и терпеть, для того он не годится. По этому способу вы, покоряя чью-нибудь жену, держите себя как можно дальше от неё. Почувствовав к ней влечение, род недуга, вы перестаете бывать у неё, встречаетесь с ней возможно реже, мельком, причём отказываете себе в удовольствии беседовать с ней. Тут вы действуете на расстоянии. Всё дело в некоторого рода гипнотизации. Она не должна видеть, но должна чувствовать вас, как кролик чувствует взгляд удава. Гипнотизируете вы её не взглядом, а ядом вашего языка, причём самой лучшей передаточной проволокой может служить сам муж.


In his Foreword to Humbert’s manuscript John Ray, Jr., compares Humbert’s bizarre cognomen to a mask through which two hypnotic eyes seem to glow:


Its author's bizarre cognomen is his own invention; and, of course, this mask — through which two hypnotic eyes seem to glow — had to remain unlifted in accordance with its wearer's wish.


Maska (“The Mask,” 1884) is a story by Chekhov (listed by Leo Tolstoy among Chekhov’s thirty best stories). In a letter of March 27, 1894, to Suvorin Chekhov mentions Tolstoy’s hypnotism:


Но толстовская философия сильно трогала меня, владела мною лет 6—7, и действовали на меня не основные положения, которые были мне известны и раньше, а толстовская манера выражаться, рассудительность и, вероятно, гипнотизм своего рода. Теперь же во мне что-то протестует; расчётливость и справедливость говорят мне, что в электричестве и паре любви к человеку больше, чем в целомудрии и в воздержании от мяса. Война зло и суд зло, но из этого не следует, что я должен ходить в лаптях и спать на печи вместе с работником и его женой и проч. и проч. Но дело не в этом, не в «за и против», а в том, что так или иначе, а для меня Толстой уже уплыл, его в душе моей нет, и он вышел из меня, сказав: се оставляю дом ваш пуст.


But Tolstoy’s philosophy touched me profoundly and took possession of me for six or seven years, and what affected me was not its general propositions, with which I was familiar beforehand, but Tolstoy’s manner of expressing it, his reasonableness, and probably a sort of hypnotism. Now something in me protests, reason and justice tell me that in the electricity and heat of love for man there is something greater than chastity and abstinence from meat. War is an evil and legal justice is an evil; but it does not follow from that that I ought to wear bark shoes and sleep on the stove with the labourer, and so on, and so on. But that is not the point, it is not a matter of pro and con; the thing is that in one way or another Tolstoy has passed for me, he is not in my soul, and he has departed from me, saying: “I leave this your house empty.”


Tolstoy died in 1910. Humbert Humbert was born in 1910, in Paris. According to HH (whose father owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera), his photogenic mother was killed by lightning:


My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges. (1.2)


In a letter of July 6, 1898, to Sumbatov (Yuzhin) Chekhov predicts to Yuzhin that a lightning in Monte-Carlo will kill him:


Будь здоров и благополучен и не бойся нефрита, которого у тебя нет и не будет. Ты умрёшь через 67 лет, и не от нефрита; тебя убьёт молния в Монте-Карло.

Don’t be afraid of nephritis. You’ll die in sixty-seven years and not of nephritis; a lightning in Monte-Carlo will kill you.


I hope everybody enjoyed my previous post “Sherlock Holmes & Tanagra Dust in Pale Fire” (that has been slightly improved and is now even more interesting).