Vladimir Nabokov

"bas" and "bot" in Lolita

By sarra_ben_dhia, 21 May, 2022

I am referring to this past note https://thenabokovian.org/node/813

In this quote from Lolita, Humbert makes a metalinguistic commentary on the pronunciation of "bas" by Monique, the Parisian prostitute with whom he had had relations in his youth. Monique is ecstatic to be able to buy stockings with the money received by Humbert. It's said she pronounces "bas" as "bot".

Stopping before a window display she said with great gusto: “Je vais m’acheter des bas!” and never may I forget the way her Parisian childish lips exploded on “bas,” pronouncing it with an appetite that all but changed the “a” into a brief buoyant bursting “o” as in “bot.”


Didier machu noted and hesitation between French and English. According to him the word "bot" in English could be an allusion to botflies, insects widespread in hot environments. If we interpret the word in French, it would be an allusion to the collocation "pied bot", and would thus cause, beyond a comic effect, a reference to the gait of Lord Byron who had a club foot.


I was wondering if anyone has covered this excerpt and solved its mystery ! thanks in advance.


Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year 10 months ago

in his Universitetskaya poema ("The University Poem," 1927) VN mentions Bayron khromonogiy (lame Byron):


А жил я в комнате старинной,
но в тишине её пустынной
тенями мало дорожил.
Держа московского медведя,
боксёров жалуя и бредя
красой Италии, тут жил
студентом Байрон хромоногий.
Я вспоминал его тревоги,--
как Геллеспонт он переплыл,
чтоб похудеть. Но я остыл
к его твореньям... Да простится
неромантичности моей,--
мне розы мраморные Китса
всех бутафорских бурь милей.


I lived within an antique chamber,
but, inside its desert silence,
I hardly savoured the shades’ presence.
Clutching his bear from Muscovy,
esteemed the boxer’s fate,
of Italic beauty dreaming
lame Byron passed his student days.
I remembered his distress –
his swim across the Hellespont
to lose some weight.
But I have cooled toward his creations…
so do forgive my unromantic side –
to me the marble roses of Keats
have more charm than all those stagey storms. (10)


Byron’s moskovskiy medved' (bear from Muscovy) brings to mind moskovett, a cold wind that blows on Zemblan eastern shores throughout March:


It appears that in the beginning of 1950, long before the barn incident (see note to line 347), sixteen-year-old Hazel was involved in some appalling "psychokinetic" manifestations that lasted for nearly a month. Initially, one gathers, the poltergeist meant to impregnate the disturbance with the identity of Aunt Maud who had just died; the first object to perform was the basket in which she had once kept her half-paralyzed Skye terrier (the breed called in our country "weeping-willow dog"). Sybil had had the animal destroyed soon after its mistress's hospitalization, incurring the wrath of Hazel who was beside herself with distress. One morning this basket shot out of the "intact" sanctuary (see lines 90-98) and traveled along the corridor past the open door of the study, where Shade was at work; he saw it whizz by and spill its humble contents: a ragged coverlet, a rubber bone, and a partly discolored cushion. Next day the scene of action switched to the dining room where one of Aunt Maud's oils (Cypress and Bat) was found to be turned toward the wall. Other incidents followed, such as short flights accomplished by her scrapbook (see note to line 90) and, of course, all kinds of knockings, especially in the sanctuary, which would rouse Hazel from her, no doubt, peaceful sleep in the adjacent bedroom. But soon the poltergeist ran out of ideas in connection with Aunt Maud and became, as it were, more eclectic. All the banal motions that objects are limited to in such cases, were gone through in this one. Saucepans crashed in the kitchen; a snowball was found (perhaps, prematurely) in the icebox; once or twice Sybil saw a plate sail by like a discus and land safely on the sofa; lamps kept lighting up in various parts of the house; chairs waddled away to assemble in the impassable pantry; mysterious bits of string were found on the floor; invisible revelers staggered down the staircase in the middle of the night; and one winter morning Shade, upon rising and taking a look at the weather, saw that the little table from his study upon which he kept a Bible-like Webster open at M was standing in a state of shock outdoors, on the snow (subliminally this may have participated in the making of lines 5-12).

I imagine, that during that period the Shades, or at least John Shade, experienced a sensation of odd instability as if parts of the everyday, smoothly running world had got unscrewed, and you became aware that one of your tires was rolling beside you, or that your steering wheel had come off. My poor friend could not help recalling the dramatic fits of his early boyhood and wondering if this was not a new genetic variant of the same theme, preserved through procreation. Trying to hide from neighbors these horrible and humiliating phenomena was not the least of Shade's worries. He was terrified, and he was lacerated with pity. Although never able to corner her, that flabby, feeble, clumsy and solemn girl, who seemed more interested than frightened, he and Sybil never doubted that in some extraordinary way she was the agent of the disturbance which they saw as representing (I now quote Jane P.) "an outward extension or expulsion of insanity." They could not do much about it, partly because they disliked modern voodoo-psychiatry, but mainly because they were afraid of Hazel, and afraid to hurt her. They had however a secret interview with old-fashioned and learned Dr. Sutton, and this put them in better spirits. They were contemplating moving into another house or, more exactly, loudly saying to each other, so as to be overheard by anyone who might be listening, that they were contemplating moving, when all at once the fiend was gone, as happens with the moskovett, that bitter blast, that colossus of cold air that blows on our eastern shores throughout March, and then one morning you hear the birds, and the flags hang flaccid, and the outlines of the world are again in place. The phenomena ceased completely and were, if not forgotten, at least never referred to; but how curious it is that we do not perceive a mysterious sign of equation between the Hercules springing forth from a neurotic child's weak frame and the boisterous ghost of Aunt Maud; how curious that our rationality feels satisfied when we plump for the first explanation, though, actually, the scientific and the supernatural, the miracle of the muscle and the miracle of the mind, are both inexplicable as are all the ways of Our Lord. (note to Line 230)


In "basket" there is bas, in Botkin (Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus's "real" name) there is bot. According to Kinbote, Sybil Shade (the poet's wife) called him “a king-sized botfly:”


John Shade's wife, née Irondell (which comes not from a little valley yielding iron ore but from the French for "swallow"). She was a few months his senior. I understand she came of Canadian stock, as did Shade's maternal grandmother (a first cousin of Sybil's grandfather, if I am not greatly mistaken).

From the very first I tried to behave with the utmost courtesy toward my friend's wife, and from the very first she disliked and distrusted me. I was to learn later that when alluding to me in public she used to call me "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius." I pardon her--her and everybody. (note to Line 247)


In his Index entry "Botkin, V." Kinbote mentions king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end:


Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekin-maker, 71; bot, plop, and boteliy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a, Danish stiletto.


Bot and botelïy are rare words that VN must have found in the Dahl dictionary. In "The University Poem" VN mentions the four-volume Dahl dictionary that he acquired in Cambridge:


Там мяса розовые глыбы;
сырая вонь блестящей рыбы;
ножи; кастрюли; пиджаки
из гардеробов безымянных;
отдельно, в положеньях странных
кривые книжные лотки
застыли, ждут, как будто спрятав
тьму алхимических трактатов;
однажды эту дребедень
перебирая,--  в зимний день,
когда, изгнанника печаля,
шёл снег, как в русском городке,--
нашёл я Пушкина и Даля
на заколдованном лотке.


There is meat in hunks all pink;
the shiny fishes’ uncooked stink;
and knives and pots; and also jackets
from wardrobes that shall remain nameless;
and, separate, in strange positions,
some crooked stands where they sold books
freeze motionless, as if concealing
some arcane alchemistic treatise;
one time I happened through this rubbish
to rummage, on a winter day,
when, adding to an exile’s sadness,
it snowed, as in a Russian town –
I found some works by Pushkin, and
some Dahl upon a magic counter. (5)