Reader! Bruder! in Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 07/13/2022 - 16:14

Describing his attempt to find a photograph of Lolita’s abductor in an old issue of the Briceland Gazette, Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Lolita, 1955) exclaims “Reader! Bruder!”:


A curious urge to relive my stay there with Lolita had got hold of me. I was entering a phase of existence where I had given up all hope of tracing her kidnapper and her. I now attempted to fall back on old settings in order to save what still could be saved in the way of souvenir, souvenir que me veux-tu? Autumn was ringing in the air. To a post card requesting twin beds Professor Hamburg got a prompt expression of regret in reply. They were full up. They had one bathless basement room with four beds which they thought I would not want. Their note paper was headed:


The Enchanted Hunters

Near Churches

No Dogs

All legal beverages


I wondered if the last statement was true. All? Did they have for instance sidewalk grenadine? I also wondered if a hunter, enchanted or otherwise, would not need a pointer more than a pew, and with a spasm of pain I recalled a scene worthy of a great artist: petite nymphe accroupie; but that silky cocker spaniel had perhaps been a baptized one. No - I felt I could not endure the throes of revisiting that lobby. There was a much better possibility of retrievable time elsewhere in soft, rich-colored, autumnal Briceland. Leaving Rita in a bar, I made for the town library. A twittering spinster was only too glad to help me disinter mid-August 1947 from the bound Briceland Gazette, and presently, in a secluded nook under a naked light, I was turning the enormous and fragile pages of a coffin-black volume almost as big as Lolita.

Reader! Bruder! What a foolish Hamburg that Hamburg was! Since his supersensitive system was loath to face the actual scene, he thought he could at least enjoy a secret part of it - which reminds one of the tenth or twentieth soldier in the raping queue who throws the girl’s black shawl over her white face so as not to see those impossible eyes while taking his military pleasure in the sad, sacked village. What I lusted to get was the printed picture that had chanced to absorb my trespassing image while the Gazette’s photographer was concentrating on Dr. Braddock and his group. Passionately I hoped to find preserved the portrait of the artist as a younger brute. An innocent camera catching me on my dark way to Lolita’s bed - what a magnet for Mnemosyne! I cannot well explain the true nature of that urge of mine. It was allied, I suppose, to that swooning curiosity which impels one to examine with a magnifying glass bleak little figures - still life practically, and everybody about to throw up - at an early morning execution, and the patient’s expression impossible to make out in the print. Anyway, I was literally gasping for breath, and one corner of the book of doom kept stabbing me in the stomach while I scanned and skimmed… Brute Force and Possessed were coming on Sunday, the 24th, to both theatres. Mr. Purdom, independent tobacco auctioneer, said that ever since 1925 he had been an Omen Faustum smoker. Husky Hank and his petite bride were to be the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Reginald G. Gore, 58 Inchkeith Ave. The size of certain parasites is one sixth of the host. Dunkerque was fortified in the tenth century. Misses’ socks, 39 c. Saddle Oxfords 3.98. Wine, wine, wine, quipped the author of Dark Age who refused to be photographed, may suit a Persian bubble bird, but I say give me rain, rain, rain on the shingle roof for roses and inspiration every time. Dimples are caused by the adherence of the skin to the deeper tissues. Greeks repulse a heavy guerrilla assault - and, ah, at last, a little figure in white, and Dr. Braddock in black, but whatever spectral shoulder was brushing against his ample form - nothing of myself could I make out. (2.26)


In his poem An die Freude (“Ode to Joy,” 1785) used by Beethoven in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony (1824) Schiller says “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All people will be brothers). When he composed Ninth Symphony, Beethoven was practically deaf. A veteran of a remote war, Dick Schiller (Lolita's husband) is hard of hearing:


At this point, there came brisk homey sounds from the kitchen into which Dick and Bill had lumbered in quest of beer. Through the doorway they noticed the visitor, and Dick entered the parlor.

“Dick, this is my Dad!” cried Dolly in a resounding violent voice that struck me as a totally strange, and new, and cheerful, and old, and sad, because the young fellow, veteran of a remote war, was hard of hearing.

Arctic blue eyes, black hair, ruddy cheeks, unshaven chin. We shook hands. Discreet Bill, who evidently took pride in working wonders with one hand, brought in the beer cans he had opened. Wanted to withdraw. The exquisite courtesy of simple folks. Was made to stay. A beer ad. In point of fact, I preferred it that way, and so did the Schillers. I switched to the jittery rocker. Avidly munching, Dolly plied me with marshmallows and potato chips. The men looked at her fragile, frileux, diminutive, old-world, youngish but sickly, father in velvet coat and beige vest, maybe a viscount. (2.29)


While Lolita’s husband is a namesake of German composers Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, Rita (a girl whom Humbert picked up in a bar between New York and Montreal) has the same name as Gretchen (Faust’s mistress in Goethe’s Faust). In Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe Goethe mentions Schiller’s boldness – even appreciation of cruelty (for instance, when he wanted to make Duke of Alba a witness to Egmont’s fear of death). A character in Schiller's drama Don Carlos, Duke of Alba brings to mind Baudelaire’s poem L’Albatros. At the end of his poem Au lecteur (“To the Reader”) Baudelaire calls his reader mon frère (my brother):


La sottise, l'erreur, le péché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrissent leur vermine.

Nos péchés sont têtus, nos repentirs sont lâches ;
Nous nous faisons payer grassement nos aveux,
Et nous rentrons gaiement dans le chemin bourbeux,
Croyant par de vils pleurs laver toutes nos taches.

Sur l'oreiller du mal c'est Satan Trismégiste
Qui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté,
Et le riche métal de notre volonté
Est tout vaporisé par ce savant chimiste.

C'est le Diable qui tient les fils qui nous remuent !
Aux objets répugnants nous trouvons des appas ;
Chaque jour vers l'Enfer nous descendons d'un pas,
Sans horreur, à travers des ténèbres qui puent.

Ainsi qu'un débauché pauvre qui baise et mange
Le sein martyrisé d'une antique catin,
Nous volons au passage un plaisir clandestin
Que nous pressons bien fort comme une vieille orange.

Serré, fourmillant, comme un million d'helminthes,
Dans nos cerveaux ribote un peuple de Démons,
Et, quand nous respirons, la Mort dans nos poumons
Descend, fleuve invisible, avec de sourdes plaintes.

Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l'incendie,
N'ont pas encor brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C'est que notre âme, hélas ! n'est pas assez hardie.

Mais parmi les chacals, les panthères, les lices,
Les singes, les scorpions, les vautours, les serpents,
Les monstres glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants,
Dans la ménagerie infâme de nos vices,

Il en est un plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde !
Quoiqu'il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,
Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde ;

C'est l'Ennui ! - l'oeil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
- Hypocrite lecteur, - mon semblable, - mon frère !


Folly, error, sin, avarice
Occupy our minds and labor our bodies,
And we feed our pleasant remorse
As beggars nourish their vermin.


Our sins are obstinate, our repentance is faint;
We exact a high price for our confessions,
And we gaily return to the miry path,
Believing that base tears wash away all our stains.


On the pillow of evil Satan, Trismegist,
Incessantly lulls our enchanted minds,
And the noble metal of our will
Is wholly vaporized by this wise alchemist.


The Devil holds the strings which move us!
In repugnant things we discover charms;
Every day we descend a step further toward Hell,
Without horror, through gloom that stinks.


Like a penniless rake who with kisses and bites
Tortures the breast of an old prostitute,
We steal as we pass by a clandestine pleasure
That we squeeze very hard like a dried up orange.


Serried, swarming, like a million maggots,
A legion of Demons carouses in our brains,
And when we breathe, Death, that unseen river,
Descends into our lungs with muffled wails.


If rape, poison, daggers, arson
Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs
The banal canvas of our pitiable lives,
It is because our souls have not enough boldness.


But among the jackals, the panthers, the bitch hounds,
The apes, the scorpions, the vultures, the serpents,
The yelping, howling, growling, crawling monsters,
In the filthy menagerie of our vices,


There is one more ugly, more wicked, more filthy!
Although he makes neither great gestures nor great cries,
He would willingly make of the earth a shambles
And, in a yawn, swallow the world;


He is Ennui! — His eye watery as though with tears,
He dreams of scaffolds as he smokes his hookah pipe.
You know him reader, that refined monster,
— Hypocritish reader, — my fellow, — my brother!

(transl. W. Aggeler)


In Russian, al'batros rhymes with al'binos (albino). Humbert and Rita find a blond, almost albino, young fellow with white eyelashes and large transparent ears in their hotel room:


The oddly prepubescent curve of her back, her ricey skin, her slow languorous columbine kisses kept me from mischief. It is not the artistic aptitudes that are secondary sexual characters as some shams and shamans have said; it is the other way around: sex is but the ancilla of art. One rather mysterious spree that had interesting repercussions I must notice. I had abandoned the search: the fiend was either in Tartary or burning away in my cerebellum (the flames fanned by my fancy and grief) but certainly not having Dolores Haze play champion tennis on the Pacific Coast. One afternoon, on our way back East, in a hideous hotel, the kind where they hold conventions and where labeled, fat, pink men stagger around, all first names and business and booze - dear Rita and I awoke to find a third in our room, a blond, almost albino, young fellow with white eyelashes and large transparent ears, whom neither Rita nor I recalled having ever seen in our sad lives. Sweating in thick dirty underwear, and with old army boots on, he lay snoring on the double bed beyond my chaste Rita. One of his front teeth was gone, amber pustules grew on his forehead. Ritochka enveloped her sinuous nudity in my raincoat - the first thing at hand; I slipped on a pair of candy-striped drawers; and we took stock of the situation. Five glasses had been used, which in the way of clues, was an embarrassment of riches. The door was not properly closed. A sweater and a pair of shapeless tan pants lay on the floor. We shook their owner into miserable consciousness. He was completely amnesic. In an accent that Rita recognized as pure Brooklynese, he peevishly insinuated that somehow we had purloined his (worthless) identity. We rushed him into his clothes and left him at the nearest hospital, realizing on the way that somehow or other after forgotten gyrations, we ewer in Grainball. Half a year later Rita wrote the doctor for news. Jack Humbertson as he had been tastelessly dubbed was still isolated from his personal past. Oh Mnemosyne, sweetest and most mischievous of muses! (2.26)


According to Humbert (and VN would probably subscribe to his words), sex is but the ancilla of art. At the end of his poem Die Weltweisen ("The Philosophers," 1795) Schiller famously says that love and hunger rule the world:


Ist in Moralsystemen
Ausführlich zu vernehmen.
»Der Mensch bedarf des Menschen sehr
Zu seinem großen Ziele;
Nur in dem Ganzen wirket er,
Viel Tropfen geben erst das Meer,

"Viel Wasser treibt die Mühle.
Drum flieht der wilden Wölfe Stand
Und knüpft des Staates dauernd Band.«
So lehren vom Katheder
Herr Puffendorf und Feder.
Doch weil, was ein Professor spricht,
Nicht gleich zu Allen dringet,
So übt Natur die Mutterpflicht
Und sorgt, daß nie die Kette bricht
Und daß der Reif nie springet.
Einstweilen, bis den Bau der Welt
Philosophie zusammenhält,
Erhält sie das Getriebe
Durch Hunger und durch Liebe.


"When man would seek his destiny,

Man's help must then be given;

Save for the whole, ne'er labors he,—

Of many drops is formed the sea,—

By water mills are driven;

Therefore the wolf's wild species flies,—

Knit are the state's enduring ties."

Thus Puffendorf and Feder, each

Is, ex cathedra, wont to teach.

Yet, if what such professors say,

Each brain to enter durst not,

Nature exerts her mother-sway,

Provides that ne'er the chain gives way,

And that the ripe fruits burst not.

Meanwhile, until earth's structure vast

Philosophy can bind at last,

'Tis she that bids its pinion move,

By means of hunger and of love!


Btw., Mnemosyne is a poem by Hölderlin. The amnesic person whom the doctors tastelessly dubbed Jack Humbertson seems to be someone's runaway male organ (like Major Kovalyov's runaway nose in Gogol's story). The characters in Gogol's story The Nevsky Avenue include Schiller and Hofmann (who are not the poet Schiller and the writer Hofmann). Dick Schiller (Lolita's husband) is not a poet either. In VN's story Skazka ("A Nursery Tale," 1926) Frau Ott (the devil in disguise of an elderly lady, Frau Monde in the English version) offers Erwin a party with women in the Hoffmann Street, 13. The Haze address in Ramsdale is Lawn Street, 342. The number 342 reappears in Lolita three times. 342 is Humbert's and Lolita's room in The Enchanted Hunters (a hotel in Briceland where they spend their first night together). According to Humbert, between July 5 and November 18, 1949, he registered (if not actually stayed) at 342 hotels, motels and tourist homes. 342 is an even number (in A Nursery Tale the number of girls collected by Erwin should be odd). 342 + 1 = 343. In a letter of November 12, 1889, to Suvorin (who invited Chekhov to St. Petersburg) Chekhov says that he is frightened by the thought of 343 visits that he will have to make in Petersburg:


Я бы с удовольствием приехал к Вам повидаться, да меня пугает мысль о 343 визитах, которые мне придется делать в Петербурге.


In a letter of May 15, 1889, to Suvorin Chekhov says that anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent; they have the same purpose and the same enemy—the devil:


Если Вы еще не уехали за границу, отвечаю на Ваше письмо о Бурже. Буду краток. Вы пишете между прочим: «Пускай наука о материи идет своим чередом, но пусть также остается что-нибудь такое, где можно укрыться от этой сплошной материи». Наука о материи идет своим чередом, и те места, где можно укрыться от сплошной материи, тоже существуют своим чередом, и, кажется, никто не посягает на них. Если кому и достается, то только естественным наукам, но не святым местам, куда прячутся от этих наук. В моём письме вопрос поставлен правильнее и безобиднее, чем в Вашем, и я ближе к «жизни духа», чем Вы. Вы говорите о праве тех или других знаний на существование, я же говорю не о праве, а о мире. Я хочу, чтобы люди не видели войны там, где ее нет. Знания всегда пребывали в мире. И анатомия, и изящная словесность имеют одинаково знатное происхождение, одни и те же цели, одного и того же врага — чёрта, и воевать им положительно не из-за чего. Борьбы за существование у них нет. Если человек знает учение о кровообращении, то он богат; если к тому же выучивает еще историю религии и романс "Я помню чудное мгновенье", то становится не беднее, а богаче, — стало быть, мы имеем дело только с плюсами. Потому-то гении никогда не воевали, и в Гёте рядом с поэтом прекрасно уживался естественник.

Воюют же не знания, не поэзия с анатомией, а заблуждения, т. е. люди. Когда человек не понимает, то чувствует в себе разлад; причин этого разлада он ищет не в себе самом, как бы нужно было, а вне себя, отсюда и война с тем, чего он не понимает. Во все средние века алхимия постепенно, естественным мирным порядком культивировалась в химию, астрология — в астрономию; монахи не понимали, видели войну и воевали сами. Таким же воюющим испанским монахом был в шестиде<сятых> годах наш Писарев.

Воюет и Бурже. Вы говорите, что он не воюет, а я говорю, что воюет. Представьте, что его роман попадает в руки человека, имеющего детей на естественном факультете, или в руки архиерея, ищущего сюжета для воскресной проповеди. Будет ли что-нибудь похожее на мир в полученном эффекте? Нет. Представьте, что роман попал на глаза анатому или физиологу и т. д. Ни в чью душу не повеет от него миром, знающих он раздражит, а не знающих наградит ложными представлениями — и только.


If you have not gone abroad yet, I will answer your letter about Bourget.... You are speaking of the “right to live” of this or that branch of knowledge; I am speaking of peace, not of rights. I want people not to see war where there is none. Different branches of knowledge have always lived together in peace. Anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent; they have the same purpose and the same enemy—the devil—and there is absolutely nothing for them to fight about. There is no struggle for existence between them. If a man knows about the circulation of the blood, he is rich; if he also learns the history of religion and the song “I remember a marvellous moment,” he becomes richer, not poorer—that is to say, we are concerned with pluses alone. This is why geniuses have never fought, and in Goethe the poet lived amicably side by side with the scientist.

It is not branches of knowledge such as poetry and anatomy, but errors—that is to say, men—that fight with one another. When a man fails to understand something he is conscious of a discord, and seeks for the cause of it not in himself, as he should, but outside himself—hence the war with what he does not understand. In the middle ages alchemy was gradually in a natural, peaceful way changing into chemistry, and astrology into astronomy; the monks did not understand, saw a conflict and fought against it. Just such a belligerent Spanish monk was our Pisarev in the sixties.

Bourget, too, is fighting. You say he is not, and I say he is. Imagine his novel falling into the hands of a man whose children are studying in the faculty of science, or of a bishop who is looking for a subject for his Sunday sermon. Will the effect be anything like peace? It will not. Or imagine the novel catching the eye of an anatomist or a physiologist, or any such. It will not breathe peace into anyone’s soul; it will irritate those who know and give false ideas to those who don’t.


The characters in Chekhov's story Volodya bol'shoy i Volodya malen'kiy ("The Two Volodyas," 1893) include Rita, a young woman who can drink any amount of alcohol, never gets drunk and who tells tastelessly obscene anecdotes.