Professor Hamburg & Professor Chem in Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 07/14/2022 - 19:49

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) calls himself “Professor Hamburg:”


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 Gogol's story Zapiski sumasshedshego ("The Notes of a Madman," 1835) Poprishchin says that the moon is made in Hamburg by a lame cooper:


Но меня, однако же, чрезвычайно огорчало событие, имеющее быть завтра. Завтра в семь часов совершится странное явление: земля сядет на луну. Об этом и знаменитый английский химик Веллингтон пишет. Признаюсь, я ощутил сердечное беспокойство, когда вообразил себе необыкновенную нежность и непрочность луны. Лунь ведь обыкновенно делается в Гамбурге; и прескверно делается. Я удивляюсь, как не обратит на это внимание Англия. Делает ее хромой бочар, и видно, что, дурак, никакого понятия не имеет о луне. Он положил смоляной канат и часть деревянного масла; и оттого по всей земле вонь страшная, так что нужно затыкать нос. И оттого самая луна — такой нежный шар, что люди никак не могут жить, и там теперь живут только одни носы. И по тому-то самому мы не можем видеть носов своих, ибо они все находятся в луне. И когда я вообразил, что земля вещество тяжелое и может, насевши, размолоть в муку носы наши, то мною овладело такое беспокойство, что я, надевши чулки и башмаки, поспешил в залу государственного совета, с тем чтоб дать приказ полиции не допустить земле сесть на луну. Бритые гранды, которых я застал в зале государственного совета великое множество, были народ очень умный, и когда я сказал: «Господа, спасем луну, потому что земля хочет сесть на нее», — то все в ту же минуту бросились исполнять мое монаршее желание, и многие полезли на стену, с тем чтобы достать луну; но в это время вошел великий канцлер. Увидевши его, все разбежались. Я, как король, остался один. Но канцлер, к удивлению моему, ударил меня палкою и прогнал в мою комнату. Такую имеют власть в Испании народные обычаи!


But I feel much annoyed by an event which is about to take place to-morrow; at seven o'clock the earth is going to sit on the moon. This is foretold by the famous English chemist, Wellington. To tell the truth, I often felt uneasy when I thought of the excessive brittleness and fragility of the moon. The moon is generally repaired in Hamburg, and very imperfectly. It is done by a lame cooper, an obvious blockhead who has no idea how to do it. He took waxed thread and olive-oil—hence that pungent smell over all the earth which compels people to hold their noses. And this makes the moon so fragile that no men can live on it, but only noses. Therefore we cannot see our noses, because they are on the moon.

When I now pictured to myself how the earth, that massive body, would crush our noses to dust, if it sat on the moon, I became so uneasy, that I immediately put on my shoes and stockings and hastened into the council-hall to give the police orders to prevent the moon sitting on the earth.

The grandees with the shorn heads, whom I met in great numbers in the hall, were very intelligent people, and when I exclaimed, "Gentlemen! let us save the moon, for the earth is going to sit on it," they all set to work to fulfil my imperial wish, and many of them clambered up the wall in order to take the moon down. At that moment the Imperial Chancellor came in. As soon as he appeared, they all scattered, but I alone, as king, remained. To my astonishment, however, the Chancellor beat me with the stick and drove me to my room. So powerful are ancient customs in Spain!


The famous English chemist, Wellington brings to mind Professor Chem, Humbert's landlord at Beardsley:


When, through decorations of light and shade, we drove to 14 Thayer Street, a grave little lad met us with the keys and a note from Gaston who had rented the house for us. My Lo, without granting her new surroundings one glance, unseeingly turned on the radio to which instinct led her and lay down on the living room sofa with a batch of old magazines which in the same precise and blind manner she landed by dipping her hand into the nether anatomy of a lamp table.

I really did not mind where to dwell provided I could lock my Lolita up somewhere; but I had, I suppose, in the course of my correspondence with vague Gaston, vaguely visualized a house of ivied brick. Actually the place bore a dejected resemblance to the Haze home (a mere 400 miles distant): it was the same sort of dull gray frame affair with a shingled roof and dull green drill awnings; and the rooms, though smaller and furnished in a more consistent plush-and-plate style, were arranged in much the same order. My study turned out to be, however, a much larger room, lined from floor to ceiling with some two thousand books on chemistry which my landlord (on sabbatical leave for the time being) taught at Beardsley College. (2.4)


The brakes were relined, the waterpipes unclogged, the valves ground, and a number of other repairs and improvements were paid for by not very mechanically-minded but prudent papa Humbert, so that the late Mrs. Humbert’s car was in respectable shape when ready to undertake a new journey.

We had promised Beardsley School, good old Beardsley School, that we would be back as soon as my Hollywood engagement came to an end (inventive Humbert was to be, I hinted, chief consultant in the production of a film dealing with “existentialism,” still a hot thing at the time). Actually I was toying with the idea of gently trickling across the Mexican border - I was braver now than last year - and there deciding what to do with my little concubine who was now sixty inches tall and weighed ninety pounds. We had dug out our tour books and maps. She had traced our route with immense zest. Was it thanks to those theatricals that she had now outgrown her juvenile jaded airs and was so adorably keen to explore rich reality? I experienced the queer lightness of dreams that pale but warm Sunday morning when we abandoned Professor Chem’s puzzled house and sped along Main Street toward the four-lane highway. My Love’s striped, black-and-white cotton frock, jauntry blue with the large beautifully cut aquamarine on a silver chainlet, which gemmed her throat: a spring rain gift from me. We passed the New Hotel, and she laughed. “A penny for your thoughts,” I said and she stretched out her palm at once, but at that moment I had to apply the breaks rather abruptly at a red light. As we pulled up, another car came to a gliding stop alongside, and a very striking looking, athletically lean young woman (where had I seen her?) with a high complexion and shoulder-length brilliant bronze hair, greeted Lo with a ringing “Hi!”and then, addressing me, effusively, edusively (placed!), stressing certain words, said: “What a shame it was to tear Dolly away from the play - you should have heard the author raving about her after that rehearsal - ” “Green light, you dope,” said Lo under her breath, and simultaneously, waving in bright adieu a bangled arm, Joan of Arc (in a performance we saw at the local theatre) violently outdistanced us to swerve into Campus Avenue. (2.15)


In one of his poems Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937), makes a reference to Gogol’s story:


Последним выступил Годунов-Чердынцев. Он прочёл из сочинённых за лето стихотворений те, которые Елизавета Павловна так любила, – русское:

Берёзы жёлтые немеют в небе синем… —

и берлинское, начинающееся строфой:

Здесь всё так плоско, так непрочно,
так плохо сделана луна,
хотя из Гамбурга нарочно
она сюда привезена… —


Last to appear was Godunov-Cherdyntsev. From the poems written during the summer he read those which Elizaveta Pavlovna liked so much—on Russia:


The yellow birches, mute in the blue sky…


and on Berlin, beginning with the stanza:


Things here are in a sorry state;

Even the moon is much too rough

Though it is rumored to come straight

From Hamburg where they make the stuff… (Chapter Two)


In a poem dedicated to Zina Mertz Fyodor calls Zina polu-Mnemozina (half-Mnemosyne):


Как звать тебя? Ты полу-Мнемозина, полу-мерцанье в имени твоём, – и странно мне по сумраку Берлина с полувиденьем странствовать вдвоём. Но вот скамья под липой освещенной… Ты оживаешь в судорогах слез: я вижу взор сей жизнью изумленный и бледное сияние волос. Есть у меня сравненье на примете, для губ твоих, когда целуешь ты: нагорный снег, мерцающий в Тибете, горячий ключ и в инее цветы. Ночные наши, бедные владения, – забор, фонарь, асфальтовую гладь – поставим на туза воображения, чтоб целый мир у ночи отыграть! Не облака – а горные отроги; костёр в лесу, – не лампа у окна… О поклянись, что до конца дороги ты будешь только вымыслу верна…


What shall I call you? Half-Mnemosyne? There’s a half-shimmer in your surname too. In dark Berlin, it is so strange to me to roam, oh, my half-fantasy, with you. A bench stands under the translucent tree. Shivers and sobs reanimate you there, and all life’s wonder in your gaze I see, and see the pale fair radiance of your hair. In honor of your lips when they kiss mine I might devise a metaphor some time: Tibetan mountain-snows, their glancing shine, and a hot spring near flowers touched with rime. Our poor nocturnal property—that wet asphaltic gloss, that fence and that street light—upon the ace of fancy let us set to win a world of beauty from the night. Those are not clouds—but star-high mountain spurs; not lamplit blinds—but camplight on a tent! O swear to me that while the heartblood stirs, you will be true to what we shall invent. (Chapter Three)


According to Humbert, Mnemosyne is the sweetest and most mischievous of muses:


She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with charmingly asymmetrical eyes, and angular, rapidly sketched profile, and a most appealing ensellure  to her supple backI think she had some Spanish or Babylonian blood. I picked her up one depraved May evening somewhere between Montreal and New York, or more narrowly, between Toylestown and Blake, at a drakishly burning bar under the sign of the Tigermoth, where she was amiably drunk: she insisted we had gone to school together, and she placed her trembling little hand on my ape paw. My senses were very slightly stirred but I decided to give her a try; I did - and adopted her as a constant companion. She was so kind, was Rita, such a good sport, that I daresay she would have given herself to any pathetic creature or fallacy, an old broken tree or a bereaved porcupine, out of sheer chumminess and compassion.

When I first met her she had but recently divorced her third husband - and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh cavalier servant - the others, the mutables, were too numerous and mobile to tabulate. Her brother was - and no doubt still is - a prominent, pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and booster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town. For the last eight years he had been paying his great little sister several hundred dollars per month under the stringent condition that she would never never enter great little Grainball City. She told me, with wails of wonder, that for some God-damn reason every new boy friend of hers would first of all take her Grainball-ward: it was a fatal attraction; and before she knew what was what, she would find herself sucked into the lunar orbit of the town, and would be following the flood-lit drive that encircled it “going round and round,” as she phrased it, “like a God-damn mulberry moth.”

She had a natty little coup; and in it we traveled to California so as to give my venerable vehicle a rest. her natural speed was ninety. Dear Rita! We cruised together for two dim years, from summer 1950 to summer 1952, and she was the sweetest, simplest, gentles, dumbest Rita imaginable. In comparison to her, Valechka was a Schlegel, and Charlotte a Hegel. There is no earthly reason why I should dally with her in the margin of this sinister memoir, but let me say (hi, Rita - wherever you are, drunk or hangoverish, Rita, hi!) that she was the most soothing, the most comprehending companion that I ever had, and certainly saved me from the madhouse. I told her I was trying to trace a girl and plug that girl’s bully. Rita solemnly approved of the plan - and in the course of some investigation she undertook on her own (without really knowing a thing), around San Humbertino, got entangled with a pretty awful crook herself; I had the devil of a time retrieving her - used and bruised but still cocky. Then one day she proposed playing Russian roulette with my sacred automatic; I said you couldn’t, it was not a revolver, and we struggled for it, until at last it went off, touching off a very thin and very comical spurt of hot water from the hole it made in the wall of the cabin room; I remember her shrieks of laughter.

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)


The mayor and booster of Grainball, Rita's brother is a cross between the town mayor and Khlestakov, the characters in Gogol's play Revizor ("The Inspector," 1836). The amnesic person whom Humbert and Rita find in their hotel room seems to be someone's runaway male organ (like Major Kovalyov's runaway nose in Gogol's story “The Nose,” 1835). Grainball = grain + ball = brain + Gall. The founder of phrenology, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) was a German neuroanatomist, physiologist, and pioneer in the study of the localization of mental functions in the brain (cf. cerebellum mentioned by Humbert). In the drafts of Graf Nulin (“Count Null,” 1825) Pushkin mentions mestnoy pamyati organ (an organ of local memory) that the Count had, according to Gall’s system:


Граф местной памяти орган
Имел по Галевой примете,
Он в темноте, как и при свете,
Нашёл бы дверь, окно, диван.


In a letter of March 7 (?), 1826, to Pletnyov Pushkin calls his poem “Count Nulin” povest’ v rode Beppo (“a tale in the genre of Beppo”):


Знаешь ли? уж если печатать что, так возьмёмся за Цыганов. Надеюсь, что брат по крайней мере их перепишет ― а ты пришли рукопись ко мне ― я доставлю предисловие и м. б. примечания ― и с рук долой. А то всякой раз, как я об них подумаю или прочту слово в журн., у меня кровь портится ― в собрании же моих поэм для новинки поместим мы другую повесть в роде Верро, которая у меня в запасе.


In Beppo: A Venetian Story (1817) Lord Byron mentions cavalier servente:


Shakspeare described the sex in Desdemona

As very fair, but yet suspect in fame,

And to this day from Venice to Verona

Such matters may be probably the same,

Except that since those times was never known a

Husband whom mere suspicion could inflame

To suffocate a wife no more than twenty.

Because she had a "cavalier servente." (XVII)


“Cavalier Servente”: socially accepted lover of a married woman. See Don Juan III 190, and IX Stanza 51. Scott uses the term in The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) Chapter XXII: but seems not to comprehend its implications. Hobhouse’s diary, Thursday July 31 1817: I set out at 9, changed horses at Dolo, and arrived at Mira and Byron’s house on the Brenta by half-past eleven – I saw my friend well and in spirits – Mr Matthew Lewis [author of “The Monk”] was in the house with him – and part of the house was occupied by Signora Zagati [sic: for Segati] of Venice the drapier’s lady – who in a country where women gain character by having a cavalier servente of rank has risen since she has been companion in ordinary to Byron – It is amusing to hear her talk about “cattive donne” [“wicked women”] with the greatest simplicity – Signor Piero her husband visits her on a Saturday and Sunday and attends another lady. (B.L.Add.Mss. 47234 f.4).


The Haze family physician, Dr Byron gives Humbert the Purple Pills with which he puts Lolita to sleep in The Enchanted Hunters. A town near Venice, Dolo brings to mind Dolores (Lolita's name on the dotted line). A commune in the Metropolitan City of Venice, Mira makes one think of the splendid Hotel Mirana where Humbert spent his childhood:


I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl, daughter of Jerome Dunn, the alpinist, and granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects – paleopedology and Aeolian harps, respectively. 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.

My mother’s elder sister, Sybil, whom a cousin of my father’s had married and then neglected, served in my immediate family as a kind of unpaid governess and housekeeper. Somebody told me later that she had been in love with my father, and that he had lightheartedly taken advantage of it one rainy day and forgotten it by the time the weather cleared. I was extremely fond of her, despite the rigidity - the fatal rigidity - of some of her rules. Perhaps she wanted to make of me, in the fullness of time, a better widower than my father. Aunt Sybil had pink-rimmed azure eyes and a waxen complexion. She wrote poetry. She was poetically superstitious. She said she knew she would die soon after my sixteenth birthday, and did. Her husband, a great traveler in perfumes, spent most of his time in America, where eventually he founded a firm and acquired a bit of real estate.

I grew, a happy, healthy child in a bright would of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces. Around me the splendid Hotel Mirana revolved as a kind of private universe, a whitewashed cosmos within the blue greater one that blazed outside. From the aproned pot-scrubber to the flanneled potentate, everybody liked me, everybody petted me. Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed towards me like towers of Pisa. Ruined Russian princesses who could not pay my father, bought me expensive bonbons. He, mon cher petit papa , took me out boating and biking, taught me to swim and dive and water-ski, read to me Don Quixote  and Les Miserables , and I adored and respected him and felt glad for him whenever I overheard the servants discuss his various lady-friends, beautiful and kind beings who made much of me and cooed and shed precious tears over my cheerful motherlessness. (1.2)