Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0022593, Wed, 14 Mar 2012 06:21:19 -0400

Re: The "56 days" conundrum in "Lolita"

In a message dated 14/03/2012 02:22:16 GMT Standard Time,
bstone41@HOTMAIL.COM writes:

I'm not sure that "56 days ago" has a "normal" meaning. I suppose it's
true that we wouldn't say "two days ago" if we mean "yesterday," but I don't
think this rule necessarily applies for longer increments of time. And of
course, we have to remember that Humbert is, in Ray's word, "abnormal." In
his poem, he refers to Lo's age as 5,300 days. He writes the line "about as
many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer."

If in the year 1950 a newspaper had an archive column "25 years ago", "50
years ago", "100 years ago", these columns would contain excerpts from
1925, 1900, 1850 respectively. There would not be any dispute about what was the
normal meaning of these terms. Nobody would be saying that perhaps the
excerpts should be from 1926, 1901, 1851 respectively.

Humbert is, normally, quite precise about time, as exemplified by the "5300
days". His calculation that "about as many years before Lolita was born as
my age was that summer" is accurate, too. (In the shortest chapter in the
book he gives an approximate date, 15 August, but he is clear that he is
confused and that this date is only approximate.) Hence, as others have
argued, it is striking that there is a discrepancy between his precise "56 days
ago" and the other dates given, by him and by John Ray, Jr.

Clearly, as Brian Boyd has demonstrated, Nabokov was himself capable of
miscalculation. But it is also possible that this is a deliberate error of
Nabokov's, intended to show what Freud called a motivated slip of Humbert's.
(That Nabokov accepted at least this part of Freud's thinking is clear from
elsewhere in Lolita.) We will not make sense of this if we cling to what I
insist is an abnormal, indeed simply wrong, interpretation of what "56
days ago" means, just because Nabokov scholars have copied each other in
speaking of "3 days discrepancy". They are simply compounding the original
mistake, and making it more difficult to decide whether the original mistake was
Nabokov's or Humbert's.

The correct calculation of the discrepancy means that, if the other dates
are correct, then Humbert could have started writing his book at most 52
days ago when he claims to have started 56 days ago. And I have drawn
attention to the extraordinarily insistent hints on the significance of the number
52 (which we are told neither Humbert nor Quilty, but only the author, can
understand) from Appel-Nabokov. Here, surely, is where the search for the
solution of the riddle should begin.

Even if you want to insist (perversely, as I see it) that "56 days ago"
might mean what I, and newspapers, and (I think) most English speakers would
call "55 days ago", you must surely acknowledge that what we mean by "56
days ago" is one possible meaning. But this at least possible (and in my view
unique and correct) meaning has been neglected by Nabokov scholars, as far
as I know, until now.

Anthony Stadlen

Anthony Stadlen
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