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Faust in Lolita :
b composing sins, souls, and rhetorical redemption
h [electronic resource] /
by Aurora Mackey.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
ABSTRACT: Goethe's Faust and Nabokov's Humbert both are erudite, middle-aged European scholars who, experiencing a convergence of academic and existential ennui, set eyes upon a young girl and instantly are consumed with lust. In both works the girls' widowed mothers die as a result of the protagonists' lustful intentions; a cross-country flight ensues; the once-respected scholars are wanted for murder; and Gretchen and Lolita each suffer from their sexual and emotional objectification. But the connections between Goethe's play and Nabokov's novel extend far beyond plot points, or even their decidedly different receptions in early 19th century Germany versus mid-20th century America. Each incorporates thematic elements of temptation, sin, moral versus societal law, and perhaps, most important, damnation versus possible redemption.^ Combined, these striking thematic and textual similarities raise the compelling argument that Nabokov consciously and deliberately was reworking the Faust legend for a modern American audience. Moreover, this hidden compositional structure to a novel that many have called one of the greatest works of twentieth century American literature was one of Nabokov's most jealously guarded secrets, one he took deliberate measures to ensure never would be uncovered. And until now, that has been the case.Part of the reason may lie in Nabokov's often kaleidoscopic use of Goethe's famous play. In Goethe's version of the legend, for instance, the wager for Faust's soul between the Lord and Mephisto is rendered explicitly in the "Prologue in Heaven" scene. In Lolita, however, this soul-battle is rendered implicitly.^ Humbert makes repeated references to the dual forces of "God" or "winged gentlemen of the jury," for example, or else to the demonic element personified by what he calls "McFate." At any moment, he fears one or the other may steal from him his life's deepest hunger: to possess a nymphet. Through an examination of both primary and secondary texts, this dissertation connects and illustrates the hidden structure of Goethe's Faust in Nabokov's Lolita. Furthermore, it is argued that this structure allowed Nabokov to rhetorically address issues of deepest concern to him, most notably the future immortality of the human soul.
Dissertation (Ph.D.)--University of South Florida, 2007.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic dissertation) in PDF format.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 173 pages.
Adviser: Phillip Sipiora, Ph.D.
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
Faust in Lolita : Composing Sins, Souls, a nd Rhetorical Redemption by Aurora Mackey A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Phillip Sipiora, Ph.D. Victor Peppard, Ph.D. Margit Grieb, Ph.D. Deborah Noonan, Ph.D. Jerald Reynolds, Ph.D. Date of Approval: March 29, 2007 Keywords: Nabokov, Lolita, Goethe, Faust, American 2007, Aurora O. Mackey
i Table of Contents Abstract ii Introduction 1 Chapter OneÂ—NabokovÂ’s Art and Persona 22 The Author as Interview Subject 28 Vera, Vestiges, and Inconclusive Evidence 37 The ConjurerÂ’s Tricks 41 Chapter TwoÂ—Anxiety, Influence, and Invention 50 The Wind and the Weather 61 Parody and Poshlust 67 Chapter ThreeÂ—Faustian Elements in Film 79 MurnauÂ’s Faust 85 Recasting the American Faust 96 The Devil and Daniel Webster 99 Damn Yankees 106 Chapter FourÂ—Sins and Souls: A Rhetorical Construction 111 The Dedication 119 Humbert and Heinrich 122 The Devil is in the Details 135 The Slippery Slope 144 Gretchen and Lolita 150 Works Cited 171 About the Author End Page
ii Faust in Lolita : Composing Sins, Souls, a nd Rhetorical Redemption Aurora Mackey ABSTRACT GoetheÂ’s Faust and NabokovÂ’s Humbert bo th are erudite, middle-aged European scholars who, experiencing a convergence of academic and existen tial ennui, set eyes upon a young girl and instantly are consumed with lust. In both works the girlsÂ’ widowed mothers die as a result of the protagonistsÂ’ lustful intentions; a cross-country flight ensues; the once-respected scholars are wanted for murder; and Gretchen and Lolita each suffer from their sexual and emotional obj ectification. But the connections between GoetheÂ’s play and NabokovÂ’s novel extend fa r beyond plot points or even their decidedly different receptions in early 19th century Germany versus mid-20th century America. Each incorporates thematic elemen ts of temptation, sin, moral versus societal law, and perhaps, most important, damna tion versus possible redemption. Combined, these striking thematic and textual similarities raise the compelling argument that Nabokov consciously and deliberately was re working the Faust legend for a modern American audience. Moreover, this hidden compositional structure to a novel that many have called one of the greatest works of twentieth century American literature was one of NabokovÂ’s most jealously guarded secrets, one he took deliberate measures to ensure never would be uncovered. And until now, that has been the case.
iii Part of the reason may lie in NabokovÂ’s often kaleidoscopic use of GoetheÂ’s famous play. In GoetheÂ’s version of the le gend, for instance, the wager for FaustÂ’s soul between the Lord and Mephisto is rendered expl icitly in the Â“Prologue in HeavenÂ” scene. In Lolita however, this soul-ba ttle is rendered implicitly. Humbert makes repeated references to the dual forces of Â“GodÂ” or Â“wi nged gentlemen of the jury,Â” for example, or else to the demonic element personified by wh at he calls Â“McFate.Â” At any moment, he fears one or the other may steal from him his lifeÂ’s deepest hunger: to possess a nymphet. Through an examination of both primary a nd secondary texts, this dissertation connects and illustrates the hidden structure of GoetheÂ’s Faust in NabokovÂ’s Lolita. Furthermore, it is argued that this struct ure allowed Nabokov to rhetorically address issues of deepest concern to him, most notably the future immortality of the human soul.
1 Introduction One day in 1950, Vladimir Nabokov carri ed the first few chapters of Lolita into the backyard of his Ithaca, New York home and headed resolutely toward the garden incinerator. The manuscript, he later would recall with supreme understatement, was Â“beset with technical difficu lties,Â” and Nabokov had such Â“d oubtsÂ” about it that he was on the verge of transforming his stack of pages into ashes. The only reason Lolita did not burn to a crisp and float heavenward, he said, was that his wife Vera stopped him and urged to think it over again. (SO 105) Nabokov does not tell us what month this oc curred, or provide even a hint of itÂ— whether the sky was cobalt blue or gun-meta l gray, for example, or whether certain leaves on the trees had changed colorÂ—but no doubt it was a bleak day, as any writer who has ever come up against a compositional gauntlet can attest. To reach such a point of total destruction (compared to, say, crumpling sheets and tossing them into the wastebasket, where perchance they might be retrieved later), a writer must feel much more than just Â“doubtsÂ”; he or she must have the inner conviction th at every thread has now become a tangled, knotted sk ein, that separating or even attempting to loosen any of those threads either woul d be hopeless or useless. Evidence suggests, however, that as far as Lolita was concerned, this was a point Nabokov had reached more than once. As early as 1948, Vera was horrified to discover her
2 husband outside their ho me feeding pages of the manuscrip t into the blazing incinerator. After salvaging the few pages she could and stomping on them to put out the flames, she responded to her husbandÂ’s protestations by scre aming at him to Â“get away from there!Â” (Schiff 166-67) Clearly, Vera be lieved that her husband did not appreciate the worthiness of what he had written. On the surface, NabokovÂ’s literary bonfires may not appear to carry much import. After all, every writer struggles at some point with a text, and many decide, as Nabokov must have done, that an appr oach is not working as they had hoped. Several well known early drafts, too, actually met th e same fate Nabokov intended for Lolita among them StevensonÂ’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and GogolÂ’s Dead Souls (Schiff 167) In the case of Nabokov, however, the book burning incidents ta ke on particular meaning. In them we not only can narrow the timeframe in which Nabokov actively was struggling to discover an element he clearly viewed as deficien t in the novelÂ—a deficiency that, by some reckoning, had lasted nearly fi fteen yearsÂ—but also somethi ng even more crucial: the point at which his so-called Â“techni cal difficultiesÂ” were overcome. By definition, technical problems require technical resolutions, and so uncovering NabokovÂ’s Â“solutionÂ” to his own riddle very pos sibly would reveal to scholars an elegant structure to the novel that Nabokov had grappled with for years. It is my view that NabokovÂ’s breakthrough was inspired by another te xt written more than a century earlier: GoetheÂ’s Faust As this dissertation will explore, by us ing key scenes as well as textual and thematic elements from Faust Nabokov finally found a structure upon which to hang the novel that had stymied him for so many years.
3 In contrast to a missing structural element, however, the theme of Lolita appears to have been firmly set almost from its incep tion. The idea of an older man marrying a woman in order to gain access to her prepubescen t daughter was one that Nabokov had entertained as early as the mid-1930s. Indeed, the theme a ppears as a characterÂ’s musing about a future book in a paragraph of The Gift, an almost novel-length satiri cal biography first published in serial form in Russian migr newspapers while Nabokov lived in Berlin: Ah, if only I had a tick or two, what a nove l IÂ’d whip off! From real life. Imagine this kind of thing: an old dogÂ—but still in his prime, fiery, thirsty for happinessÂ— gets to know a widow, and she has a daught er, still quite a li ttle girlÂ—you know what I meanÂ—when nothing is formed yet but already she has a way of walking that drives you out of your mindÂ—A slip of a girl very fair, pale, with blue under the eyesÂ—and of course she doesnÂ’t even look at the old goat. What to do? Well, not long thinking, he ups and marries the wi dow. Here you can go on indefinitelyÂ—the temptation, the eternal torment, the it ch, the mad hopesÂ… (Nabokov, qtd. in Appel Annotated 166-67) Four years later, Nabokov transformed that paragraph into a novella called The Enchanter written sometime between 1935 and 1937. Narrated in third-person, its pedophilic prot agonist is an outwar dly respectable and well-spoken man who marries a sickly widow in order to get access to her young daughter. As will be seen in Lolita the protagonist takes the girl to a hotel, but when the girl begins to scream and his incestuous intent is discove red by others, he ends up throwing himself in front of a truck, a fate that Nabokov later bestows upon Charlotte Haze. In The Enchanter
4 the illicit freedom the protagonist desired so intensely thus becomes his prison, and for him the only escape is death. Also discernable within The Enchanter however, are the protagonistÂ’s attempts at self-justification, another theme that likewise will find its way into Lolita : Knowing, rationally, that the Euphrates apricot is harmfu l only in canned form; that sin is inseparable from civic custom; th at all hygienes have their hyena; knowing, moreover, that this self-same rationality is not averse to vulgarizing that to which it is otherwise deni ed accessÂ… ( 4) The idea of sin being Â“inseparable from civic cu stom,Â” of course, is an idea that fully flowers in Lolita as Humbert repeatedly seeks to justify his obsession with nymphets by pointing out the seeming arbitrariness of vari ous state laws about th e so-called Â“age of consent,Â” as well as by providing culturally and historically c onflicting examples of what is age-appropriate or not, such as with Dante and Beatrice. The Â“Euphrat es apricot,Â” which a footnote tells us was thought by some to Â“have b een the true identity of the Biblical apple,Â” likewise will reappear in Lolita as an Â“Eden red appleÂ” that Lo tosses into the air. Nabokov touches upon additional themes and images in The Enchanter that later will become major motifs in Lolita including repeated references to angels, demons, fate, and, particularly, the soul. The li ttle girl he espies has Â“a soul that seemed submerged, but in radiant moistnessÂ” and a Â“wisp of a soulÂ” (1 8); she takes off her roller skates and Â“then, returning to earth among the rest of us, sh e stood up with an instantaneous sensation of heavenly barefootednessÂ…Â” (9 ) and Â“she straightened, stre tching up like an angelÂ” (64). The protagonist begins Â“to suffer from th e ceaseless vacillation of his soulÂ” (43).
5 But even more noteworthy, perhaps, are two references, which will be discussed in more detail in a later chapter, to GoetheÂ’s Faust In the following passage, the protagonistÂ’s thoughts are put in quotation marks as Nabokov, in an uncharacteristically clumsy manner, constructs a method for allowing the reader inside the main ch aracterÂ’s thoughts within an otherwise third-person narrative: Here I invoke the law of degrees that I re pudiated where I found it insulting: often I have tried to catch myself in the transiti on from one kind of tenderness to the other, from the simple to the special, and would very much like to know whether they are mutually exclusive, whether they must, afte r all, be assigned to different genera, or whether one is a rare flowering of the other on the Walpurgis night of my murky soulÂ…(Enchanter 5) Walpurgis night is a key scene in Faust and is practically synony mous with the concept of sin and orgiastic debauchery. But still another Â“hin tÂ” at Goethe exists within this text. After the protagonist marries the girlÂ’s mother, and th e mother then dies of her disease, he is Â“consoledÂ” by his dead wifeÂ’s friend: Feigning total shockÂ—which was simplest of all, as murderers know tooÂ—he sat like a benumbed widower, his larger-tha n-life hands lowered, scarcely moving his lips in reply to her advice that he reliev e the constipation of grief with tears, and watched with a turbid gaze as she blew her nose (all three were united by the coldÂ— that was better). (50) The word Â“turbid,Â” of course, is unusu al enough. Meaning murky, muddy or cloudy, in English it generally is conjoined with water quality. But paired with the word Â“gaze,Â” it is
6 even more unusual. But exactly these two word s present themselves within the first two lines of the translated Â“Dedicati onÂ” poem that Goethe wrote for Faust : Once more you near me, wavering apparitions That early showed before th e turbid gaze. (1) It is possible, of course, that Nabokov had come across this term elsewhere; it appears, for example, in one work by Henry James. But A ppel provides another ta ntalizing possibility when he explains in his footnot es that Â“during his migr pe riod in Germany in the twenties and early thirties, Nabokov published Russian transl ations of many of th e writers alluded to by H.H. [Humbert],Â” including Goethe (Annotated 359). What is particularly noteworthy in refe rence to both Â“Walpurgi s nightÂ” and Â“turbid gazeÂ” is that it almost appears as if, on so me innermost or intuitive level, Nabokov had, from the very start, consciously or un consciously appropriated elements from Faust for his own theme of an older man obsessed with a young girl, as if GoetheÂ’s Faust had lodged itself within him as a trope for th e price of lust and debauchery. Published posthumously in 1986, The EnchanterÂ’s back jacket quite rightfully proclaims it to be Â“the UrLolita the precursor to NabokovÂ’s cl assic novel.Â” Indeed, even Nabokov, in 1959, referred to it as Â“a kind of preLolita Â” (Enchanter xx). Still, Nabokov clearly had mixed feelings a bout the work, which might e xplain why it was not published in his lifetime. In an interview with Alfred Appel, for example, Nabokov claimed that the reason he chose not to publish th e story was that the little girl in the storyÂ—a girl, it should be noted, who is never even namedÂ—possesse d Â“little semblance of realityÂ” (Appel, Annotated xxxviii). That view is shar ed by Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who cites additional key problems with the text:
7 In Â“The EnchanterÂ” in 1939, Nabokov had attempted with only partial success to portray the consuming passion of a y oung man for young girlsÂ…One of its most unsavory and unsatisfying parts was the mother of the young girl, who barely existed apart from her diseased and mo ribund condition. Her successor, on the other hand, is among the undoubted triumphs of Lolita : Charlotte Haze, Â“one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but neve r her soulÂ’Â” (American 116). This assessment, however, is gentler than another description Boyd offers in the first volume of his exhaustive and stunni ngly written biography of Nabokov: Even if Lolita had never been written, Â“T he EnchanterÂ” would still have to be judged a failure. No matter how intelligent, the storyÂ’s style ca nnot by itself vivify its unrealized world. Nevertheless we should be grateful for this failed experiment. It reminds us that even after his bold c hoice of subject for Lolita, Nabokov still had to find the characters, psychology, plot, set ting, narrative voice, and tone to suit. Â“The EnchanterÂ” testifies to the sheer difficulty of the task he undertook in Lolita, no matter how easy, how harmonious, how perfect he made it all look on his second try. (Russian 514) His comments to Appel notw ithstanding, however, Nabokov appear s at some point to have had a change of heart about his Lolita precursor. In a 1959 letter to the president of G.P. PutnamÂ’s Sons, for example, Nabokov propos ed publishing the novella, acknowledging that he had once thought of it as Â“a dead scrap during my work on Lolita, Â” but that he had reconsidered it. Now that he had br oken his Â“creative connectionÂ” with Lolita and reread it, he said, he found the novella to be Â“a beauti ful piece of Russian prose, precise and lucidÂ…Â”
8 Interestingly, although PutnamÂ’s expresse d interest in seeing the work, Nabokov, for unknown reasons, apparently never se nt it (Enchanter xix-xx). Whatever the reasons for The Enchanter remaining unpublished until his son, Dmitri, translated it after Na bokovÂ’s death, it was a work that clearly continued to haunt him. By 1946 Nabokov had begun to transform the novella into a novel (Boyd, American 169). To be sure, NabokovÂ’s work on it was in termittent and interspe rsed with academic responsibilities as well as other projects Nevertheless, by 1950, he told the Russian historian Marc Szeftel that he was Â“at work on an American version of that manuscript [ The Enchanter ]Â”(Schiff 168), work that would remain fr ustrated for several more years. It was only when Nabokov found the answer to whatever compositional problems had plagued him, only when he had broken through ba rriers that had haunted him as far back as 1939, that he was able to finally write wh at many consider, along with James JoyceÂ’s Ulysses to be the greatest English langua ge novel of the tw entieth century. This is where the incinera tor anecdote plays a role. To understand the significance of NabokovÂ’s gravitation toward the can of fireÂ—and most importantly, how anomalous that gravitation was for himÂ—one first needs a bit of background about his typical writing methodology, if such a term can be used a bout a creative process. Nabokov himself was loathe to discuss the specific elements invol ved in the germination of any book (Â“No fetus should undergo an exploratory operationÂ”), but he did, on occasion, discuss what might be called his general or typical approach to writing. (SO 29) Normally, as he explained in a 1962 BBC interview, NabokovÂ’s compositional style very often was akin to piecing together a ji gsaw puzzle. First he would have the entire picture of the short story or novel clear in his mind, and only then would he sit down to
9 write by Â“picking out a piece here and a piece ther e and filling out part of the sky and part of the landscape and part of theÂ—I donÂ’t know the carousing hunters.Â” As if lifting up his linguistic palette to a paint-by-numbers canva s of his own creation, this approach freed him, he said, from having to write Â“consecuti vely from the beginning to the next chapter and so on to the endÂ” (SO 16-17). In another interview, conducted in 1964 with Playboy magazine, Nabokov expanded upon his hopscotch compositional style, describing it as one that permitted him to follow any creative instinct he had about his future work: All I know is that at a very early stage of the novelÂ’s deve lopment I get this urge to garner bits of straw and fluff, and eat pebbl esÂ…I am inclined to assume that what I call, for want of a better term, inspirat ion, had been already at work, mutely pointing at this or that, having me accumulate the known materials for an unknown structure. After the first shock of recognitionÂ—the sudden sense of Â‘ this is what IÂ’m going to writeÂ’Â—the novel starts to breed by itself; the process goes on solely in the mind, not on paper; and to be aware of the stage it has reached at any given moment, I do not have to be consci ous of every exact phrase. (SO 31) NabokovÂ’s reference to Â“known materials for an unknown structureÂ” highly suggests that this initial stage was both in stinctual as well as grounded in certainty, much like a magpie that furiously gathers glinting objects to line a future nest. Only after Nabokov had finished with his garn ering together of Â“s traw and fluff and pebblesÂ”Â—in other words, his inspired thought s, perceptions, resear ch notes, and dataÂ—did the actual shape of the work reveal itself to him. This, Nabokov said, was the critical point at which he felt a sense of inner cer tainty that he could begin writing:
10 There comes a moment when I am informed fr om within that the entire structure is finished. All I have to do know is take it down in pencil or pe n. Since this entire structure, dimly illuminated in oneÂ’s mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not have to work gra dually from left to right for its proper perception, I may direct my flashlight at any part or particle of the pict ure when setting it down in writing. I do not begin my novel at the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go du tifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper. (SO 31-32) This description of his appro ach to writing is, to be sure, a bit like having been handed a penlight to explore the Grand Canyon at midnight; it only illumines a sma ll streak in one of the vastest talents of the tw entieth century. What is more any writer who hopes by it to glean more insight into NabokovÂ’s compositi onal methodology most likely will respond to his technique of filling Â“all the gaps on pape rÂ” the way one of MichelangeloÂ’s students might have done if told that th e Italian masterÂ’s secret was to first have a clear mental picture of the statue, and then to simply ch ip away at everything that did not look like David. Nevertheless, what it does tell us is that NabokovÂ’s mental Â“pictureÂ” first had to be complete before he began the actual composi ng process. Nabokov, in fact, refers to this on several occasions. In 1947, for example, he responded to Katherine WhiteÂ’s request for material for the New Yorker magazine by saying, Â“I do have a story for youÂ—but it is still in my head; quite complete however; ready to emerge; the pattern showing through the wingcases of the pupa.Â” Boyd observes that when Nabokov Â“did set on paper what had
11 been so fully formed in his head for years, he produced one of the greatest short stories ever written, Â‘Signs and Symbols,Â’ a trium ph of economy and force, minute realism and shimmering mysteryÂ” (American 117). Another example of possessing a complete mental picture can be seen in the inspiration for Pale Fire which Nabokov told a Life magazine interviewer in 1964 had come to him while sailing from New York to France in 1959. It was then, he said, that Â“I felt the first real pa ng of the novel, a rather complete vision of its structure in miniature, and jotted it downÂ—I ha ve it in one of my pocket diariesÂ” (SO 55). In a 1966 interview with Appel, Nabokov cites still another exampl e of a novel that mentally was fully formed before even one word was written: Â…The design of Pnin was complete in my mind when I composed the first chapter which, I believe, in this case was actually the first of seven I physically set down on paper. Alas, there was to be an addi tional chapter, between Four (in which, incidentally, the boy at St. MarkÂ’s and Pnin both dream of a passage from my drafts of Pale Fire the revolution in Zembla and the es cape of the kingÂ—that is telepathy for you!) and Five (where Pnin drives a car ). In that still unlinked chapter, which was beautifully clear in my mind down to the last curve, Pnin recovering in the hospital from a sprained back teaches hi mself to drive a car in bed studying a 1935 manual of automobilism found in the hosp ital libraryÂ…A combination of chance circumstances in 1956 prevented me from actually writing that chapter, then other events intervened, and it is only a mummy now. (SO 84-85) What is striking in each of these recollections is that Nabokov almost seems to be describing a compositional process akin to taking down dictation; the mental picture forms, crystallizes, and then, voila he apparently simply writes down what already exists,
12 although it is, as of yet, wordless. But from his above description of the compositional approach to Pnin one also might arrive at another conclusion: namely, that Nabokov always knew the order of events that would take place in his novels, as well as precisely how he would present the bits of Â“straw and fluffÂ” and eat en Â“pebblesÂ” that were, in essence, all part of his insp ired research. Although this mi ght have been true of later novels, in the compositional process of Lolita this simply was simply not the case. Even though he clearly had an inner conf idence that everything he was pursuing in relation to his manuscript would somehow, at so me future point, find its proper room in the novelistic home he mentally was buildi ng, Nabokov nevertheless began using a new compositional technique during his research and early drafts of Lolita; and it was one that, by his own account, he would continue to em ploy with future works. Index cards now became NabokovÂ’s favored medium for composing, particularly because they permitted him to explore topics as they came to him, instead of having to be bound to what, for him, was an unnatural approach through chronological order. Only later, when he was ready to type his final draftÂ—or rather, to have Vera type the draftÂ—did he then number the index car ds in the order he desired. As Boyd notes, Â“Since he always pictured a whole novel comple te in his mind before beginning to set any of it down in words, he could write in any order as he shifted his mental spotlight from one point of the picture to another. For that re ason, and because he had grown used to index cards for his lepidopterological research notes, he now began to compose directly on index cards rather than paper, wr iting out any section he likedÂ—still using a pen, howeverÂ—and then placing the new cards, in the sequence he had foreseen, among the stack already writtenÂ” (American 169).
13 Another aspect of this compositional strate gy also is noteworthy, particularly as it relates to GoetheÂ’s Faus t as a hidden structure within Lolita By using index cards, Nabokov hypothetically could have take n any scene or any lines from Faust copied them onto index cards, and then composed his own version of that scen e or passage onto the cards. If the entire st ructure of his novel was, in fact already formed in his mind, Nabokov thus would have been freed in terms of narra tive from chronological constraints, which he clearly abhorred. In other words, by using a lepidopterologically inspired compositional approach, Nabokov very possibly could have proceeded through the text of Faust line by line, scene by scene and, as Boyd notes, wr itten corresponding lines and scenes Â“in any order as he shifted his ment al spotlight from one point of the picture to another.Â” Afterward, as Nabokov described of doing during the composition of later novels, he likewise could have taken each card and numbere d it, and essentially inserted each one into the text of Lolita wherever he desired. What makes this theory particularly comp elling is that, if we imagine those index cards becoming jumbledÂ—that is the original text from Faust is transferred to a corresponding index card, and th at index card, now transformed into Â“Humbertish,Â” in turn becomes inserted within the text of Lolita based purely on the arti stic inclinations of NabokovÂ—the end result would be one of thos e elegant riddles Nabokov adored. The final text would be what only could be described as a Faust so fragmented, so out of sequence and skewed, that the original source would be no more recogni zable or identifiable than a once grandiose mirror that had been splintered a nd then strewn into shards at the base of the Grand Canyon. Even if the owner of that one grandiose mirror, by chance, did claim to recognize some fragment, some pa rticular carving particular to that old mirrorÂ’s frame,
14 who, after all, would believe him? For Nabokov, as we will see later, the same would have held true of anyone who recognized any aspect of Faust within Lolita. But even if we set aside, for the tim e being, the notion of index cards as a compositional strategy, what is particular ly worth underscoring is that Nabokov makes clear that he did not begin writing until the ment al picture for the work first had revealed itself to him, until he had become Â“informed from within that the entire structure is finished.Â” And while it is true that Nabokov is quite possibly unequaled when it came to giving conflicting accounts (to Appel, as just one example, it was Vera who prevented him from incinerating Lolita ; but in his essay, On a Book Entitled Lolita Nabokov says Â“I was stopped by the thought that the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my lifeÂ”), about this there is, as a det ective might say, the ring of truth. If we accept this described methodology as accurate, it is difficult to imagine, then, that Nabokov did not believeÂ—even in the midst of his Â“technical difficultiesÂ”Â—that he likewise had seen the Â“wingcases of the pupaÂ” with Lolita If not, why else would he have felt prepared to actually begin writing the novel? This assumption of NabokovÂ’s alread y-formed mental picture for Lolita also might partially explain why Appel describes NabokovÂ’s compositional approach to the novel, as well as its relation to its predecessor, The Enchanter in such unproblematic terms: In 1949, after moving from Wellesley to Co rnell, he became involved in a Â“new treatment of the theme, th is time in English.Â” Although Lolita Â“developed slowly,Â” taking five years to complete, Nabokov ha d everything in mind quite early. As was customary with him, however, he did not write it in exact chronological sequence. HumbertÂ’s confessional diary was composed at the outset of this Â‘new treatment,Â’
15 followed by Humbert and LolitaÂ’s first journey westward, and the climactic scene in which Quilty is killed (Â“His death had to be clear in my mind in order to control his earlier appearances,Â” says Nabokov). Nabokov ne xt filled in the gaps of HumbertÂ’s early life, and then proceeded ahead with the rest of the actio n, more or less in chronological order. (A nnotated xxxviiii-xxxix) Appel uses quotation marks to clearly denot e that it was Nabokov who described the novel as having developed Â“slowly.Â” The fact that this clearly was an understatement, however, seems to have been either lost or ignored. I ndeed, presented in these terms, it would not be surprising if many aspiring writers had the impression that Lolita emerged from the novelist like Adam from the hand of God, and that on the seventh day, of course, Nabokov rested. There is, perhaps, nothing more discouragi ng to creativity that the sense that other writers who have produced great works ha ve subsisted upon nothing else, and nothing more potentially destructive than the sense that if oneÂ’s own work does not flow forth as easily as Eve from AdamÂ’s extra rib, something inherently worthless exists within it. Just as modern-day television advertisements s eek to underscore that having tried to quit smoking one time actually may increase a personÂ’s chances of success in the future, so too one of the most useful aspects of Na bokovÂ’s struggle during the composition of Lolita is how many times he attempted, and failed. In many respects, this is reminiscent of Thomas EdisonÂ’s repeated experiments with the light bulb, as well as one reporterÂ’s observation that he had Â“failedÂ” in his experiments at least one hundred times. No, Edison was said to have replied, he had not failed all those times; he had just used each one of those opportunities to rule out various possibilities.
16 AppelÂ’s reference to HumbertÂ’s confessiona l diary, however, give s rise to another intriguing detail: the possibility of art imita ting life, instead of vice versa. Readers of Lolita never actually read HumbertÂ’s actual diary; instead, we are told by Humbert that it was destroyed and then recreated from memoryÂ—whi ch, in reality, it actually may have been. In the following passage, one cannot help envi sioning Vera screaming at her husband to get away from the incinerator as, quite possibly, th e early draft of HumbertÂ’s diary went up in flames: Exhibit number two is a pocket diary bound in black imitation leather, with a golden year, 1947 en escalier in its upper left-hand corn er. I speak of this neat product of the Blank Blank Co., Blankton, Ma ss., as if it were really before me. Actually, it was destroyed five years ago a nd what we examine now (by courtesy of a photographic memory) is but its brief materialization, a puny unfledged phoenix. (40) The phoenix, of course, was a mythical bird sa id to rise out of the ashes; and if Nabokov did recreate this diary Â“verbati mÂ” as Humbert says at one point, or Â“almost verbatimÂ” as Humbert says at another point, the fictional di ary very possibly had a very real antecedent in a diary Vera was unable to save from the fire. The above passage, however, also underscores something else: Nabokov apparently did not want to reveal, to Appel or anyone else, how long he had been struggling with Lolita Indeed, at numerous pointsÂ—even wher e it is now clear that he was having Â“technicalÂ” problemsÂ—he infers that he has not yet begun the novel. This has led, as we can see, to numerous discrepa ncies in accounts of how long he was working on the text.
17 In one letter to the New YorkerÂ’s Katherine White, for example, Nabokov intimates that time constraints are what separate him from his future book. Â“Feel most anxious to write a novel that is beautifu lly clear in my mind,Â” he wrot e in July 1950, Â“but I would need a year untroubled by academic duties to se t it in motion. I am in lowish spiritsÂ” (Boyd, American 170). Interestingly, Ve ra, as if attesting to her husbandÂ’s current inability to begin work on Lolita because of his teaching duties at Corn ell, also wrote a letter to White: Â“He has never had so little time for his writing. In this respect it is pr obably the worst year of his lifeÂ” (Schiff 164). One suspects, however, that NabokovÂ’s Â“lowishÂ” spirits were not simply due to conflicting academic demands on his time, of which, in all fairness, there were many. Despite his intimation to White that he had not yet begun the novel th at was Â“beautifully clearÂ” in his mind, we already know that Ve ra had already rescued the same manuscriptÂ— whose working title at the time was The Kingdom by the Sea Â—at least once from a fiery fate, and at least two years earlier. What is more, Boyd notes that even in early 1947, NabokovÂ’s idea of transforming his 1939 novella, The Enchanter into a novel Â“had been forming for months.Â” In April of that y ear, Nabokov told Edmund Wilson that Â“I am writing two things now 1. a short novel about a man who liked li ttle girlsÂ—and itÂ’s going to be called The Kingdom by the Sea Â—and 2. a new type of au tobiographyÂ—a scientific attempt to unravel and trace back all the threads of oneÂ’s personalityÂ—and the provisional title is The Person in Question Â” (American 117). To Appel, Nabokov apparently provided still another yearÂ—1949Â—for hi s initial work on a Â“new tr eatment of the themeÂ” of The Enchanter Â“this time in English.Â” If nothing el se, these conflicting dates will vindicate
18 every mother who ever warned that if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything. By July, 1950, Nabokov had sent the final chapter of his memoir, Conclusive Evidence later to be renamed Speak, Memory to his publisher, thus completing the second book he had mentioned to Wilson three years ear lier. (Schiff 164) But the pages about the man who liked little girls very possibly either had burn marks around their edges, or else the muddy imprints of VeraÂ’s shoe. Unlike Â“Sig ns and Symbols,Â” which had fluttered into print out of his mental wingcase, Lolita was still wrapped tight inside her cocoon, stubbornly refusing to take flight. The question that must be asked at this poi nt is: What was Â“wr ongÂ” with the mental picture Nabokov had for Lolit a? What was preventing him, as he claimed to have done with so many other stories, from m oving his Â“flashlightÂ” from left to right on the envisioned canvas, from filling in Â“all the gaps,Â” regardless of order? What, in short, was missing from his picture? The answer might have arrived a few m onths later, in just six words. For many years, beginning at the earliest in 1947, Nabokov kept a slim pocket diary into which he recorded not only upcoming proj ects and lecture schedules, but also random ideas and dreams. In January 1951, however, Nabokov for the first time began writing in a page-a-day yearbook, a New YearÂ’s gift from Vera. In it he began jotting deadlines for such things as a magazine article that would deal with Soviet perceptions of America, as well as items of a more personal nature. On January 5, for example, he notes: Â“Continuous series of obstacles, with nails sticking out and mutual mimicry of sharp angles of boards and pointed shadows, separating me from th e book I would like to writeÂ” (Boyd, American
19 188). This image calls to mind a landscape ont o which a bomb has been dropped; whatever the Â“continuous series of obsta clesÂ” Â—and there is strong reason to believe they were of a structural rather than thematic natureÂ—t hey clearly were daunting, formidable and persistent. It was not NabokovÂ’s nature, however, to gri nd to a halt in the face of barriers. For him, obstacles were almost like a boulder placed along the path of a great flowing river; the water will simply pass around it, smooth it, un til finallyÂ—whether one thinks about the boulder or notÂ—the great stone eventually wi ll be worn down to sand. Nabokov seemed to know instinctively that his Â“techni calÂ” solution would arrive even tually, as surely as a grain of sand will, although irritating its oyster host, eventually become a pearl. This inherent faith in his own creative abiliti es and capability of overcomi ng barriers can be seen in a passage from his memoir, Speak, Memory which he was writing concurrently with early sections of Lolita In it he compares the composition of chess problems to Â“the writing of one of those incredible novels where the author, in a fit of lucid madness, has set himself certain unique rules that he observes, certain nightmare obstacles that he surmounts, with the zest of a deity building a live world from the most unlikely ingredientsÂ—rocks, and carbon, and blind throbb ingsÂ” (290-91). And so, meanwhile, Nabokov worked onward, using the yearbook Vera had given him to brainstorm. Among other entries was the idea for a future short story, as well as the beginning of his invention of what Boyd calls Â“a fictionalized board er, based on someone he knew in Ithaca, and day after day he tried out this character in various invented poses and imagined dialogues with himselfÂ” (Ameri can 188). But then comes another tantalizing notation in the yearbook, one so short and appa rently innocuous that Boyd does not provide
20 a date for it, and no further information or deta ils are provided. It read s simply: Â“The future of the immortal soulÂ” (189). The careful wording, although brief, is worth noting. If Nabokov had written instead Â“the immortality of th e soul,Â” it would be tempting to conclude that his interest either was upon an already established positi on, one of certainty that immortality did, in fact, exist; or else just the opposite, name ly his uncertainty. With the inclusion of Â“future,Â” however, a perceptib le shift in focus can be di scerned. The tentative wording leaves open the likelihood that Nabokov had in mind a time that may or may not exist beyond the confines of life and death, as well as a speculated c onnection between oneÂ’s earthly actions and a timeless hereafter. This latter vi ew is supported by Boyd, who observes that NabokovÂ’s writing style in general Â“carries its own metaphysical implications,Â” and adds: Typically he chooses to display rather than efface the power of a mind working un spontaneouslyÂ…The energy mortal consci ousness can have when it vaults over the barrier of a moment suggests more th an anything else its kinship with some form of consciousness lurking beyond human limits (Russian 9). Shortly after NabokovÂ’s six-word notation, just two months afte r he first began keeping the yearbook, his entries cease. By February 1951, Nabokov had abandoned the page-a-day gift from his wife in favor, one presumes, of either the thin pocket diaries to which he had been long accustomed, or else the index cards he began using during the composition of Lolita and which would prove essential to structur ing his later works. Boyd ventures that NabokovÂ’s sudden cessation of the yearbook entrie s was because Â“the impulse wore offÂ” (American 189), but perhaps just the opposite had occurred: perhaps a new impulseÂ—as
21 well as a new rhetorical strategy for Lolita Â—had just begun to unfurl. With a mere six words, the compositional gauntlet that ha d stood for so many years between Nabokov and the novel he wanted to write very possi bly may have been suddenly removed. Soon, Nabokov would be ledÂ—by traveling both ba ckward and forward in time among his garnered Â“bits of fluffÂ” and consumed Â“pe bblesÂ”Â—to the elegant solution he had been seeking since writing The Enchanter As he would remark many years later about constructing Lolita : Â“She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzleÂ—its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you lookÂ” (Nabokov qtd. in Appel, xxxix). Through research of both primary and sec ondary texts, it is the goal of this dissertation to illustrate and connect NabokovÂ’s focus on Â“the future of the immortal soulÂ” with his use of GoetheÂ’s Faust The first chapter explores NabokovÂ’s life-long speculation about the human soul, as well as his motivating forces as a writer; the second explores the concept of creative anxiety in relation to NabokovÂ’s willingness to Â“take onÂ” a titan like Goethe; the third examines modern-day Faustian reinterpretations in film, some of which Nabokov possibly would have been familiar with; and the fourth chapter presents a textual and thematic comparison of Faust and Lolita. With this structure, it is my intent to reveal how Nabokov used GoetheÂ’s Faust not only as a hidden compositional structure within Lolita but more importantly as a rhetorical framework by wh ich he could explore his ownÂ—and modern AmericaÂ’sÂ—notions of sins, souls and salvation.
22 Chapter OneÂ—NabokovÂ’s Art and Persona Contemporary biology shows that the cells of any organism are themselves immortal. What we call Â“the soulÂ” is completely dependent on matter. Consciousness itself is only lucky chance in one light, the consequence of natural selection in another. Whatever the cas e, all these materialist arguments are completely unconvincing. Mechnikov [a Russian physiologist] talks only of possible immortality. That leaves us neither hot nor cold. Until science resolves the question more soundly, we are still doomed to annihi lationÂ…The question of eternal life is an invention of human cowardice; its denial, a lie to oneÂ’s self. Whoever says Â“There is no soul, no immortalityÂ” secretly thinks, Â“but maybe?Â” Â—From Vladimir NabokovÂ’s workbook, age 19 (qtd. in Boyd, Russian 154) One hallmark of a great work of literature is that it appears seamless, effortlessly produced. The reader cannot detect the writerÂ’s sw eat in the margins, or discern such things as whether the writer was starving during its pr oduction, or fearing for his life, or, in the case of Vladimir Nabokov, working not only w ithin a new country and new language, but also teaching full-time, simultaneously worki ng on other projects, and struggling to feed his family. Nor does the Â“greatÂ” writer, it shoul d be added, desire that such considerations
23 should be taken into account; to the contrary, a nearly universal characteri stic of authors of enduring works is that they in sist that their Â“offspringÂ” st and on their own, separated from the man or woman who penned them. And yet, at the same time, literary criti cism throughout the ages shows us that a deeper understanding of an authorÂ’s life often provides illumination for a greater understanding of a work in question. This is the double-edged sword of literature and scholarship, of a writerÂ’s art ve rsus an artistÂ’s persona. More over, it has often led to the tug-of-war many great writers have faced in th eir lifetimes: how to negotiate the reception and interpretations of their literary works, as opposed to the personas they consciously have created andÂ—if they have had any sense of their own future place in historyÂ—realize they inevitably one day will leave behind. Often, it is a connection they hope to resist. As Nabokov notes in his afterword to his novel, On a Book Entitled Lolita : It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain inform ation about a country or about a social class or about the author. And yet one of my very few intimate friends, after reading Lolita was sincerely worried th at I (I!) should be living Â“among such depressing peopleÂ”Â—when the only discomfort I really experienced was to live in my workshop among di scarded limbs and unfinished torsos. (Annotated, 316) For Nabokov, particularly when seen in connection to Lolita there was additional importance to the creation of a literary pers onaÂ—or rather, to establishing the difference between Nabokov the man versus Nabokov the creator of art. Vera, too, no doubt recognized this very clearly, particularly as she and her husband sought a publisher for the Lolita manuscript in 1953 and 1954. Convinced not onl y that it was a Â“great bookÂ” but also
24 a Â“time bombÂ” in terms of what its subject matter represented to 1950s America, Vera knew that the publicÂ’s inability to distinguish between the authorÂ’s life and Humbert Humbert, the protagonist in Lolita could result in Â“some unpl easantnessÂ” (Schiff 200). And although Vera, at the time, considered this tende ncy to link author with fictional character to be Â“a particularly American trait,Â” ev en Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, later would d eclare that Â“in her mind, there was no doubt that the man who wrote Lolita could not have done so unless he had in his soul those same disagreeable feelings for little girl sÂ” (Mandelstam qtd. in Schiff 200). Years later, Appel noted th at Nabokov was Â“justly impatient with those who hunt for Ur-Lolitas,Â” particularly since, to NabokovÂ’ s thinking, any fruitless search for a real-life precursor to Lolita in the form of a young Annabel-like girl from his own past would amount to a Â“preoccupation with specific Â‘sex ual morbiditiesÂ’ [that] obscures the more general context in which these oddities should be seen, and his Afterword offers an urgent correctiveÂ” (Annotated xxxvi). Of his awareness of his place in literary history, however, there can be little doubt. As early as 1952, years before Lolita was published, Schiff notes that Nabokov essentially declared to his Humanities II students at Co rnell that Â“There are two great writers in English for whom English was not a native lang uage, the first and the lesser of whom was Joseph Conrad. The second is IÂ” (171). Su ch a pronouncementÂ—comparing oneself to a writer of ConradÂ’s statureÂ—might have struck some students as hubr is enough. But to then characterize Conrad as the Â“lesserÂ” writer no doubt struck some of these same students as less than appealing. Schiff observes that anothe r student recalled findi ng it offensive that Nabokov presented Don Quixote in terms of how he would have written that book, and
25 naturally improved upon it. Othe r students in his Russian li terature course recalled how Nabokov enjoyed teaching the works of Â“Sir inÂ” Â—the pen name Nabokov adopted for himself during his early years of writing, first in Russia, a nd later in Berlin where his family fled shortly after the RevolutionÂ—but only to ld them late in the semester that he was Â“SirinÂ” and vice versa (171). Year s later, Nabokov would reveal to one interviewer that he had chosen the pen name partially because it was Â“no doubt identical with the Â‘siren,Â’ a Greek deity, transporter of s ouls,Â” another comment that reve als his early sense of supreme self-confidence. That self-confidence, to be sure, ne ver diminished. Indeed, in 1964, Nabokov spoke clearly of where he saw himself in literary hi story, even while simu ltaneously jesting about it. Â“Â…I have a fair inkling of my literary afterlife,Â” Nabokov told Playboy interviewer Alvin Toffler. Â“I have sensed certain hints. I have felt the breeze of certain promisesÂ…With the DevilÂ’s connivance, I open a newspaper in 2063 and in some article on the books page I find: Â‘Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford today. Awful question: Who is this unfortunate Fulmerford?Â” (SO 34) Nabokov, to be sure, seemed to understand th e Â“art versus personaÂ” concept better than any other writer since Goethe, whom Ha rold Bloom calls, next to Freud, Johnson and Boswell, one of the Â“four most documented lives of genius that we possessÂ” (Genius 166). To BloomÂ’s list, however, we should probably add one more; for certainly the mountain of information we have about NabokovÂ’s life and thought clearly places him among the most Â“researchableÂ” literary figures in history. Li ke Goethe more than 100 years before him, Nabokov not only wrote a memoir, gave numer ous interviews, and provided in-depth access to at least one hand-picked trusted rese archer, but he also t ook an active role in
26 Â“correctingÂ” any misconceptions or mistakes made about his life or art. Indeed, almost as far back as Â“SirinÂ” first existed, we can find traces of NabokovÂ’s attempts to control what was said about him, and also to shape the way he was perceived on the literary stage. This was no less true, however, toward the end of his life. In 1970, to celebrate his seventieth birthday, Northwestern University gathered together a series of essays about Nabokov in a festshrift one of those rare honors afford ed a writer during his or her lifetime. Co-edited by Alfred Appel, one of NabokovÂ’s most ardent chroniclers, and Charles Newman, it was published without Nab okov, in his own words, having first been shown Â“any plum or crumbÂ” (S0 284). The vol ume was all but a long valentine to him; nevertheless, Nabokov later found ample reason to respond, essay by essay, to what had been said about him: I soon realized, however, that I might find my self discussing critical studies of my fiction, something I have always avoided doi ng. True, a festschrif t is a very special and rare occasion for that kind of sport, but I did not want to create even the shadow of a precedent and therefore decided simply to publish the rough jottings I made as an objective reader anxious to eliminate slight factual errors of which such a marvelous gift must be freeÂ…(SO284) Anyone who knows a thing about Nabokov would no more believe he would dare publish anything he considered to be Â“rough jottingsÂ” than entertain the idea of pigs flying in perfect V-formation over Lake Geneva. As for his claim to being an Â“objective readerÂ” of what often amounted to othersÂ’ perceptions of him, one need only consider NabokovÂ’s response to Lucie Leon NoelÂ’s essay about having known and wo rked with him many years earlier in Paris after he, Vera and their son, Dmitri, fled Germany and the Nazis in 1939:
27 In her account of a dinner with James Joy ce in Paris, I found it refreshing to be accused of bashfulness (after finding so fre quently in the gazette s complaints of my Â“arroganceÂ”); but is her impression correct? She pictures me as a timid young artist; actually I was forty, with a sufficiently lu cid awareness of what I had already done for Russian letters preventing me from fee ling awed in the presence of any living writer. Had Ms. Leon and I met more at part ies she might have realized that I am always a disappointing guest, neither inclin ed nor able to shin e socially. (SO 292) Nabokov does not come right out and challenge the veracity of NoelÂ’s perception of him in the company of Joyce; rather, he poses a rh etorical question to hi s long-time friend and translator, as if it is she w ho should examine the recollection for its preciseness, and not vice versa. Furthermore, he defends himself against the observation that he was timid Â—a condition from which Nabokov clearly seeks to distance himselfÂ—by pointing out that he is, by nature, reticent in the company of other people. By asse rting that he was always a Â“disappointing guestÂ” and unable to Â“shine sociallyÂ” regardless of who was present, Nabokov clearly hopes to lessen th e possible perception that it was Joyce who made him fall silent and become tongue-tied, or the idea that the presence of another great writerÂ— seated, no less, at the same dining table w ith himÂ—had made Nabokov feel Â“bashful.Â” But here, in typical Nabokovian fashion, he goes even further in the shaping of his persona, calling to mind NietzscheÂ’ s observation of Goethe that Â“he created himselfÂ” (Bloom, Anxiety 52). Not only was Nabokov not bashful or timid, he asserts, but he could not have been since he already had gained a strong enough sense of his own place in Russian literature that this success, alone, w ould have immunized him to JoyceÂ’s literary shadow falling over him, or any other writerÂ’s In this respect, as wi ll be discussed in more
28 detail, NabokovÂ’s response also can be seen as relating directly to an early-established, fully-developed sense of his own gifts as a writer. The Author as Interview Subject That does not mean, however, that Na bokov always exhibited such strong selfconfidence. When it came to giving interviews or discussing his wr iting, for instance, Nabokov exerted rigid and perhaps unrivaled co ntrol over what was written about him. Nabokov, as Michael Wood notes, Â“never gave in terviews without a dvance notice of the questions, or without having carefully written out and rehearsed his answers, although he did implausibly fake spontaneity now and again.Â” Nabokov claimed his written responses were prompted by the fact that he was a poor speaker, but Wood attributes his guardedness to the artistÂ’s carefully constructed pers ona, calling Nabokov Â“too elegant, too much the literary dandy, to let us see him groping, for words or anything elseÂ” (8). Although there can be little doubt that Nabokov was as fastidi ous about the creation of his own persona as he was about his fictional char acters, other reasons also ma y exist for NabokovÂ’s reticence to speak, if you will, off the cuff. NabokovÂ’s refusal to relinquish control duri ng interviews may be seen as having two important facets. The first concerns NabokovÂ’s consciousness of present time inevitably turning into a futu re timeÂ—and this, as Wood corre ctly observes, would include awareness of how his words later might be in terpreted after he no longer was present to defend them. The second, however, concer ns NabokovÂ’s near life-long speculation about an altogether different kind of time, one th at tests both the natu re and boundaries of consciousness. Moreover, Boyd sees NabokovÂ’s fo cus on the confines of consciousness as
29 intricately connected to the idea that it might illuminate a shimmer of time that exists outside of human, or mortal, boundaries: Hopeful that the void of nonexistence before birth might yield cl ues about the void after death, he would try as an adult to reach back to his first emergence into consciousness in early infancyÂ…Nabokov would always susp ect that although consciousness might appear to be cut off in death, it could well in fact simply undergo a metamorphosis we cannot see. Th is hypothesis, which he preferred to keep tentative, probably owed something to his lepidoptera. In his twenties, echoing Dante, he wrote in a poem, Â“We are the cat erpillars of angelsÂ”; in his sixties he joked to an interviewer about his future plan s: Â“I also intend to collect butterflies in Peru or Iran before I pupateÂ” (Russian 71). Indeed, this question of metamorphosis a nd possible immortality was one that Nabokov Â“confesses has always bewildered and harassed him: what lies outside the prison of human time, our entrapment within the present, and our subjection to death? Â” (Russian 9) This question of what happens afterward of what becomes of the human soul once the confines of human time have been removed, is what an imates so much of NabokovÂ’s work. Further evidence of his focus on what lies beyond death ex ists in a stunningly written passage from his memoir: Whenever in my dreams I see the dead, they always appear silent, bothered, strangely depressed, quite un like their dear, bright selv es. I am aware of them, without any astonishment, in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence, in the house of some friend of mine they never knew. They sit apart, frowning at the floor, as if death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret. It is
30 certainly not thenÂ—not in dreamsÂ—but when one is wide awake, at moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest te rrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle tower. And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one is looking in the right direction. (Speak 50) If ever there existed a description of what it means to be humanÂ—that is, to know that we will die one day, but also to intuit that something even if we do not know what it is, exists beyond the Â“mistÂ” of our own limited consciousnessÂ—this passage, I would submit, is such a description. For who among us, even the most fervent Bible-thumper, can be absolutely certain of the fate that awaits us after death? Even those of us who rely resolutely upon faith, and even those of us who believe that we have been guaranteed a predetermined immortal fate based on how Â“morallyÂ” we behave during this hu man lifetime, Nabokov suggests that at the bedrock of all hu man thought about death lies a sandy, murky unknown: We may possess a deep faith or sense of certainty about an afte rlife, but at best all we can receive are hintsÂ—or else only hope. At best, he seems to be saying, all that exists during our human and earthly existence is the Â“blissful feelingÂ” that somehow, if we have aligned our souls like the ancient sailor following the No rth Star, that we are Â“looking in the right direction.Â” But Nabokov, to be sure, is not merely inte rested in exploring whatever Â“blissful feelingÂ” there may be in looking in the right directi on, particularly when it comes to fiction. To the contrary, it is the person who suffers fr om the inverse of that sensation, from a sense of being existentially lost at sea in th e absence of any North Star, upon whom Nabokov turns his brightest literary searchlight. No where is this more evident than within Lolita
31 Stripped of any narcotic effect of a blind fait h, and faced only with the stark reality of his life and impending death, Humbert narrates with a burning imperative, or what the fictional editor John Ray Jr. calls Â“a desperate honesty that thr obs through his confessionÂ” (Annotated 5): If you have acted as a Â“pentipod monster,Â” as Humbert calls himself at one point, what hope exists for your immortal s oul? Does any road lead to redemption or forgiveness? Does the fate of your immortal so ul, particularly if it is now at the eleventh hour, lie in the persuasive argument made fo r a Â“juryÂ” you cannot know, cannot see, cannot actually envision, Humbert seems to ask; or does it, instead, perhap s exist within the persuasive argument you are able to make for yourself, the argument you are able to convince yourself is true? Imbedded throughout the text of Lolita Nabokov presents all of these imperative questions: those of a dying manÂ’s uncertainty, or even what might be described as a quiet sense of desperation about the fate of his immo rtal soul; his attempt to discern what might be required of himÂ—if any hope exists at allÂ—to achieve a possi ble Â“pardonÂ” from whatever Â“juryÂ” exists beyond; as well as a genu ine, even if flawed, attempt to explore the reasons he clearly behaved as he did. As Humbert tells us shortly before his narrative ceases (we learn later that he died in prison of a heart attack): When I started, fifty-five days ago, to wr ite Lolita, first in the psychopathic ward for observation, and then in this well-heat ed, albeit tombal seclusion, I thought I would use these notes in toto at my trial, to save not my head, of course, but my soul. (Annotated 308)) Â“Tombal seclusionÂ” suggests a sarco phagus; but what Humbert seems to be acknowledging here is that, ev en though some of his early entries might have been
32 influenced by his observers in the psychiatric ward, later he came to his own and genuinely personal reason for presenting a trut hful narrative (at least, as tr uthful as he is capable of presenting it). Might confessi on, he seems to wonder, someho w be the key? Could an indepth explanation or self-justif icationÂ—in other words, the type of Â“evidenceÂ” that might be offered during an actual trial with Â“mitig ating circumstancesÂ” at the heart of the defenseÂ—perhaps be his ticket out of hell? Humbert clearly does not know. As a resu lt, Humbert becomes willing to offer up anything and everything to his imagined a udienceÂ—an audience, it should be noted, that shifts repeatedly through out his narrativeÂ—in order to avoid the fate he fears awaits him. It is my view that it is not hi s life at the hands of an actual courtroom jury that Humbert hopes to save; regardless of their verdict, his life, he knows, soon will be over. Instead, HumbertÂ’s fear is about the fa te of his immortal soul, wh ich later we will see related directly to GoetheÂ’s Faust particularly in contrast to how FaustÂ’s fate was Â“r esolved.Â” Of course, it seems highly unlikely that Nabokov ever would have conceded any of these observations, even if he knew them full we ll to be true. And there are several reasons to believe this to be the case. On the surface, revealing an intense interest in what some might call an Â“afterlifeÂ” or Â“after-existenceÂ” might appear harmless. Indeed, in todayÂ’s often religiously-themed publishing climate, such a disclosure quite possibly would be a selling-point. For Nabokov, however, such a disclosure would have been tantamount to a magician showing how an illusion was created, or worse, to having his d eepest and most intricate notionsÂ—about the nature of the human soul, about love, a bout eternityÂ—reduced or trivialized by a Â“criticule.Â” This term, coined by Nabokov by th e apparent combination of Â“criticÂ” and
33 Â“miniscule,Â” was used to show his disdain for what might be described as scholarly hacks, those he deemed incapable of the mental brai npower required to discer n his brilliance. In 1972, for example, when asked about criticsÂ’ appa rent inability to describe the theme of his latest book, Transparent Things he remarks, Â“Neither they, nor, of course, the common criticule discerned the stru ctural knot in the storyÂ” (SO 194). What makes NabokovÂ’s criticism even more stinging, of course, is the title of his wor k, as if the elusive structural knot to which he refersÂ—at a minimum to criti cs whose so-called business was to discern such thingsÂ—should have been transparent. NabokovÂ’s revelry in othersÂ’ in ability to Â“decodeÂ” his fict ion likewise can be seen in a character within Transparent Things Adam von Librikov, about whom Nabokov uncharacteristically reveals to one interviewer is Â“an anagrammatic alias that any child can decodeÂ” (SO 196). To those Â“criticulesÂ” who were unable to unravel on their own the anagram of Â“Vladimir Nabokov,Â” one can only assume that it would have been a bit like swallowing literary crow to have had the auth orÂ’s own name pointed out to them. Nabokov, without doubt, loves this kind of wordplayÂ—t he use of anagrams and palindromes and other linguistic puzzles within his fictionÂ—but more often than not, he does not provide us with such an easy solution. To the contrary, his greatest puzzles as with those he described in his autobiography about his most superb ch ess problems, were the ones that led Â“wouldbe solvers astrayÂ” (Speak, 290). Like a skilled tennis player returning a powerful serve, Nabokov also delighted in rejecting various interpretations of his books. We see this in the case of a 1964 interview for Life magazine, in which he was asked wh ich one of his writings has pleased him the most. Nabkov answers that it is Lolita Â“perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most
34 abstract and carefully contrivedÂ” (SO 47). His reference to carefu l contrivance, I think, is of particular import; for although Nabokov seemed to take pleasure in toying with his interviewers (he tells this same interviewer, for example, that he has often Â“dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museumÂ”), Nabokov also occasionally reveals as much as he deceive s. Like a child who blends truth and lies so artfully that discerning which is which becomes a task for a Sherlock Holmes-like parent, Nabokov discloses truth along with his fictions, creates illusion s amid the obvious and real. For example, his claim at age sixty-five, wh en he is a world-renowned author, that he dreams of being an Â“obscure curatorÂ” is laughable, but his claim to have created Lolita with careful contrivance has the ring of truth. Another example of Â“illusionÂ” occurs wh en Playboy magazine interviewer Alvin Toffler in 1964 asks him, for instance, about wh at he considers his Â“principal failing as a writer.Â” Nabokov answers that it is Â“the inability to express myself properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence in my bath, in my mind, at my desk.Â” Toffler responds (in what we must recall was a carefully scripted interview), Â“YouÂ’re doing rather well at the moment, if we may say s o.Â” Â“ItÂ’s an illusion, Â” replies Nabokov. (SO 34) Nabokov believed firmly that Â“art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complexÂ” (SO 33). Thus, admitting to how Â“carefu lly contrivedÂ” he had made the text of Lolita suggests even more strongly that Na bokov not only was confident that he had designed a brilliantly deceptive Â“struc tural knot,Â” to borrow his words about Transparent Things but that he does not expect that knot ev er to be discerned. As Zoran Kuzmanovich notes of Nabokov:
35 His interviews, prefaces, postscripts, letters to various editors, and responses to his critics always strike me as pre-emptive and corrective, at once recapitulative and predictive. They chide, they nudge, they set the story straight, and they do so not by informing but by evoking. They deepen the mystery of NabokovÂ’s talent, while, with phrases such as Â“right epithet coming,Â” they create a sense of qualification, a momentary reversal in, or rest from the inexorable forward movement while simultaneously speding readers on their way to the always receding solution of that mystery of presence rendered through out absence. Following the American publication of Lolita, this was a very su ccessful strategy, simply because it set NabokovÂ’s readers, usually academics, to work. (Cambridge11) Viewed in this light, NabokovÂ’s control over interv iews thus can be seen as protecting what was most precious to him. To speak spontan eouslyÂ—where any question was on the table, where any scowl or raised eyebrow or crosse d arms or Â“gropingÂ” for words might have been interpreted in a manner beyond NabokovÂ’s c ontrol, would have meant the possibility of reduction. Likewise, subjecting himself to an unscripted, impromptu interview would have carried the threat of re vealing (perhaps unconsciously) the true depth of his focus on judgment versus redemption, his complex concep ts of heaven, hell and immortality, as well the importance of his notion of the human soul. Regarding the latter, we receive a glimpse within a letter that Nabokov wrote to Ve ra not long after th ey met, in 1924: Have you ever thought about how strangel y, how easily our lives came together? And this is probably that God, bored up in heaven, experienced a passion he doesnÂ’t often have. ItÂ’s as if in y our soul there is a prepared spot for every one of my thoughts. When Monte Cristo came to the Palace he had purchased, he saw on the
36 table, among other things, a lacquered box, and he said to his major domo who had arrived earlier to set everything up, Â“My gl oves should be here.Â” The latter beamed and opened this otherwise unexceptional box and indeed: the gloves. (Nabokov qtd. in Schiff 11) As Schiff notes, Nabokov Â“had long noted th at the non-Russian could never understand Â‘the lyrical plaintiveness that colors the Russian soulÂ’Â” (191). If we accept this as true, NabokovÂ’s willingness to even begin to discuss th at Â“plaintivenessÂ” of the soul with any American Â“criticuleÂ”Â—even after he became enfolded and enveloped by the nomenclature of being an Â“AmericanÂ” write rÂ—seems all but unthinkable. In addition to what Wood describes as literary dandyism during his interviews, then, Nabokov very possibly also was protecting his most carefully cloaked and jealously guarded secrets. In the case of Lolita, however, they would have b een secrets equivalent (at least to NabokovÂ’s thinking) to a modern-day version of cracking The Da Vinci Code : how his concern for the Â“immortal soulÂ” led to a structure so well hidden that, at times, it appears within Lolita like a Rubik-cube placed inside a kaleidoscope. Indeed, Vera alludes to this in a Novemb er 1953 letter, in which she attempts to interest the publisher of Na bokovÂ’s Gogol biography in his latest work: Â“You will perhaps be interested to learn that he is finishing a great novel,Â” she wrote, Â“based on an idea that he believes has never been expl ored (at least not in the way he has done so)Â” (Schiff 198). By adding that final qualifierÂ— at least not in the way he has done so Â—here we have one of the strongest indications that Lolita in fact, is based on someth ing that existed before it in a different form The greatest possibility, of course, is that that Â“somethingÂ” was a text.
37 This comment by Vera, as we will see, will prove to be one of the few hints we receive, other than those that ex ist within the text itself, that Lolita in fact, was a conscious reworking of GoetheÂ’s Faust Even if Nabokov had been asked about any possible connection between the two te xtsÂ—and, I should add, I have been unable to uncover any indication that he ever wasÂ—th ere is little doubt about what his response would have been. Vera, Vestiges, and Inconclusive Evidence This might partially explain, however, why Vera opted to bring up the subject of Faust herself. According to Schiff, VeraÂ’s made her comments about the play in the spring of 1958, when a Cornell professor and his wi fe invited the Nabokovs to their home for cocktails. Also invited was Eric Blackhall, a visiting professor of German literature and a college dean. Schiff describes the conver sation between Vera and Blackhall thus: She asked after his field. Â“Goethe,Â” replied Blackhall. Â“I consider Faust one of the shallowest plays ever written,Â” declared Ve ra, as much to the visitorÂ’s astonishment as to her husbandÂ’s manifest delightÂ….It is impossible to say if she had learned this gauntlet-flinging from her hus band, who greeted colleagues w ith salvos like theseÂ… (187). Vera, as SchiffÂ’s biography underscores, wa s not simply the person who typed her husbandÂ’s manuscripts; to the contrary, she al so was intimately involved in practically every aspect of his writing and publishing efforts. By the early 1950s VeraÂ’s understanding of academic life, her sense of her husbandÂ’s caprices were ingrained enough thatÂ—while she seems never to have
38 voluntarily spoken for himÂ—she did not he sitate to edit or silence him. He depended on her for this service. (187) Indeed, Schiff further observes that Vera also Â“did a fine job on his diary, stopping just short of the ink BulgakovÂ’s wife strategically spilled on her husbandÂ’s more compromising pagesÂ” (187). This observation is intriguing, particularly if we speculate about what type of entries Vera would have deemed Â“compromi sing.Â” Fiercely protective not only of her husbandÂ’s work but also of his persona, Vera very possibly could have edited his diary, particularly when it came to his ideas about Lolita for references to either Goethe or Faust This hypothesis is even more plausible if we recall BoydÂ’s description of the yearbook that Vera gave her husband in 1951 which Â“he filled daily for over two monthsÂ”Â—including the notation of Â“the future of the immortal soulÂ” Â—and then which, by BoydÂ’s account, he soon abandoned because Â“the impulse wore offÂ” (American 188). What, however, if Vera recognized that leaving such notes in the di ary would have been akin to announcing his beautiful Â“solutionÂ” in neon lights? If this was, in fact, the point at wh ich Nabokov discovered his Â“technical solutionÂ” and launched into exhaustive schol arship, it certainly would not be the first or last time he did so. And if references to Goethe and Faust were obliterated from that yearbook or his diaries, it also would not have been the only time that vestiges of the compositional process of Lolita were destroyed. Indeed, although Na bokov himself describes on numerous occasions how he composed Lolita on index cardsÂ—a technique he later adopted for all of his later novels as wellÂ—only a fraction of the Lolita index cards still ex ist. Boyd observes that Nabokov not only dest royed the manuscript of Lolita itself, but preserved Â“only a hundred of the cards containing his preparat ory jottingsÂ” (American, 226-27). To put this
39 paltry number into some kind of perspective, Nabokov told on e interviewer in 1969 that his novel Ada had been composed on approxima tely 2,500 index cards (SO 122). Interestingly, of the remaining Lolita index cards that Boyd presents in his biography, all relate directly to the type of scholarly resear ch and precise details that Nabokov, during his lectures on litera ture at Cornell, always st ressed to his students were so crucial. Nabokov taught literature as an examination of details, without which he believed that a book was dead. This meant that, ra ther than focus on what he considered to be superfluous issues such as Â“schools of thoughtÂ” or symbols or social commentary, students instead would be encouraged to see th e details within literature as doorways into Â“little worlds about which we can and s hould find out more and moreÂ” (Boyd, American 175). As an example, Boyd points out that Nabokov, in teaching AustenÂ’s Mansfield Park, would ask his students to figure out how Sir T homas would be able to pay the postage for FannyÂ’s letter to her brother. (The answer: be cause he is a member of Parliament.) As Nabokov himself once remarked, Â“I believe in stressing the specific detail; the general ideas can take care of themselvesÂ” (SO 55). That same attention to detail can be seen in the remaining Lolita index cards. One, for example, shows a chart with statistics on height, weight and age for young girls; another has details about a Colt revolver, apparent ly from a gun catalogue along with a rough drawing of the gun; another lists names of juke box tunes. To be sure, attempting to imagine what might have been on the remaining inde x cards is not unlike the archeologist who unearths an ancient marble toe and then tries to envision the rest of the Greek statue to which it belonged. We may never know why or by what method NabokovÂ—or VeraÂ— destroyed the Lolita index car ds, but it still is tantalizing to consider.
40 At the same time, however, it also seems sa fe to infer that Vera would have been entrusted with LolitaÂ’s secret structure of Faust if that structure actual ly did exist. Further, what is striking about her comments to Blackhall at the cocktail party it that it was she, and not he, who brought up the subject of Faust, and in a manner that seemed guaranteed to shock. To opine to a scholar of German literature, and particularly a specialist on Goethe, that Faust is one of the Â“shallowest plays ever wr ittenÂ” is a bit like te lling a Shakespearean scholar that Romeo and Juliet is a piece of Â“soap-opera kitsch.Â” Blackhall, thus, understandably was taken aback by her ravaging disparagement of the play; but even more interesting is the timing of her comments. If the cocktail party, as Schiff notes, did take place in the spring of 1958, this event was only a few months before the American publication of Lolita in August of that same year. (T he book already had been published in France three years earlier.) Seen in this light VeraÂ’s comments, in todayÂ’s parlance, very possibly could be described as a Â“preemptive st rikeÂ” against any connection that later might be made between GoetheÂ’s Â“shallowÂ” play and the novel she told, to more than one person and on more than one occasion, was a work of Â“genius.Â” As Schiff notes of the relationship Nabokov and Vera shared: Many of the hallmarks of NabokovÂ’s fictionÂ—the doppelgangers, the impersonators, the Siamese twins, the mi rror images, the distorted mirror images, the reflections in the windowpane, the par odies of selfÂ—manifes ted themselves in the routine the couple developed for deali ng with the world, a routine that could leave a correspondent feeling as the books can: humbled by one knotty, magnificent inside joke. (223)
41 And without a doubt, it is clear that neither Nabokov nor Vera had any desire to allow anyone else in on that joke. The ConjurerÂ’s Tricks Nabokov, to be sure, had long played a game of Â“cat and mouseÂ” with critics and readers alike. Like a witness repeatedly asked to testify before a gra nd jury, he was acutely cognizant that every word, ever y turn of phrase, eventual ly would be scrutinized by scholars. Indeed, on numerous occasions Na bokov even predicted what would be said about him (and how critics invariably w ould get it wrong). As one example, Nabokov wrote to a friend about giving up his na tive Russian language, saying, Â“One day, a sagacious professor will write about my absolu tely tragic situationÂ” (Wood 3). But it is exactly this type of getting it wrong that Nabokov seemed to count on, and even promote. Scholars would get it wrong, mi sinterpret, ascribe meani ngs that Nabokov, of course, would deny were ever there; but Nabokov could ensure th ey got it wrong and escape detection only as long as he never let slipÂ—or placed hims elf in the position where he might let slipÂ—something that could reveal th e conjurerÂ’s hand delving into his bag of literary tricks. This desire to Â“cloakÂ” his literary tricks, it should be noted, was not simply a stance that Nabokov adopted after th e American publication of Lolita in 1958, the novel that launched him to fame. Long before Lolita Nabokov apparently found glee in escaping, undetected, within various Â“wrongÂ” interpreta tions of his work. Indeed, setting traps and creating what he called Â“false scentsÂ” throughout his work seems to have been his literary modus vivendi
42 In 1944, for example, NabokovÂ’s biography of the famous Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, ends with an appendage chapter in which Nabokov explains that his publisher wanted certain changes or additions, in cluding a chronology of GogolÂ’s life and a description of the Â“plotÂ” of what many considered GogolÂ’s masterpiece, Dead Souls. The typeface in this section is considerably smaller, as if to alert the car eful reader that these notes were included reluctantly: In GogolÂ’s day you could, if you were a Russian landowner, sell peasants, buy peasants and mortgage peasants. Peasants we re termed Â“soulsÂ” as cattle is reckoned by Â“heads.Â” If you then happened to mention that you had a hundred souls, you would mean not that you were a minor poe t, but that you were a small squire. The Government checked the number of your p easants, as you had to pay a poll tax for them. If any of your peasants died you would still have to go on paying until the next census. The dead Â“soulÂ” was still on the list. You could no longer use the mobile physical appendages it had once, such as arms or legs, but the soul you had lost was still alive in the Elysium of o fficial paperdom and only another census could obliterate it. The immortality of th e soul lasted for a few seasonsÂ…(159-60) After complying with his publis herÂ’s requests (or demands, as they might have been), Nabokov offers a defense of the initial choices he made in describing GogolÂ’s life and work. That is how the following pages got a ppended. This chronology is meant for the indolent reader who wants to take in Gogol Â’s life and labors at a glance instead of wallowing through my book in search of this or that relevant passageÂ…The deductions are my own.
43 Abruptly and without warning, however, Na bokov then shifts attention even more significantly to his own writi ngÂ—and not just within the text we are readingÂ—with a sentence that is apt to strike the reader as jarring, appearing as it doe s at the end of a work ostensibly about Gogol: Â“Despera te Russian critics, trying hard to find an Influence [sic] and to pigeonhole my own novels, have once or twice linked me up with Gogol, but when they looked again I had untied the knots a nd the box was emptyÂ” (Nabokov, Nikolai 155). Even here, long before his Â“officialÂ” success with Lolita we can recognize in this final sentence the suggestion of a Houdinilike escape from enquiring minds who want to know, of outwitting and outmaneuvering inquisiti ve opponents. Moreover, in the passage Nabokov also exemplifies what Michael Wood refers to as Â“Nabokov at his devious best, making and unmaking a polemical point, and orchestrating doubt s just where he seems to be dismissing themÂ” (43). The key here, to my thinking, is WoodÂ’s use of the word Â“orchestrating,Â” which accurately suggests NabokovÂ’s conscious desire to implant a Â“doubtÂ” where, perhaps, formerly there might have been none at all. In other words, it is almost as if Nabokov, in Nikolai Gogol as well as numerous later works, both anticipates and at the same time denies any insight we may later believe we have reached about him. Simultaneously, he also goads us to try to figure out how, in a litera ry trick worthy of Houdini, he ostensibly has escaped the literary chains of what Petr Bi tsilli, in an early 1930s article, Â“The Revival of Allegory,Â” claimed to be NabokovÂ’s Â“indis putableÂ” closeness to Gogol. (Dolinin 59) Unlike the magician Harry HoudiniÂ—who act ually did physically escape, almost magically, from boxes in which he had been chainedÂ—the only Â“proofÂ” we have that Nabokov did, in fact, ultimately manage to unt ie his knots and leave an Â“emptyÂ” box that
44 connected him to GogolÂ—as well as other au thors to whom interviewers occasionally attempted to connect himÂ—is his own word fo r it. As for the period Nabokov refers to in Nikolai Gogol however, Alexander Dolinin provides an insightful context for the literary comparison made by Bitsilli, one not mentioned by Nabokov. During the late 1920s, Dolinin observes, Â“a hostile group of Paris writersÂ” denounced NabokovÂ’s early novels (written unde r the pseudonym of Sirin) as Â“glib imitations of some unidentified German and Fr ench models,Â” and also accused Nabokov of non-Russianness and Â“indifference to the nationa l heritage.Â” To counter these attacks, NabokovÂ’s friend and supporter, Gleb Struve, Â“a dmitted that SirinÂ’s attention to formal precision and his disdain for hu manistic and religious concerns set him apart from the mainstream of Russian litera ture associated with Dostoe vsky and Tolstoy.Â” But Struve went even farther in defense of his friend, a defense that invariably causes one to wonder what role Nabokov played in StruveÂ’s comments. Struve argued that despite his obviou s distance from Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, Â“SirinÂ’s yearning for form, measure and orde rÂ” actually placed him Â“very close to Aleksandr PushkinÂ” (59). Dolinin suggests that by linking Nabokov/Sirin with Pushkin, who was Â“an almost sacred figure in the na tional canon,Â” StruveÂ’s attempt to legitimize NabokovÂ’s position as a Russian writer despite his exile, backfire d among critics. It was in the wake of this Pushkin-Sirin connection that SirinÂ’s stylistic sim ilarities to Gogol came under attack, with one critic, Adamovich, going so far as to say that SirinÂ’s only Russian literary forefather was Gogol, whose Â“insan e, sterile, cold, and inhuman traits he [Nabokov] had inheritedÂ” (59).
45 It is difficult to imagine which one of these observations Nabokov would have found most appalling or o ffensive. Anyone who reads Nikoloi Gogol for example, will be struck by the uncharacteristi c praise Nabokov heaps upon GogolÂ’s masterful technique and literary soul, one he undoubtedly would have view ed as being as far from Â“insaneÂ” as Earth is from unseen galaxies. The Nabokov who calls famous writers Â“not quite first-rateÂ” or Â“definitely second rateÂ” is one we will come to know very well; but the Nabokov who praises a writer by saying such things as, Â“I hardly know what to admire most when considering the following spurt of eloquenceÂ… the magic of its poetr yÂ—or magic of quite a different kindÂ…Â” ( Nikolai 110) is a Nabokov we do not know we ll at all. Indeed, using the words Â“sterile, cold and inhuman traitsÂ” quite possibly struck Nabokov as a greater insult to Gogol than any insinuation that he, himsel f, had inherited those same qualities. So how then, hypothetically, might Nabokov ha ve chosen to defend both Gogol as well as himself, particularly if Gogol had, in actuality, influenced him in a significant manner? One method, of course, would have been through parody, one of NabokovÂ’s hallmarks. This, however, was a stance Nabokov seemed to reserve only for those writers, as will be discussed later, who exhibited what he called true Â“ poshlust ,Â” and who thus were deserving of his literary daggers. As for th e restÂ—the writers Nabokov deemed so lacking in talent that to engage them might falsel y bestow upon them a kind of worthiness they did not deserveÂ—what sufficed was his dismissal of their observations as clearly false and superficial, with an implication that the cri tic simply did not possess the wits necessary to discern more complicated issues. (Later, of course, they would get the moniker of Â“criticule.Â”)
46 Gogol, to be sure, was not the sole wr iter to whom Nabokov would be linked over the course of his long career. Nor was he however, the only writer Nabokov would deny had influenced him. At the mere sugges tion, Nabokov typically rejects any textual comparisons within his works by deni grating the aforementioned author. Although Nabokov once told his students at Co rnell that Â“a true genius takes the work of others and bends it to his own useÂ” (Boyd, American 182), this statement apparently was one from which Nabokov later would attempt to back away. In 1966, for example, Appel posed several questions to Nabokov about possible connections to other authors in his own books, citing, as one exampl e, the observation that some readers saw a connection to PlatoÂ’s Myth of the Cave in Pale Fire as well as a reference to James JoyceÂ’s Stephen Dedalus when John Shade says, Â“I stand before the window and I pare my fingernailsÂ” (SO 69-70). To both observations Nabokov rejects any connection to either author as figuring into his work, noting in the first case that Â“I am not particularly fond of PlatoÂ” and, in the second, that JoyceÂ’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Â“is a feeble and garrulous book.Â” Further, Nabokov tells AppelÂ—even when similar passages are pointed out to himÂ—that the quoted phra se is Â“an unpleasant coincidenceÂ” (70-71). If this Nabokovian technique of denial s ounds familiar, it is because it is. Using the same syllogistic technique as for his response to Lucy Leon NoelÂ’s festshrift observation of him (i.e., that he could not have been Â“bashful Â” because he already was too sure of himself as a writer), NabokovÂ’s implied argument is that he could not have been influenced by an authorÂ’s worksÂ—including taking the work of others and Â“bending it to his own useÂ”Â—if simultaneously he is critical of them And yet, as any reader of NabokovÂ’s Lolita cannot escape noticing, Nabokov does exactly that, and re peatedly. Indeed, as Appel notes in his
47 introduction, Â“several of HumbertÂ’s allusions are woven so subtly in to the texture of the narrative as to elude all but the most compul sive exegetes. Many allusions, however, are direct and available, and these are most fr equently to nineteenth-century writersÂ…Â” (Annotated, lv). As just one example, Appel points out th at Â“by calling out Â‘Reader! Bruder!Â’ (page 262), Humbert echoes Au Lecteur the prefatory poem in Les Fleurs du Mal (Â‘Hypocrite reader! Â—My fellow manÂ—My brother!); and ind eed, the entire novel constitutes an ironic upending of Baudelaire and a good many other write rs who would enlist the readerÂ’s full participation in the workÂ” (lvii). At another point, Appel refers to the doppelganger motif and Â“the parodic references to R.L. Steven son,Â” which Â“suggest th at Nabokov had in mind Henry JekyllÂ’s painfully earnest discovery of th e Â‘truthÂ’ that Â‘man is not only one, but truly twoÂ” (lxii-lxiii). Despite these numerous, scattered allusions to other writersÂ’ works within his own novels, however, Nabokov continued to claim to interviewers later in life (and all with scripted answers, we should recall), that he never was influenced by any writer. What is often astounding is that, voila like magic, critics acti ng like bloodhounds hot on scent frequently appeared to accept these statemen ts without further questioning, putting their metaphoric tails between their legs as if heading back to their rickety porches. If we recall the last sentence of Nikolai Gogol, then, what is particularly st riking is that it hints at this later strategy of escaping undete ctedÂ—one that, clearly, will turn out to be as effective for Nabokov as tossing a false-scented rag deep into the woods and then watching, merrily, as the literary bloodhounds, howling in joy and anticipation, chase after it en masse.
48 Nikolai Gogol of course, is not the only place we glimpse this strategy at work. The idea of outmaneuvering or outwitting his cr itics is raised onc e again in his 1951 autobiography, Speak, Memory in which Nabokov compares the composition of confounding chess problems to the creation of great literature. For Nabokov, both superb chess problems and great literature are master ful games in which the one who prevails (and of course, this would be Na bokov) always, at minimum, is at least several deceptivelydesigned moves ahead of his opponent: It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between Black and White but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the charac ters but between the author and the world), so that a great part of a problemÂ’s value is due to the number of Â“triesÂ”Â—delusive opening moves, false scents, specious lines of play, astutely and lovingly prepared to lead th e would-be solver astray. (290) Here Nabokov makes clear a philoso phy that will be seen to play a crucial role in his cloaking of the hidden structure of Lolita in ensuring that the beau tiful Â“solutionÂ” he took so many years to discover and develop, woul d not be revealed. Indeed, for Nabokov it was not enough that great literature would simply lead the would-be solver astray; it also had to be inherently deceptive: Â…Deception in chess, as in art, is only part of the game; itÂ’s part of the combination, part of the delightful possibili ties, illusions, vistas of thought, which can be false vistas, perhaps. I think a good combination should always contain a certain element of deception. (SO 11-12)
49 Indeed, this dominating concept of construc ting literature with an eye toward deception can be seen in such early short stories as Â“A Guide to Berlin,Â” written in 1925 and originally published in Rul the Russian migr newspaper his father once edited. It was not until more than four decades later, in 1976, th at Nabokov gathered it and Â“the last batch of my Russian stories meriting to be EnglishedÂ” in Details of a Sunset and Other Stories In his brief introduction to the stor y, Nabokov writes: Â“Despite its simple appearance this Guide is one of my trickiest pieces. Its translation has caused my son and me a tremendous amount of healthy trouble. Tw o or three scattered phrases have been added for the sake of factual clarityÂ” (Details 90). Normall y, such a seemingly innocuous introduction would hardly be worth menti oning. But, much like the last line of Nikolai Gogol it alerts readers to the fact that carefu lly planted clues exist within the workÂ—as well as that a puzzle exists to be solved. Nabokov, to be sure, makes repeated referenc es to the same kind of inherent puzzle as lurking within Lolita At times, however, he almost s eems to be taunting interviewers and scholars with their inability to discover it, much as he did with the less than transparent Â“structural knotÂ” of his final novel, Transparent Things No doubt, however, that this is an ongoing source of extraordinary glee for him, proof that the magicianÂ’s tricks have remained undetected.
50 Chapter TwoÂ—Anxiety, Influence, and Invention In any lesser writer, certainty about oneÂ’s innate brilliance or inevitable literary longevity would be called wishful thinking, delu sional, or else arrogant. (And, to be sure, the word Â“arrogantÂ” has been applied to Na bokov by more than one critic over the years.) But for Nabokov, confidence in his own literary genius was simply a given, much in the same way that Harold Bloom notes was true of Goethe, whose Â“genius seem[s] always to have been thereÂ” (Genius, 167). As if he were describing Nabokov and not Goethe, Bloom elsewhere refers to the German writer as possessing an Â“appalli ng self-confidenceÂ” (Anxiety, 52), and one which contained a Â“str angely optimistic refusal to regard the poetical past as primarily an obstacle to fresh creation. Goethe, like Milton, absorbed precursors with a gusto evidently precluding anxietyÂ” (Anxiety, 50). It is difficult to read these descriptions of Goethe, particularly of his Â“appalling selfconfidenceÂ” and Â“gustoÂ” for absorbing other wr iters who had come before him, and not immediately think of Nabokov. Indeed, at times the Russian-born writer almost appears to share the same DNA with the German poet and writer that Bloom asse rts Â“believed himself literally incapable of creativ e anxietyÂ” (Anxiety, 51). Coul d not the same be said of Nabokov as well? Seen under BloomÂ’s light, Na bokovÂ’s comments to his studentsÂ—Â“There are two great writers in Englis h for whom English was not a native language, the first and the lesser of whom was Joseph Conrad. The s econd is IÂ”Â—takes on new meaning. Rather than pure hubris or arrogance, as many ma y have viewed NabokovÂ’s remarks at the time,
51 instead we may have been given a glimpse of on e of the rarest of all great writers: one for whom creative anxiety never existed. Like Goethe, Nabokov possessed a surety a bout his own creativ e abilities, along withÂ—to borrow from BloomÂ—a Â“gustoÂ” for ab sorbing his literary precursors, which exhibited themselves even when he was a young boy. These personality facets were as undeniably a part of his makeup as his fatherÂ’s name, or the stream of tutors throughout his boyhood. Unlike many other writers to whom fame comes suddenly and then later shapes their literary personas, Nabokov, on the other han d, appears almost to have been born with this acute awareness of his own authorial powers. And this, as we will see later, will prove central to NabokovÂ’s ability to vault past what Bloom calls Â“the anxiety of influence,Â” something that, for many other writers, is a psychologically and artistically stifling condition in which one fears that oneÂ’s own writi ng will forever be in th e shadow of greater writers who came before. NabokovÂ’s sense of his own literary powers can be seen even in his earliest works. Many were written in Berlin and published in Russian migr newspapers, where they had limited readership and almost certainly would have faded into obscuri ty had the authorÂ’s later fame not culled them from oblivion. A nd without a doubt, it is tempting to look at those early works and hunt for traces of literary leitmotifs and thematic threads in his later works. Stegner, for example, recognizes this inclination, as well as its potential pitfalls. Unlike many other authors who develop a styl e and Â“voiceÂ” over time, Stegner observes, Nabokov had a voice and command of styl e from his earliest beginnings. Â“Commentators are fond of talking about an authorÂ’s Â‘early worksÂ’ Â— those experimental preludes to the later masterpiece, but with regard to Nabokov such
52 discussions seem rather arti ficial...,Â” he writes. Â“One never feels that Nabokov, even in those early works, is not completely in command of his fictional worldÂ” (Nabokov Congeries xxxi). Still, Stegner stresses that he is not suggesting that the reader Â“must take communionÂ” before opening one of NabokovÂ’s earl y works; he is merely offering a few words of caution. One may certainly dislike what Nabokov does, Â“but because he is an innovator and not an imitator one should, I think, make sure one knows what he does before one dislikes it Â” (xxxii). But even at a much younger age, Nabokov was not simply a reader or judge of socalled Â“greatÂ” writers, but actually seemed to see himself on the same literary chessboard along with them. This was not simply a sign of Â“arrogance,Â” as some have called it; instead, it is what I view as the rare surety of a write r who seems, perhaps, to have been genetically endowed with a highly-polishe d armor against the novelistic gnawing rat that Bloom called the anxiety of influence. As Bloom notes, this deep-seated angst that the writer is not the creator or originator of the text, but instead that the works of a ghos t-like predecessor exist before and beyond him and assume essential priority over his own writings, has haunted more than one significant author, includi ng Thomas Mann. As Bloom notes, Mann was afflicted by this condition perhaps even more intenselyÂ—particularly as he began writing his own version of the Faust legend, Dr. Faustus Â—because of GoetheÂ’s obvious lack of the anxiety: Thomas Mann, a great sufferer of the anxiet y of influence, and one of the great theorists of that anxiety, suffered more acu tely for GoetheÂ’s not having suffered at all, as Mann realized. Questing for some si gn of such anxiety in Goethe, he came up with a single question from the Westoestlicher Diwan : Â“Does a man live when
53 others also live?Â” The question troubled Mann far more than it did Goethe. The talkative musical promoter in Dr. Faustus Herr Saul Fitelberg, utters a central obsession of the novel when he observes to Leverkuehn: Â“You insist on the incomparableness of the personal case. Y ou pay tribute to an arrogant personal uniquenessÂ—maybe you have to do that. Â‘Doe s one live when others live?Â’Â” In his book on the genesis of Dr. Faustus Mann admits to his anxiety on receiving the Glasperlenspeil [Glass Bead Game] of Hesse while at work composing his intended late masterpiece. In his diary he wrote: Â“T o be reminded that one is not alone in the worldÂ—always unpleasant,Â” and then he added: Â“It is another version of GoetheÂ’s question: Â“Do we then live if others live?Â” (Anxiety 52-52) Expanding further on what he calls this Â“cruel and central questionÂ” posed by Goethe in his old age, as well as its later attendant inte rpretations by Mann, Bloom elsewhere points out what he deems to be Â“two superb Goethean aphorisms that between them form a dialectic of belated creation.Â” One, Bloom says, quoti ng Goethe, is: Â“Only by making the riches of the others our own do we bring anything great into being.Â” The second: Â“What can we in fact call our own except the energy, the force, the will!Â” (Western Canon, 193-194). Viewed another way, faced with GoetheÂ’s rhetorical question of whether a writer can Â“liveÂ” if other writers also liveÂ—as well as his forceful assertion that the only way to Â“bring anything great into beingÂ” is by seiz ing upon the Â“richesÂ” of other writersÂ—one can only imagine the psychological ga untlet that might have been th rust at the feet of Thomas Mann. Unlike Nabokov, who rarely makes any refere nce to Goethe except to flick him off like a bug having just alit upon his jacket la pel (Â“an academic shibboleth,Â” Nabokov called Goethe in his biography of Gogol), MannÂ’s anxiety about Goethe was so unabashedly
54 pronounced when it came to writing Dr. Faustus that Â“the shadow of Goethe rarely left himÂ” (Bloom, Genius 186). Furthermore, Bloom asserts, because of that overpowering shadow, Â“Goethe, more than his Faust, haunts MannÂ’s Faustus.Â” As if to underscore this point, Bloom, in another essay, points to MannÂ’s Â“Fantasy on Goethe,Â” where Mann ascribes GoetheÂ’s se renity in his elder years to Â“aesthetic achievementÂ” rather than to a Â“natural endowme nt.Â” Almost as if he were envying Goethe his Â“appalling self confidenceÂ” that seemingl y accompanied him all his life, Mann praises Goethe for his Â“splendid narcissism, a conten tment with self far too serious and far too concerned to the very end with self-perf ection, lightening, and di stillation of personal endowment, for a petty-minded word like Â‘van ityÂ’ to be applicableÂ” (Western Canon 193). Despite NabokovÂ’s long-enduring di sdain for MannÂ—and for what Nabokov probably would not have objected to cal ling MannÂ’s Â“Litter-atureÂ” of IdeasÂ—it nevertheless is difficult to read this a ssessment of Goethe and not think of Nabokov. Lingering over MannÂ’s words, might Na bokov perhaps have found some sense of camaraderie, some recognition of a soul allianc e in the description of GoetheÂ’s Â“splendid narcissism,Â” one so deeply concerned with perfec tion of the self, and thus also with his art, that the word Â“vanityÂ” could not apply? Put another way, were MannÂ’s words about Goethe not ones that Nabokov very likely would have desi red to have seen written about himself, words burnished forever, perhaps, within the festschrift dedicated to him in his later years? MannÂ’s admission about his feelings to He sseÂ’s novel, however, reveals to my thinking still another level of the anxiety, influence and stru ggle for individual invention with which most great writers struggle. Wh at Mann admits, as least in my view, is something incredibly courageous: name ly, acknowledging the hovering influence of
55 contemporary rivals who haunted him during th e construction of his own text. Not only does he openly acknowledge the overpoweri ng shadow cast by Goethe, upon whose play, Faust his own novel would be based; but he also admits to the shadow of another living writer, that of Hermann Hesse. In many re spects, MannÂ’s willingness to explore these psychological influences on his own creative and compositional process can be seen to stand in direct opposition to either Goethe or Nabokov. Rather than shrink from writers who had co me before him, Goethe, to the contrary, seemed to embrace them. And rather than di stancing himself from any association or influence by them, he even seemed to exa lt in incorporating thos e texts into his own creations. This can be discerned when Goet he talks to his biographer, Johann Peter Eckermann, about his critical observations made about Faust by Lord Byron. GoetheÂ’s remarks, made with a clearly sharpened rhetoric al quill, are reminiscent of the same ilk that Nabokov, more than a century later, would opine about his own literary contemporaries. As Eckermann records that conversation: Â“The greater part of those fine things c ited by Lord Byron,Â” said Goethe, Â“I have never even read; much less di d I think of them when I wa s writing Faust. But Lord Byron is only great as a poet; as soon as he reflects, he is a child. He knows not how to help himself against stupid attacks of the same kind made against him by his own countrymen. He ought to have expressed hims elf more strongly against them. Â‘What is there is mine,Â’ he should have said; Â‘and whether I got it from a book or from life, is of no consequence; the only point is whether I ha ve made a right use of it.Â’Â….Thus my Mephistopheles sings a song from Shakespeare, and why should he not? Why should I give myself the trouble of inventing one of my own, when this
56 said just what was wanted? Also, if the prologue to my Faust is something like the beginning of Job, that is ag ain quite right, and I am ra ther to be praised than censuredÂ” (Hamlin, 412-413). Clearly, Goethe viewed any worksÂ—either in the past or by his contemporariesÂ—as fair game for his own creative uses. This also could be argued was the case for Nabokov as well, who weaves in so many layers of texts within LolitaÂ—references to references to referencesÂ—that at times the reader has the se nsation of having fallen down a literary rabbit hole. What is more, however, GoetheÂ’s langua ge is hauntingly similar to NabokovÂ’s when addressing artistic impressions or so-called Â“insightsÂ” about his work. In the above passage, for example, Goethe refute s ByronÂ’s observations about Faust by declaring, in what seems to be obvious sarcasm, that the majority of th e Â“fine thingsÂ” cited by Byron he either never even read or considered. This, of course, is a similar rhetorical strategy used by Nabokov with interviewers; one need only recall, as just one instance, NabokovÂ’s comment to Appel that any similar passages that connect him to James Joyce are merely an Â“unfortunate coincidence.Â” This, however, brings up an important distinction between Goethe and Nabokov when it comes to the issue of influe nce and invention. Unlike Nabokov, Goethe acknowledged freely borrowing from other writ ers, and did so without any vestige of apology. Indeed, he even vigorously defended such uses: Do not all the achievements of a poetÂ’s pr edecessors and contemporaries rightfully belong to him? Why should he shrink fr om picking flowers where he finds them? Only by making the riches of others our own do we bring anything great into being. (Goethe qtd. in Bloom, Anxiety 52)
57 To Eckermann, GoetheÂ’s Boswell, Goethe furt her expands on the idea of Â“originality,Â” exhibiting at the same time an innate understand ing of how writers str uggle with the ghosts of those who have come before, as well as the sometimes fearsome shadows that can be cast by living writers in oneÂ’s own generation. In the following passage, Eckermann, a young struggling poet in addition to GoetheÂ’s bi ographer, has just re lated to Goethe his own ideas for writing a Â“great poem upon th e seasons.Â” Goethe advises Eckermann: I especially warn you against great inven tions of your own; for then you would try to give a view of things, and for that purpose youth is seldom ripe. Further, character and views detach themselves as sides from the poetÂ’s mind, and deprive him of the fulness [sic] requisite for fu ture productions. And, finally, how much time is lost in invention, internal arrangement, and combination! for [sic] which nobody thanks us, even supposing our work happily accomplished. With a given material, on the other hand, a ll goes easier and better. F acts and characters being provided, the poet has the ta sk of animating the whole. He preserves his own fulness [sic], for he needs to part with but little of himself; and there is much less loss of time and power, since he only has the trouble of execution. Indeed, I advise the choice of subjects that have been worked before. How many Iphigenias have been written! yet [sic] they are all diffe rent, each writer considers and arranges the subject after his own fashion. (Goeth e qtd. in Conversations 8-9) What is particularly striking here is that Goethe not onl y is advising th e young poet to actively search out the work of predecessors and employ those works for his own artistic purposes, but he also is acknowledging that this conscious Â“borrowingÂ” exists within his own methodology. In other words, Goethe not onl y does not shrink from the idea of literary
58 precursors, not only does not feel their sh adows casting long dark rays upon his own creative process; but he also seems to embrace them with Â“gusto.Â” As Jane Brown notes: From the first Goethe problematized the Faust material by explicit allusions to and parodies of other works. The affair be tween Faust and Margarete, the heart of GoetheÂ’s original conception, is stylized in terms of a seduction plot that was still recognizably English in GoetheÂ’s Germany, and even more in terms of the relation between Hamlet and Ophelia; the connection is marked by one of OpheliaÂ’s songs sung by Mephistopheles. The end of the Â“W alpurgis NightÂ” alludes repeatedly to A MidsummerÂ’s Night Dream Â…to mention only the most obvious of ShakespeareÂ’s allusionsÂ…The play is saturated with bibl ical allusions, from the presence of the Book of Job in the Â“Prologue in HeavenÂ” to the last act of Part IIÂ…Almost as pervasive are the allusions to classica l antiquity, beginning with Virgil in the earliest stages of the play; in the later stag es, particularly Part II, the canon expands to included Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Apollonius of Rhode s, Lucan and Ovid. (88) Brown also points out another consequence of Go etheÂ’s rich textual allusions and parodies, particularly when it comes to religious imagery. In many respects, this will reveal itself as existing within Lolita as well: The tendency toward complicated allusions to other texts runs riot: Part II consists to a large extent of what might best be cal led Â“friendly parodies,Â” appropriations of texts and artifacts like sphi nxes and griffins that span the history of European culture from Homer to Byron. So comple x is the web of irony, parody and allusion in the final scenes that there is little ag reement as to whether FaustÂ’s apotheosis is
59 affirmative or nihilistic. The problem, of course, is the deliberate use of cosmic religious imageryÂ…to represent a world that is thoroughly secular and in which the principles of physical and biological development have replaced the Christian God (99-100). Hoelzel agrees with BrownÂ’s assessment that it is unclear whether FaustÂ’s apotheosis is Â“affirmativeÂ” or not, and posits that this wa s precisely GoetheÂ’s intent. Does Faust ultimately merit his redemption, or not? Does he win his bet with Mephisto, or not? These were questions, Hoelzel asserts, which Goethe intended to be debated. Â“Indeed,Â” Hoelzel says, Â“much evidence seems to suggest that Goethe was consciously working towards an ambiguous solution,Â” calling Faust at one point Â“ein o ffenbares RaethselÂ” Â—an open riddleÂ—and at another point expressing the desire that Â“die Menschen fort and fort ergoetze und ihnen zu schaffen macheÂ”Â—that people would have to return to the text again and again. It is this quality that Hoelzel calls Â“G oetheÂ’s mysterious, almost playful manner with regard to his magnum opusÂ” a nd his Â“apparently conscious ef fort to make it elusive and inscrutableÂ” (1). Such comments by Goethe, Hoelzel notes, we re not made merely once or twice, but numerous times in his personal le tters Â“as if to emphasize his in tentions.Â” In one letter to K.F. von Reinhard, for example, Goethe writes that no Â“AufschlussÂ” (conclusion) should expected, because Â“each problem in the work gi ves rise to new problem s.Â” Hoelzel calls it Â“prophetic accuracyÂ” that Goethe predicted how numerous scholars and researchers would uncover much more in the work that he intended to show (6). What is particularly striking about bo th Brown and HoelzelÂ’s comments is how hauntingly similar they seem in relation in Nabokov. Recall, for example, NabokovÂ’s
60 Â“propheticÂ” statements to interviewers about how scholars would pour over his work long after he was gone, hunting for traces and clues to his life and work. And remember, too, how Nabokov taunted his Â“criticules,Â” who were unable to discern the so-called Â“obviousÂ” structural knot in his last novel, Transparent Things Indeed, imagine, for a moment, that both Brown and Hoelzel had been speaking about Lolita and not Faust It is difficult to imagine anyone disagreeing with BrownÂ’s assessment that Lolita likewise contains Â“complicated allusions to other textsÂ” that at times run riot, or that, moreover, HumbertÂ’s repeated use of religious rhetoric and Â“cosmic religious imageryÂ”Â—even if it is not as overt as in FaustÂ—similarly can be seen as exis ting against a backdrop of a post-war American world in which consumerism, in many respec ts, had replaced the Christian God with the Almighty dollar. And certainly, when we recall NabokovÂ’s esteem for that which is a hidden and deceptive, and GoetheÂ’s esteem for the Â“open riddle,Â” the goals of these two literary titans seem, on severa l fronts, solidly aligned. What Nabokov and Goethe both present to the reader in Lolita and Faust is a riddle about the natures and fates of their protagoni sts, a riddle by which both writers seem to taunt the reader into believing that there is a solution. Whether ther e is, indeed, only one solution or many, depending on the perceptions of the readers, is left up to us to discern; but one suspects that, just like the nature of the human condition, perception will be altered by oneÂ’s experience. Does Faust deserve his redemption? PerhapsÂ—but then again, perhaps not. Does Humbert deserve to sizzle in he ll for all eternity? He was a pedophile, a murdererÂ—but then again, didnÂ’t he also love Lolita in his own twisted way? Faust and Lolita thus both present en igmas that endure, despite our attempts to reach easy answers. This, of course, is wh at Goethe and Nabokov both intended; for when
61 it comes to a human beingÂ’s deepest yearnings and innermost desires, judgment is not so simple a task. We know this inst inctively to be true, for just like Faust and Humbert, we too have one thing deep inside our souls that we crave above all elseÂ—even, it should be noted, if we do not yet know what it is. The Wind and the Weather Part of GoetheÂ’s unabashed borrowing ma y have stemmed from a sense that he was, in fact, without any real precurs ors or predecessors. As Bloom notes: The exhilaration of unprecedentedness always attended him, since happily he had no strong German forerunner, and cheerfully established a senior partnership with Schiller, a decade younger than himself. Even Shakespeare had to absorb Christopher Marlowe, but the young Goethe was alone with the wind and the weather. (Genius 175-76) Nabokov, too, seems to have possessed this se nse of being alone with the wind and the weather, of having no precursor. Long before Lolita was published, for example, a 1948 profile of Nabokov in the Wellesley College Ne ws noted, Â“To Russians, Pushkin is their most treasured writer; to th e English, Shakespeare. Nabokov, with both heritages at his disposal, calmly placed himself in their comp anyÂ” (Boyd, American 122). But what clearly set him apart from Shakespeare or PushkinÂ—or Goethe, for that matterÂ—was that, unlike those writers, Nabokov was writing in a languag e other than his native tongue. Layered upon the bedrock of his own appalli ng self-confidence seemed to rest an additional strata of verve, one that reveals itself almost as an unspoken dare, as an inferred taunt: Would Shakespeare or Pushkin have been so great if they had been forced to switch to German?
62 Would anyone even mention GoetheÂ’s name if he had been forced to write in English? Hold me up to those writers, look at what I have done purely on my own literary merits, but then remember where I came from, that I was once th e literary star of Si rin. Then tell me: who is the greatest writer? We can see further evidence of this confiden ce in an interview with the author Herb Gold, who asked him about one criticÂ’s asse rtion that NabokovÂ’s works have striking similarities and are Â“extremely repetitious.Â” Nabokov answers that th ere may be truth in that view, but if so it is because he differs from other writers. Â“Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, pa st and present. Artistic originality,Â” on the other hand, Â“has only its own self to copyÂ” (SO 95). Here again we are presented with NabokovÂ’s concept of himself as not only pur ely original, and thus unique, but also uninfluenced by any other writer. If we recall the statement Nabokov once made to his Cornell students that Â“a true genius takes the work of others and bends it to his own use,Â” (and this, it should be noted, was before Lolita was published and launched him into literary stardom), we can assume, however, that there apparently was a time when Nabokov seemed to share GoetheÂ’s view, at least openly, that a writer should not shri nk from Â“picking flowersÂ” where he finds them, or, in other words, freely borrowing from ot her works at will. In many respects, Nabokov was echoing the ideas expressed by Go ethe to the young Eckermann, although the difference, of course, is that where Goet he openly acknowledged borrowing from other writers and even taking their themes and al tering them for his own purposes, Nabokov later would deny doing any such thing.
63 Nabokov would, however, give occasional hints to his philosophy of how he viewed his own chessboard-like maneuvering in relation to other writers, as in the following passage: A creative writer must study carefully th e works of his riva ls, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn capaci ty not only of recombining but of recreating the given world. In order to do this adequate ly, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art, the childÂ’s scrawl on the fence, and the crankÂ’s message in the market place. Art is never simple. (SO 32) NabokovÂ’s use of the word Â“rivals,Â” I think, is particularly intriguing, especially since it suggests a kind of battle-ready psyche, one that is in stark contrast to the type described in BloomÂ’s notion of Â“anxiety.Â” Moreover, Na bokovÂ’s reference to Â“recombiningÂ” and not Â“duplicating laborÂ” sounds strikingly simila r to GoetheÂ’s advice to Eckermann, and is particularly important when we later compare the text of Lolita with GoetheÂ’s Faust What is missing from NabokovÂ’s mention of Â“rivals,Â” however, is whether they must, to his thinking, necessarily exist within his own lifetime. Does he consider deceased writers to be rivals, or only ones in his mi dst? As for the latter case, Nabokov told one interviewer that Â“seldom more than two or three really first-rate writers exist simultaneously in a given generationÂ” (SO 57). Notice, however, that he does not make the distinction of adding Â“within any one country Â”; his worldview, as it pertains to living literary giants, thus would only seem to allow for two or three titans to exist on the planet during any one era. It seems highly likely, th erefore, that for Nabokov a great achievement
64 for any living Â“titanÂ” would be to successfully parody or mock the Â“great achievementsÂ” of a titanic predecessor. It should be noted, however, that not all of GoetheÂ’s advice to Eckermann is the kind that Nabokov would have been likely to endorse. At one point, for example, Eckermann tells Goethe that he is struggling w ith how to approach a certain text he has in mind, and adds that it would be Â“most convenien t to me to treat it in prose.Â” Goethe counsels him against it, and tells Eckermann th at the Â“best methodÂ” fo r treating the subject would be in Â“ten or twelve separate little poemsÂ—in rhymeÂ” (Conversations 19-20). Goethe, to be sure, is speaking from the ro le as a master teacher to the young writer. Nevertheless, his comments here are partic ularly noteworthy when we consider the significance of that nebulous but critical issue of Â“treat mentÂ” in any composition. The manner by which a writer ultimately decides to st ructure a work is not mere decoration; to the contrary, the Â“method,Â” as Goethe calls it, both supports and constrains the text itself, functioning much like wooden framework for a house being built. Once a certain design is erected, the creative architect may add additiona l rooms if necessary, but he cannot change an A-frame into a Gothic spire with flying buttresses. How to best approach any work of com position, of course, is one of any writerÂ’s greatest challenges. Milton, for exampl e, was uncertain whether to write Paradise Lost as a classical epic or baroque spectacular (Brown 90). By telling Eckermann how to proceed, Goethe is revealing what many would call an altogether different kind of hubris by presuming to have the answer for which the individual writer, by necessity, must determine on his own. Should the text be narrated in first pe rson or third? Shall it be in past tense or present? Should the text be contained within a narrative frame, use flashbacks, unfold from
65 the point of view of an all-seeing narrator ? These are not simply technical questions; indeed, they will, to a large degree, determine the shape and options available to the writer, something Nabokov no doubt was aware of during the numerous years in which he struggled to find the appropriate structure, or to use GoetheÂ’s word, Â“method,Â” for HumbertÂ’s tale. This, of course, raises a compelling issu e. If Nabokov did, indeed, decide to use Faust as the structure or Â“methodÂ” for his novel, one can only a ssume that his scholarship would have been both exhaustive and thorough. Nabokov, as Boyd points out, was an intense researcher for his novels; when writing The Gift for example, Nabokov Â“had thoroughly researched the origin s of Russian radical utilitarianism and in 1933 had even proposed to teach the evolution of Russian Marxism (American, 21). Evidence of his indepth scholarship and research also can be found within Lolita as when Vera, in a letter to her sister-in-law, writes that Â“V. studied the law on the protection of orphans, and there is no law that would have prevented this tu rn of eventsÂ” (Schiff 200). Indeed, Nabokov himself told one interviewer that he Â“never re taliatesÂ” when critics que stion his art, Â“but I do reach for my heaviest dictionary when my scholarship is questionedÂ” (SO 146). Clearly, then, his scholarship not only was a source of pride for him, but something he defended intensely and au thoritatively. For a scholar of NabokovÂ’s breadth and de pth, then, one can only infer that his research of Faust Â—as well as of GoetheÂ—also would have included reading EckermannÂ’s Conversations of Goethe, which Nietzsche once called Â“the best German book there isÂ” (Ellis, Conversations vii), and of which Hamlin observes:
66 Regarding himself as an intimate biographer (somewhat on the model of Boswell for Samuel Johnson), Eckermann offers very detailed, often word-for-word accounts of his meetings with the elder poet. Whether or not he is strictly accurate in what is reported, the work remains an invaluable source of information, especially with regard to the thought and opinions of Goethe on every conceivable subject, including Faust (412) It follows, then, that Nabokov also would have been familiar with GoetheÂ’s advice to Eckermann to choose Â“subjects that have been worked before,Â” advice that most writers, considering the subject matter under discussi on, might have seized upon as a metaphoric green light to go ahead and help themselves to whatever literary pickings they found desirable. But I say Â“mostÂ” writers. This, to be sure, was not the case with Nabokov. If Nabokov would not even acknowledge textual similarities between his own novels and those of other writersÂ—except for those of the most obvious, accessible and parodic typesÂ—why would anyone expect him, if he did indeed use GoetheÂ’s Faust for the Â“structural knotÂ” of Lolita ever to disclose it? If Lolita was, in fact, as Â“carefully contrivedÂ” as he once remarked, why woul d anyone imagine that Nabokov ever would have willingly revealed the solution? The answers to those questions obviously are complex and beyond our grasp. We can speculate, we can theorize, but there is only one thing we can know with certainty: Nabokov was always the literary chessmaster, and we readers simply his pawns.
67 Parody and Poshlust One of the most obvious ways NabokovÂ’s sens e of his own literary genius ability expresses itselfÂ—as well as his judgments about other writersÂ—is through parody. Nabokov makes a clear distinction between parody and satire; sa tire, he says, Â“is a lesson, parody is a gameÂ” (SO 75). He further dis tinguishes between the familiar meaning of parodyÂ—Â“a grotesque imitationÂ”Â—from something he refers to as a Â“mockingbird game.Â” His own type of parody, in contrast to the more commonplace meaning, Nabokov says, is Â“essentially lightheartedÂ” and Â“delicateÂ” (SO 76). Whether that always was the case, however, is left for readers to judge. Boyd, for example, notes that by age 19, Na bokov not only had judged DostoevskyÂ’s Crime and Punishment to be Â“long-winded, terribly sentimental, and badly written,Â” but then followed this scathing assessment with a parodic poem about the writer (151). Around the same time, Nabokov also wrote a 430-line ri poste to BlokÂ’s most celebrated poem (Â“DvenadtsatÂ”), calling what many considered to be BlokÂ’s masterpiece Â“dreadful, selfconsciously couched in a phony Â‘primitiveÂ’ tone with a pink cardboard Jesus Christ glued on at the endÂ” (156). To be sure, many mi ght view such pronouncements as audacious, coming as they do from a 19-year-old young man who essentially is shredding the works of great and beloved Russian writers. Still, what is more noteworthy, and even mo re valuable in terms of literary analysis, is NabokovÂ’s use of the word Â“phony,Â” along with the evoked image of a fake or cheap representation of Jesus Christ. Both concepts relate directly to the exemplification of another animating force within NabokovÂ’s work: the concept of Â“ poshlust .Â” Of all the criticisms that could be hurled at any writer, poshlust at least for Nabokov, seems to have
68 been the most expressive of his complete scor n and contempt, the Â“one pitiless word,Â” as he put it, that expresses Â“the id ea of a widespread defect for which the other three European languages I happen to know po ssess no special termÂ” (Nabokov, Nikolai 63). What this Russian word means, howeverÂ—and its rela tion to NabokovÂ’s own writingÂ—takes a bit of explaining. Language, of course, is a construct of cu lture, and so we should not be surprised that numerous cultures deem certain word s to be incapable of full understanding by outsiders, or that attempts to translate certain words often are viewed as pale imitations. Â“Kairos,Â” for example, was a term that James Kinneavy points out was a dominating concept in ancient Greek texts, but whose multiple meaningsÂ—f rom Â“right timingÂ” to Â“due measureÂ” and numerous other shades of dis tinctionÂ—were all but lost on translators throughout the ages (3). For a more contem porary example, many Germans likewise claim that the word Â“WeltanschauungÂ” is not tran slatable, and that its English equivalent, Â“worldview,Â” comes nowhere close to capturing the wordÂ’s full meaning. Nabokov, quite clearly, believes the same to be true of Â“ poshlust .Â” In his biography, Nikolai Gogol he devotes several pages to the wo rd, beginning with how to pronounce it (Â“the first Â‘oÂ’ is as big as the plop of an elephant falli ng into a muddy pondÂ”) and then proceeds to offer a few possible interpretations: English words expressing several, although by no means all aspects of poshlust are for instance: Â“cheap, sham, common, smutt y, pink-and-blue, high falutinÂ’, in bad taste.Â” My little assistant, RogetÂ’s Thesaurus (which incidentally lists Â“rats, miceÂ” under Â“InsectsÂ”Â—see page 21 of Revised Edition) supplies me moreover with Â“inferior, sorry, trashy, scurvy, tawdry, gimcrack,Â” and others under Â“cheapness.Â”
69 All these however suggest merely certain fa lse values for the detection of which no particular shrewdness is required. In fact they tend, these words, to supply an obvious classification of values at a gi ven period of human history; but what Russians call poshlust is beautifully timeless and so cleverly painted all over with protective tints that its pres ence (in a book, in a soul, in an institution, in a thousand other places) often escapes detection. (64) In NabokovÂ’s concept of the term, then, poshlust is not solely comprised of cheapness or tawdriness, qualities which anyone easily c ould discern. Rather, in order for genuine poshlust to exist (an oxymoron, clearly, if ever th ere was one), one must possess a certain Â“shrewdnessÂ” to recognize and discern it, so that shrewdness, by definition, thus becomes an inherent component of the word as we ll. Again, NabokovÂ’s understanding of the word reveals his esteem for that which is hidden, for that which must be deciphered, and for that which remains to most people as enigmatic. He pr ivileges, even in this one word alone, the concept of deciphering that which is hidden but simultaneously, exists within plain view. But poshlust as Nabokov has pointed out, also app lies to a personÂ’s Â“soul.Â” Just as an institution can continue to assert archaic va lues to a populace that views those values as imbedded or established; and just as an organization, due to it s sheer longevity and reputation, may maintain respect and deferen ce long after its core values have become anachronistic, so too a human being can drape its s oul in a nut-like shell that is resistant to discernment, presenting itself as one thing while its true na tureÂ—perhaps even to itselfÂ— remains hidden deep within. It is thus that Charlotte Haze is literally surrounded by what T.S. Eliot might have called the objective correlative of poshlusty (to coin an American version of the word) Mexican knickknacks, and appears to us as Â“one of those women
70 whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soulÂ” (Annotate d, 37). Indeed, as Appel notes, Â“to Nabokov [Charlotte] is the definitive artsy-craftsy-s uburban ladyÂ—the culture-vulture, that travesty of Woman, Love and Sexuality. In shor t, she is the essence of American poshlust Â…Â” (Annotated xlvii). But Nabokov, in his definition of the word, also distinguishes genuine poshlust from what may appear cheap or artificial or common at a certain point in history, and the kind of poshlust that is Â“beautifully timeless.Â” In c ontrast to ephemeral or constantly shifting notions of what is good or bad taste w ithin any particular cu lture or society, for example, true poshlust Nabokov suggests, is immortal. What is more, usually it is so cleverly cloaked, so permeated with what is deemed to be normal or honored or respected, that it often escapes no tice or even scrutiny. Poshlust of course, is to be found everywhere from the commercial artist who, as Nabokov notes, Â“wishes to depict a nice little boyÂ” and so Â“will grace him with frecklesÂ”; to propaganda and advertisements. But it is lite rature, Nabokov says, that is Â“one of its best breeding places.Â” By speaking of Â“ poshlust -literature,Â” Nabokov asserts that he does not mean Â“the kind of thing which is termed Â‘pul pÂ’ or which in England used to go under the name of Â‘penny dreadfulsÂ’ and in Russian under that of Â‘yellow literatureÂ’. Obvious trash, curiously enough, contains sometimes a wholes ome ingredient, readily appreciated by children and simple soulsÂ” (SO 68). Nabokov makes clear he is not talking about something as obviously campy as AmericaÂ’s S uperman, which, perhaps like pink flamingos in a Florida trailer park, represent poshlust in Â“such a mild, unpretenti ous form that it is not worth while talking aboutÂ” (68).
71 So what kind of literary poshlust is worth talking about? To be sure, as far as Nabokov is concerned, it is one that is far more pernicious and insidious than any fiction by Raymond Chandler, say, or The Adventures of Superman As Nabokov observes in Nikolai Gogol, clarifying the Â“ordinaryÂ” poshlust from the truly insidious: Poshlust it should be repeated, is especially vigorous and vicious when the sham is not obvious and when the values it mimics are considered, rightly or wrongly, to belong to the very highest le vel of art, thought or emotion. It is those books which are so poshlustily reviewed in the literature supple ment of daily papersÂ—the best sellers, the Â‘stirring, profound novelsÂ’; it is these Â‘elevated and powerful booksÂ’ that contain and distill th e very essence of poshlust (68). Of particular note here is that Nobokov, in th is passage, does not exclude from the realm of poshlust those values that may Â“ri ghtlyÂ” belong to the highest le vel of art. Indeed, as John Burt Foster notes, even while Nabokov was a student at Cambridge in 1922, a Â“miracle yearÂ” in which both JoyceÂ’s Ulysess and T.S. EliotÂ’s The Waste Land were published at the acme of Â“high modernism,Â” Nabokov much later would recall to an interviewer (again, no doubt a scripted reply) that his literary tastes at the time favored the Georgian poets such as Rupert Brooke and A. E. Housman. Although Nabokov said he shared JoyceÂ’s Â“fascination for multilingual wordplay,Â” he dismissed Eliot as Â“not quite first-rateÂ” and Ezra Pound as Â“definitely second-rateÂ” (Na bokov qtd in Foster, 87). Conno lly adds that, rejecting a mythical method that some high modernis ts espoused, Â“Nabokov favored parody and cultural multiplicity to counter any movement that would reduce the in dividual to the level of stereotypeÂ” (4). Foster notes, however, th at Nabokov did make an Â“o blique tributeÂ” to Yeats in his novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight completed in 1939, the same year that
72 Yeats died. One major reason, Foster asserts, may have been that Â“the motif of communion with the dead [and] YeatsÂ’ strong intere st in the occultÂ…corr espond to NabokovÂ’s more skeptical evocations of Â‘the other sideÂ…Â’Â” (8 8). Although I disagree w ith FosterÂ’s assertion that NabokovÂ’s concern with what may occur after death has anythi ng to do with what might be called the Â“occultÂ” or Â“communion with the dead,Â” or that his lifelong speculation about the immortality of the human soul should be characterized as Â“skeptical evocations of the Â‘other side,Â’Â” it does seem plausible that Nabokov was offering a nod to YeatsÂ’ passing. Interestingly, however, Nabokov provides onl y a single example of literature that qualifies for what might be called his Poshlust awardÂ—although, to be sure, we can see it as example of one among many. The winne r of this dubious honor goes toÂ…GoetheÂ’s Faust : Ever since Russia began to think, and up to the time that her mind went blank under the influence of the extraordinary regime she has been enduring for these last twenty-five years, educated, sensitive a nd free-minded Russians were acutely aware of the furtive and clammy touch of poshlust Among the nations with which we came into contact, Germany had always seemed to us a country where poshlust instead of being mocked, was one of the essential parts of the national spirit, traditions and general atmosphere, although at the same time well-meaning Russian intellectuals of a more romantic type r eadily, too readily, adopted the legend of the greatness of German philosophy and literature : for it takes a super-Russian to admit that there is a dreadful streak of poshlust running though GoetheÂ’s Faust (Gogol 64)
73 In this extraordinary paragraph, Nabokov not only is commenting on what he views to be sheep-like thinking of Russia since the Revolut ion, and an inherent characteristic of the German people to embrace rather than mock poshlust ; but he also is addressing what we can only assume were his fellow Russian expatriates in Berlin during the nearly twenty years he lived there. This, it is worth noting, is not at all a small au dience for his remarks. In the early 1920s, some might have felt that Russians had actually taken over Berlin, particularly since, in just a few years, nearly ha lf a million refugees had moved there. As Schiff notes, Â“There were migr Russian everythings: Russian hairdressers, Russian grocers, Russian pawnshops, Russian antique stores, Russian foreign-exchange speculators, Russian orchestrasÂ…these were not downtrodden, frighten ed refugees but a sophisticated, vibrant community of professionals and aristocrats. Rul was one of 150 Russian language newspapersÂ…Â” (9-10). Many of those refugees also very likely an ticipated that one day they would go back to Russia. Vera, who arrived in Berlin with her family in 1921, later recalled the sense of waiting out the storm raging in Russia, and hopi ng that the Bolshevik regime would not last. At age 18, Vera assumed that Â“everybody was going back in a year, or two, or tenÂ” (Schiff 32). This might explain why so many RussiansÂ—Nabokov among themÂ—clung to their own language, as well as their own community. Why bothe r to learn German, or mix with the natives, as it were, if very so on they all would be going back home again? Still, Nabokov seems to be giving this sa me sophisticated community a not too gentle poke for too readily accepted the notion of Â“greatnessÂ” in German literature and philosophy. What is more, his reference to the Â“super-RussianÂ” who is able to discern the
74 poshlust in Faust a work long considered to be Goethe Â’s masterpiece, leaves little doubt about whom he means. Nabokov, however, adds to the above excer pted passage by acknowledging that he, himself, may be walking Â“dangerously close to that abyss of poshlust Â” when he begins to Â“exaggerate the worthlessness of a country at the awkward moment when one is at war with it.Â” (We should recall that Nabokov was composing this in 1943, when the outcome of the war was still unknown.) Nevert heless, this, in his view, st ill is not enough to prevent him from doing exactly that. To further illust rate what he calls Â“t he immortal spirit of poshlust pervading the German nation,Â” he turns his attention once again to Gogol, whom he says was able to beautifully express the inherent poshlust of Germany with Â“all the vigor of his geniusÂ” (65). Gogol, according to Nabokov, once joined a conversation that had turned to the topic of Germany, remarking that it was Â“im possible to imagine anything more unpleasant than a German Lothario.Â” Gogol illustrated this observation with an anecdote about a lovespurned German man who, in order to win ove r the Â“heart of his cr uel Gretchen,Â” swam every day in the lake near her balcony wh ile simultaneously embracing a few swans that had been Â“specially prepared for him for that purpose.Â” At the end of the anecdoteÂ— Â“GretchenÂ” melted; the couple were Â“happ ily marriedÂ” Â—Nabokov re marks that GogolÂ’s encapsulation represents Â“ poshlust in its ideal formÂ” (65-66) In a similar manner, Nabokov likewise asserts that Gogol ha s achieved the same thing with Dead Souls Â“There is something sleek and plump about poshlust ,Â” he writes, Â“and this gloss, these smooth curves, attracted the artist in GogolÂ” (71).
75 Peeling away the false veneer, the n, becomes NabokovÂ’s primary goal when addressing what he sees as most deceptively ta wdry. In this respect, it might be said that Nabokov is both repelled by and attracted to poshlust : it is inherently deceptive and deplorable, but also begs the discerning artist to uncover and pa rody it. Seen in this light, poshlust thus becomes for Nabokov what stupid accidents are for the emergency room physician: a steady stream of opportunities. Indeed, this might have been what He rbert Gold was referring to in a 1966 interview in which he asked Nabokov if there were Â“temptations for you in the sin of poshlus tÂ” and if Â“you have ever fallenÂ” (SO 100). Nabokov, however, responded to the question as if he had been asked whether, wi thin some innermost crevice of his soul, he actually was attracted to cat litter: Â… Poshlust has many nuances and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlust Corny trash, vulgar clichs, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities crude, moronic and dishonest pseudoliteratureÂ—these are obvious examples Now, if we want to pin down poshlust in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanist ic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlust speaks in such concepts as Â“Ameri ca is no better than RussiaÂ” or Â“We all share in GermanyÂ’s guilt.Â” The flowers of poshlust bloom in such phrases as Â“the moment of truth,Â” Â“charisma,Â” Â“existen tialÂ” (used seriously), Â“dialoguesÂ” (as applied to political talks between nations ), and Â“vocabularyÂ” (as applied to a
76 dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlust Â” (SO 100-101). Nabokov continues to provide additional exampl es, noting that Â“the list is long, and everybody has his bete noire his black pet, in the series.Â” His own, he says, includes a particular airline ad, Â“and, of course, Death in Venice You can see the rangeÂ” (101). It is no mistake that he should end a comment th at includes Auschwitz and Hiroshima with a jab at Thomas Mann. Nabokov singles out this au thor repeatedly over the yearsÂ—he calls him Â“puffed upÂ” Â“second rateÂ” and his works Â“ephemeralÂ” (SO 54)Â—criticism that has been described as stemming from NabokovÂ’s distaste for Â“the mythical method,Â” such as that found in MannÂ’s novella and JoyceÂ’s Ullysses and which Â“left Nabokov coldÂ” (Foster 90). Foster further notes that, on the whole, Â…Nabokov rejected myth as a form-giving device or modern fiction. Besides its connections with Freud and psychoanalysi sÂ…the mythical outlook tended to value free-floating generalities over concrete specificities. As a result, it threatened to replace individuals with stereotypes in a reduc tive manner of thought and perception utterly foreign to Nabokov. By c ontrast, parody in this context does not amount to a sterile take-off on previous wr iting that is essentially parasitic and unoriginal. Instead, it is a bri lliant stylistic balancing act that succeeds in giving a fresh twist and valuable new meanings to the conventional or already expressed. In short, parody is innovative; it is mode rnist rather than decadent. (91) Foster adds, however, that even though Nabokov rejects the mythical method and the Â“doctrine of authorial impersona lityÂ” (91), this does not mean that Nabokov always avoids or excludes mythical parallels from his fict ion. Providing what he calls Â“a notable, though
77 isolated, example,Â” Foster points to a passage in The Defense in which Â“his ungainly and unconventional chessmaster hero Luzhin, on decidi ng to propose to his future wife, meets a Cupid figure in the form of a pebble-shooti ng boyÂ” (90). Clearly, however, if Nabokov did use Faust as a hidden structure, it co uld be argued that Foster Â’s Â“isolatedÂ” example of mythic parallelism was not quite as isolated as it may seem. As far as Thomas Mann is concerned, howev er, what is interesting to note is that Nabokov does not address the one work that in many respects might have provided one of the biggest Â“targetsÂ” for Nabokov: Doktor Faustus published in 1948. Nevertheless, his reference to Death in Venice as an example of poshlust is not his only disparaging reference to Mann, a writer for whom Foster notes Nabokov had a Â“strong antipathyÂ” (95). It is one thing, however, to dismiss a writer as Â“phony,Â” or Â“not quite first-rate,Â” or Â“definitely second rate,Â” and sti ll another to engage that write r, if you will, in a literary chess match. As Nabokov himself noted, certain types of poshlust simply are not worth talking about, or worth the lite rary calories of exertion. Â“By inclination and intent I avoid squandering my art on the illu strated catalogues of solemn not ions and serious opinions,Â” he told the BBC in 1969, Â“and I dislike their pervasive presence in the works of othersÂ” (SO 147). This will reveal itself to be a cr ucial component of how Nabokov finally decided upon a main structure that would allow him to address three things th at, throughout his life, clearly had been driving forces for him as a writer: his notion of th e soul, his notion of possible immortality, and his almost inborn penchant for Â“attackingÂ” poshlust often through parody, in so-called Â“great literature.Â” As Dolinin observes, Nabokov Â“reveled in overthrowing a Â“false idolÂ” and Â“ridiculing a stale clich or trendy, device, shattering a conventionÂ” (58). To accomplish all
78 of those goals, Nabokov would find the pe rfect subjectÂ—and authorÂ—in GoetheÂ’s Faust which, as we will see, reveals itself to be a major animating force in a later book called Lolita.
79 Chapter ThreeÂ—Faustian Elements in Film Nabokov may have believed himself to be without precursors, alone in the wind and the weather. But if he did decide to retool and re-envision the Faust legend for a modern audience, he certainly was not the first person to do soÂ—nor would he be the last. To understand how frequently the pact -with-the-devil trope has been re-imagined and revised to fit the particular zeitgeist or spirit of the times, one only need look to the silver screen. It is here that we can see so me of the broadest manipulations of the Faust myth, with each filmmaker ta iloring the theme to best accen tuate a specific metaphoric goal. To better grasp how the twisting of the legend first began, however, perhaps a brief recap of the Faust myth is in order. Imagine, for a moment, that the long hi story of the Faust legend, along with its myriad permutations, had been made in to a one-hour PBS documentary, narrated, perhaps, by Ken Burns. On the screen we mi ght first see a medieval scholar working by candlelight, l eafing through 15th century tomes, and then looking heavenward in frustration at the limits of human underst anding and lack of true knowledge. Then, on the wall directly behind him, would ominously appear a horned fi gureÂ’s silhouette. The voice-over narrator would explai n that this mediev al scholar, named Georg Faust, was an actual historic figure da ting back to the Middle Ages a Â“notorious astrologer, alchemist, physician and magician who was expelled from various south German
80 citiesÂ” (Brown 87), and who was rumored to have sold his soul to th e devil in exchange for infinite knowledge. This notorious professorÂ’s pact, we also would be told, later became the subject in the late 1500s of anonymous chapbooksÂ—col lections of legends and folklore written for popular audiencesÂ—and also of Christopher MarloweÂ’s 1604 play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in which the learned doctor is damned to fiery damnation for all eternity. Renaissance audiences no doubt were intended to have been chastened by the fate of MarloweÂ’s Faust; magic was seen as the work of the devil, and with ProtestantismÂ’s increased emphasis on fait h, Â“knowledge led to pride and thus jeopardized the salvation of th e soul through graceÂ” (Brown 88). In MarloweÂ’s drama, Faust appears as a typical man of the Renai ssance, as an explorer and adventurer, as a superman craving for extraordinary power, wealth, enjoyment, and worldly eminenceÂ…Mephistopheles is the medieval de vil, harsh and grim and fierce, bent on seduction, without any comprehension of human aspirations. Helen of Troy is a she-devil, and becomes the final means of FaustÂ’s destruction. (Franke 1910) But audience responses to MarloweÂ’s play began to change. During the eighteenth century, for example, FaustÂ’s fate wa s presented by trave ling troupes throughout Europe in ballet and puppet play s, the latter often causing au diences to roar in laughter. And among those eighteenth centu ry audiences, the documentary narrator would tell us, was one young boy, his last name Goethe. Pe rhaps he did not laugh along with the others; and years later he would ponder why the fate of the soul-selling doctor in MarloweÂ’s time had served as a stern warni ng to the masses, but now, in the Â“Age of Enlightenment,Â” was regarded as ridicul ous. What, that boy might have wondered, was
81 so funny about a once-respected scholarÂ—even if he appeared now in the form of a puppetÂ—burning in eternal hell for his earthly sins? If this story no longer Â“resonatedÂ” with audiences, what was the reason? Coul d it be that modern audiences in the eighteenth century did not believ e in FaustÂ’s fate; or was it that, perhaps, that they did not believe that Faust wa s deserving of it? In MarloweÂ’s version, FaustÂ’s pact with the devil and his ultimate damnation both served as warnings to the faithful to hol d dear to the means of Christian salvation. But MarloweÂ’s depiction of Faust as Â“a crimin al who sins against the eternal laws of lifeÂ” and a Â“rebel against holiness who ruins his better self and finally receives the merited reward of his misdeeds,Â” as Fra nke notes, could not have resonated with eighteenth-century audien ces (1910). The eighteenth century was the age of Rationalism, an era that Â“glorified human reason and human feeling.Â” GoetheÂ’s age, then, was bound to see within Faust a symbol of the human condition who Â“not only was a champion of truth, natu re and individual freedom, but also a symbol of human striving for completeness of lifeÂ” (1910). And then would come a new scene: On the screen, a dist inguished looking young man, dressed in a typical ei ghteenth-century waist coat vest and buckled shoes, would be shown walking along narrow cobbles tone streets of Weimar, Germany, past centuries-old buildings that instantly would be reminiscent of a Hollywood set. It was here, the narratorÂ’s voice would tell us, that GoetheÂ—the young man seen before usÂ— was inspired to rework MarloweÂ’s version of the Faust legend, transforming it to fit the modern sensibilities of his tim e. As Wiegand later would note, Goethe was the Â“child of an age that experienced the world in terms ve ry different from those of the age of the
82 Reformation,Â” and sensed that the theme of Doctor Faustus Â“harbored unlimited possibilities for expressing th e altered and expanded aspirations of the human soulÂ” (446). Where the age of the Reformation had viewed the story of Faust as a lesson and a warning, To the age of Goethe it was natural, on the other hand, to look upon the doctormagician as a blurred and distorted protot ype of manÂ’s ideal aspirations. This is the premise that explains GoetheÂ’s ab iding attraction to the theme. Faust appealed to Goethe as a symbol of manÂ’s emancipation from authority. Regardless of whether FaustÂ’s path would eventually lead him to perdition or salvation, his courage in daring to tr espass upon the realm of the forbidden makes him a heroic figure charged with positive valueÂ….Thus, what had been branded as sin could take on the aspect of a higher glory. (447) Later, when we examine the text of Faust in comparison to Lolita it will be useful to keep these observations in mind, particular ly concerning the question of what might have attracted Nabokov to the theme of using Faust as a hidden structure. Like GoetheÂ’s flawed doctor, Humbert also da res to Â“trespass upon the realm of the forbiddenÂ” and free himselfÂ—or at least, conceal himselfÂ—from social and moral authority. But within Lolita there also most certainly exists the issue of whether HumbertÂ’s path will Â“eventually lead him to perdition or salvation,Â” a theme that, as has been alluded to in an earlier section, and will be discussed in more depth in a later chapter, will reveal itself to be one of the overarching leitmotifs in Lolita In GoetheÂ’s drama, Part I of which was published in 1808Â—nearly twenty years since he wrote his Â“FragmentÂ” or Â“ Ur -FaustÂ”Â—Faust sells his soul to the devil in
83 exchange for infinite knowledge and experi ence, but along the way he also seduces a young innocent girl named Gretchen and causes f our deaths as a result. Despite FaustÂ’s debauchery, however, GoetheÂ’s protagonist does not experien ce the same fiery fate as MarloweÂ’s flawed doctor. At the end of Pa rt II of the drama, completed in 1831, one year before GoetheÂ’s death, Fa ust is rescued, literally at th e eleventh hour, and the devil is deprived his due. In contrast to Marlowe, this Faust ascends to Heaven, forgiven by the now angelic Gretchen/Margarete, w ho pronounces her authentic love for him regardless of the pain he cau sed her on Earth. And this Faust, in the years following the playÂ’s posthumous publication in 1832, becomes a heroic fi gure both in literature as well as among the German people. GoetheÂ’s version of the le gend built upon MarloweÂ’s. But it also modernized it in significant ways. For one, Goethe altered Â“the usual trajectory of the tradition by saving Faust from final damnation,Â” notes Thomas C ooksey (19). In GoetheÂ’s play, Cooksey also notes another essential difference: In contrast to Marlowe, th e key to FaustÂ’s salvation Â“is mediated not by Helen, but by the figure of Gr etchen/Margarete, the embodiment of the Â‘eternal feminineÂ’Â” (19). Indeed, FaustÂ’ s seduction of the young Gretchen has been critically viewed as singularly GoetheÂ’s creation and contribution to the Faust legend (although, it should be noted, some scholars ha ve pointed out that Goethe might have Â“borrowedÂ” the seduction idea). Further, in what Cooksey calls a Â“curious inversionÂ” of the Faust tradition, Â“Gretchen takes over the role of temp tress, but is seduced by Faust rather than seducing him. Â…She becomes the source of his salvation rather than his damnationÂ” (20).
84 For more than a century, GoetheÂ’s versi on would be critically viewed as Â“the ne plus ultra of German literature, if not all literature, and its hero as a paragon of humanityÂ” (Hoelzel 2). Although that view would change dramatically after World War II, what is important to note is that in GoetheÂ’s drama we can discern the first major twist to the legend, the introduction of a new element in the form of Gretchen/Margarete. But GoetheÂ’s reinterpretation will, by no means, be the last. The Faust legend was tackled by other writers including Lessing, and also became the subject of an opera by Gounod. But it was the new medium of film that seized upon the legend for the greatest number of new incarnations. One of the first cinematic incarnatio ns appeared in a 1926 German production by F.W. Murnau, which Nabokov al most certainly would have seen while he was living in Berlin. Nabokov, for instance, recalls that during that time he went every few weeks to the neighborhood cinema (SO 163), and Schiff notes that Nabokov, despite future protestations to the contrary about his master y of that language, Â“was perfectly able to understand a movie in German,Â” presumably me aning that he would have been able to understand the silent filmsÂ’ subtitles. Indeed, Schiff adds, Â“later he would say that his German was only good enough to allow him to read entomological journals, which is roughly equivalent to saying that oneÂ’s E nglish is only accomplished enough to enable one to practice medicineÂ” (59). Even if th at were not proof e nough of NabokovÂ’s ability to navigate in German, Schiff also notes that NabokovÂ’s German Â“was strong enoughÂ— or something wasÂ—to enable him to rewrite the English translation of KafkaÂ” (59). But we should hardly be surprise d that Nabokov later would deny knowing German, even when faced with evidence to the contrary. Whether his disavowals
85 stemmed from his uniquely high linguistic st andards, or from a philosophic positionÂ— one that, Schiff suggests, sprang from his wanting Â“no part of this never-adopted country, which he had long dislikedÂ” (59) Â—Nabokov, to paraphrase Humbert, could always be counted upon to present not only a fancy prose style, but also a puzzling persona. MurnauÂ’s Faust As soon as filmmakers can prove their box-office muscle, very often they are given carte blanche to direct future projects. Just as would be the case of the young American director Steven Spielberg decades la ter, this same fate also fell to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in Germany, after what many cr itics called his Â“triumphantÂ” releases of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh in the early 1920s. When Murnau was given the green light to adapt GoetheÂ’s Faust for the silver screen, as well as the full resources of the UFA Studios, what resulted was an epic produc tion with what then were state-of-the-art and experimental special effects. To todayÂ’s audiences, accustomed to computer-generated visuals in a postStar Wars film era, those special effects no doubt appear primitive. Nevertheless, in 1926 the sight of plague-str icken villages materializing and then disappearing in wisps of smoke, of demonic creatures soaring over r ooftops, of Faust and Mephisto flying upon a cape through the heavensÂ—all were cinema tic techniques that must have struck audiences as nothing short of astonishing. Th at does not mean, however, that MurnauÂ’s film, the last one he made in Germany before departing for Hollywood, was unanimously hailed as a masterpiece. To th e contrary, MurnauÂ’s Â“creative licenseÂ” or
86 carte blanche by UFA also apparently extended to changing certain aspects of GoetheÂ’s famous play; and these changes, it turns out, would be alterations that not every Goethe aficionado received with gusto. As Gary Johnson notes: Murnau had more in mind than just film ing Goethe's classic tale. Working with screenwriter Hans Kyser, Murnau cobbled together the legend of Faust using bits of Marlowe and Gounod and German fo lk legends. Precisely because of this approach to Faust contemporary German audiences reacted in outrage. It wasn't the Faust they expected. One of the great hi storians of German silent cinema Siegried Kracauer said, Faust Â“misrepresented, if not ignored, all significant motives inherent in its subject matte r. The metaphysical conflict between good and evil was thoroughly vulgarized.Â” Ho wever, Lotte Eisner wrote (in The Haunted Screen ), the film Â“starts with the most remarkable and poignant image the German chiaroscuro ever created. Th e chaotic destiny of the opening shot, the light drawing in the mist, the rays beaming through the opaque air, the visual fugue which diapasons round the heavens, are breathtaking.Â” Johnson deems both writers as having expressed legitimate issues, particularly since, in his view, in MurnauÂ’s film the Â“struggle between the devil and Faust never becomes particularly complex or profound.Â” Nevert heless, he adds, the Â“truly astonishing imageryÂ” cannot be set aside. Johnson quotes French New Wave di rector Eric Rohmer, who wrote a book-length study of Faust where Rohmer argues that Â“Murnau was able to mobilize all those forces which guaranteed him complete control of the filmÂ’s space. Every formal elementÂ—the faces and bodies of the actors, objects, landscape, and such natural phenomena as snow, light, fire, a nd cloudsÂ—have been created or recreated
87 with an exact knowledge of thei r visual effect. Never has a f ilm left so little to chance.Â” Still, visual imagery and special effects cl early could not quell cr iticisms that major aspects of GoetheÂ’s play either had been altered, ignored, or in KracauerÂ’s words, Â“thoroughly vulgarized.Â” Perhaps one of the most troubling aspect s for German audiences in the 1920s who expected a faithful adaptation of Goet heÂ’s play would have been the terms by which Faust and Mephisto reach their soul ba rgain. At the beginning of MurnauÂ’s film, Mephisto (Emil Jannings) enters in to a bet with an angel, w ho agrees that Â“If thou canst destroy what is divine in Fa ust, the earth is thine!Â” This of course, has some textual basis to GoetheÂ’s Prologue in Heaven scene, but where it departs fr om Goethe is when Mephisto spreads a plague upon the earth. In MurnauÂ’s version, Faust, toiling day and night in his laboratory for a cure, and gr owing more and more hopeless as villagers continue to drop dead all ar ound him, agrees to MephistoÂ’s offer to halt the plague if Faust will agree to renounce God. This, of course, is a major departure fr om GoetheÂ’s presentation of the soulbargain, where Faust agrees to hand over his eternal soul in exchange for his deepest desire for personal experience and knowledge. As Weigand notes: The substance of the wager on which he conditions the pact is that Mephisto will never succeed in extinguishing the re stless urge that makes Faust forever reach beyond the illusory satisfaction of the moment; that Mehpisto will never succeed in lulling him into a sense of ease and contentment. (456) MurnauÂ’s version also is a far cry from the Goethean Faust who, Franke observes, became for Germans Â“ a symbol of human striving for completeness of life.Â” In
88 MurnauÂ’s hands, the major premise of Â“strivi ngÂ” is flipped on its he ad: FaustÂ’s internal aching quest to Â“ever striveÂ” and to tr anscend the limitations placed upon him is transformed into an initial act of altruism to save his village from disease and death. In essence, then, this alterati on by Murnau not only negates Go etheÂ’s vision of FaustÂ’s motivating force, but it also obliterates Faus tÂ’s inherent reason for entering into the wager with Mephisto in the fi rst place. Says Weigand: Â…[Faust] gives only a passing glance to the thought that riches and honors, attending the pursuit of worldly success, have passed him by. In his frustration he has taken recourse to magic as a possi ble shortcut to the spiritual revelation he longs for with every fiber of his being. Impatience dictates this bold and forbidden course, a fever pitch of frenzied affirmation. At this stage the spirit of negation is utterly foreign to himÂ…Faust is a rebel only as regards the barriers of sense that keep him from communi ng directly with the divine spirit. Philosophically speaking, he storms against being hemmed in by space, time, and causality. (452) Seen in this light, KracauerÂ’s observation that Murnau t hus Â“misrepresented, if not ignored, all significant motives inherent in it s subject matterÂ” seems to be a legitimate criticismÂ—but only, it should be added, if one is willing to draw a definitive line-in-thesand delineation at GoetheÂ’s version of th e Faust myth, and only if one desires or expects that the Faust legend will never mutate beyond what Goethe envisioned. And that, as future Faustian reinterpretations will reveal, is a bit like snapping a picture of what one imagines is the greatest wave ever to crash upon a beach and then expecting that every wave after it will be exactly the same.
89 Film adaptations from either plays or books, of course, are notorious for altering original works, something Nabokov later woul d discover first-hand when the director Stanley Kubrick transformed Lolita in the 1960s into the first of what eventually would be two movie versions of his novel. But because film also is first and foremost a visual medium, it also demands that some literary elementsÂ—which, in the originals texts, may have been implicitÂ—must be made exp licit. This, to be sure, was the case with Murnau when it came to visually portraying GretchenÂ’s suffering. Unlike GoetheÂ’s play, which leaves the young gi rlÂ’s agony up to the imaginati on of the reader (or theater patron), Murnau was almost fo rced, by virtue of the medium in which he was working, to represent GretchenÂ’s plight visually. This, it should be added, he does masterfully. When we first see Gretchen after Faust ha s fled the city after killing her brother Valentine (played by Wilhelm, later Â“William,Â” Dieterle after he moved to America), she is going from house to house in her village with her baby in her arms, desperate for food and shelter. We then see her incr easingly desolate she is shunned by every occupant behind the doors upon which she knocks, and wandering out into the snow drifts with her infant. One of the most movi ng and powerful aspects of the film is when Gretchen, obviously delirious, lays her and FaustÂ’s baby into what she hallucinates to be a warm cradle. Believing that she is tuck ing the child in for a warm nightÂ’s sleep, Gretchen actually is burying it in snow. In GoetheÂ’s version, of course, all we know is that Gretchen has been arrested and convicted of drowning her childÂ—somethi ng we learn at the same time Faust does. When Mephiso reveals her circumstances and Faust demands to be taken to the dungeon where she awaits execution, Gretchen is clearly so ha llucinatory that she even
90 believes their child is still alive, and gives precise instructions to Faust about how to save their baby: Quick, run! Save your little one. Quick, follow the trail Up the river dale, Cross on the trunk Into the copse, Left, where the planking stops Into the lake. Snatch it, for GodÂ’s sake. It hasnÂ’t sunk, ItÂ’s kicking still! Save it, save! (115) In GoetheÂ’s play, there is no doubt that Gr etchen is haunted by what she has done by killing her baby. But Goethe problematizes her infanticide further by creating a moral question mark: Did she realize what she wa s doing at the moment she submerged her baby in the lake? Was she aware that she was killing her child as she placed it in the water near the Â“cross on the trunk,Â” or wa s she, as Murnau seems to suggest, so desperate and beaten down by her social circumstances that sh e truly did not know what she was doing? During the 18th century, scholars note, Gret chenÂ’s predicament was not particularly unusual. Single mothers in many German cities, for example, comprised as
91 much as thirty percent of the population (B arton 636). Although Barton notes that the laws against fornication and premarital pr egnancy by then had fallen Â“into desuetude, or [had been] nullified through disuseÂ” Â—and thus other options would have existed for a historical GretchenÂ—the d eath penalty, nonetheless, still was mandatory for cases of infanticide (636). Indeed, as most scholars of the Gretchen trage dy are aware, Goethe personally became involved in such a case in 1783, when Goethe, a lawyer by training and at the time a privy councillor, reco mmended the death penalty for a young woman, Anna Catharina Hohn, who had killed her baby. As Barton notes, Â“whereas GoetheÂ’s unforgiving attitude towards some cases of infanticide in the real word is quite indisputable, the factual gu ilt of the fictional Gretchen/Margarete is notÂ” (635). Factually guilty or not, however, Gretchen does not defend herself; she makes no excuses for what she has done. But ne ither, it should be noted, does Lolita. Infanticide, to be sure is a far cry from premarital sexual relations ; nonetheless, in both 19th century Germany and 20th century America, social norms very likely would have made Gretchen and LolitaÂ’s sexual behavi or appear scandalous. But when Humbert comes to visit the now married Dolly Schiller Lolita carries no visible guilt or shame; the Â“muckÂ” of what happened between them seems firmly relegated to her past. As Humbert notes: She considered me as if grasping a ll at once the incredibleÂ—and somehow tedious, confusing and unnecessaryÂ—fact th at the distant, elegant, slender, forty-year-old valetudinarian in velvet coat sitting beside her had known and adored every pore and follicle of her pubescent body. In her washed-out gray eyes, strangely bespectacled, our poor romance was for a moment reflected,
92 pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull part y, like a rainy picnic to which only the dullest bores had come, like a humd rum exercise, like a bit of dry mud caking her childhood (272). But the issue of LolitaÂ’s guilt is not so cut and dry; it does not end with whether or not she has a sense of it. As in Faust the question of LolitaÂ’s actual guilt also finds expression in NabokovÂ’s text, particularly in terms of how readers judged LolitaÂ’s complicity in the events Humbert describes. Was Lolita a fully aware participant, or was she HumbertÂ’s victim? Was Lolita guilty of sexually bewitching Humbert and thus bringing her own fate down upon her, or did her social circumstances, accentuated by HumbertÂ’s repeated threats to send her to a reform school, terrorize her to the point where she felt she had no other options? Just as with Goethe, who was aware of the social and legal status facing his fictional Gretchen, so too was Nabokov aware of the social and legal circumstances that would have surrounded his fi ctional nymphet. Nabokov ha d researched the law on orphans and reformatories; he knew what her fate would have been had their relationship become known. These issues, as Schiff observes, were central for Vera Nabokov, particularly in terms of how readers later perceive d the young girl at the heart of the novel: VeraÂ’s one gripe with LolitaÂ’s reception was something a New York Post critic had noted early on: Â“Lolita was attacked as a fearsome moppet, a little monster, a shallow, corrupt, libidinous and sin gularly unattractive brat.Â” Where the novelÂ’s reviewers inc lined toward pitying Humbert, she [Vera] fixed instead on
93 LolitaÂ’s vulnerability, stre ssing that she had been le ft alone without a single close relative in the world. (235). If Vera had mentioned these qualms in any place other than her diary, Schiff observes, her comments very well could have been construed as a Â“calculated defense of a difficult to defend bookÂ” (235-236) This, Schiff avers, simply was not the case. As the following diary entry reveals, Vera clearly was distressed by how Lolita, the child and the novel, were perceived: Lolita discussed by the papers from every possible point of view except one: that of its beauty and pathos. Critics prefer to look for moral symbols, justification, condemnation, or expl anation of HHÂ’s predicamentÂ…I wish, though, somebody would notice the tende r description of the childÂ’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along culminating in that s qualid but essentially pure and healthy marriage, and her letter, a nd her dog. Â…They all miss th e fact that the Â“horrid little bratÂ” Lolita is esse ntially very good indeed Â—or she would not have straightened out af ter being crushed so terribl y, and found a decent life with poor Dick more to her liking than the other kind. (236) Vera, in other words, was a staunch defender of LolitaÂ—of not just the novel, but also of the girl. She recoiled at the thought that readers would pity Humbert but condemn the orphaned child, who had no other options. Long before the word Â“LolitaÂ” entered the American lexicon and became synonymous with a young sexual siren, Vera seemed to sense that readers and critics had missedÂ—indeed, that they had completely misreadÂ—a major aspect of her husbandÂ’s novel by vilifying Lolita.
94 Such vilification, however, is unlikely to have been expressed by audiences of MurnauÂ’s Faust. Audiences who watched GretchenÂ—who, like Lolita, similarly had been left alone without a single close relative, and si milarly was left totally vulnerableÂ—almost certainly would have b een moved with compassion as she awaited execution in the dungeon. The same, no doubt, was also true of GoetheÂ’s play, despite the fact that GretchenÂ’s earlier suffering never was made explicit by Goethe. Indeed, it was this omission of what Gretchen went through, and GoetheÂ’s decision to allow audiences to assume what kind of hell sh e must have experienced after she became pregnant and Faust disappeared, that very likely had the effect of focusing Part I of the drama on the character of Faust, rather than upon Gretchen. Indeed, as Wiegand observes of the dungeon scene in GoetheÂ’s play: The personality of the wretched girl in the prison cell is completely shattered, but every fractured piece suggests the one-time perfection now irretrievably destroyed. In the wandering of her unhinged mind she bears a striking resemblance to ShakespeareÂ’s Ophelia, but with this difference: Ophelia, innocent victim of cruel fate, evokes a mood of pure pathos, while Gretchen, involved despite herself in fearful guilt, is a truly tragic victim. (461). Wiegand, to my thinking, correctly uses th e word Â“suggestsÂ” when referring to this scene. In GoetheÂ’s play, GretchenÂ’s su ffering prior to killing her baby is only Â“suggestedÂ” when we see her, unhinged and delusional, in prison. Whatever she went through after Faust esse ntially abandoned her, and what ever desperation led her to place her baby in the lake, is only Â“suggestedÂ” by Goethe. And this, as we will see later in Lolita was something Nabokov very likely reacted against.
95 Unlike Goethe, Nabokov would not merely Â“suggestÂ” LolitaÂ’s suffering or leave it for the reader to imagine. To the cont rary, even if it is revealed through the egocentric, jaundiced lens of HumbertÂ’s narrative, even if it is presented through HumbertÂ’s kaleidoscopic, repeated attempts at self-justification, LolitaÂ’s very real suffering is smashed into the face of the reader It is only Humbert, it seems, who has not recognized her agony early on. When Humbert tells us n ear the end of his narrative that Â“there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little oneÂ” (285), or that Â“it was always my habit and method to ignore LolitaÂ’s states of mind while comforting my own base selfÂ” (287), we are given a genuine Â“suggestionÂ” of a human being slowly coming to terms with th e costs of his actions, of a man who is beginning to comprehend the price others pay in the course of reaching, as Wiegand notes of Faust, beyond Â“the illusory satisfaction of the moment.Â” It is impossible to know definitively, of course, whether or not Nabokov ever saw MurnauÂ’s film. Interestingly, however, in one interview Appel asked him about the types of films he liked wh ile living in Berlin, and A ppel even mentioned to Nabokov, Â“If only F.W. Murnau, who died in 1931, could have directed The Defense (1930), with Emil Jannings as Luzhin!Â” (SO 163). Nabokov did not respond to AppelÂ’s statement, choosing instead to discuss a few movies he had enjoyed during that timeÂ—ones with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers for exampleÂ—but making no mention of a single German film. Nevertheless, if Nabokov did see MurnauÂ’s Faust, very possibly it left an indelible impression. Even t hough the film, as ma ny critics later no ted, bogs down in the middle where it portrays FaustÂ’s love a ffair with Gretchen, what Murnau managed
96 to do was focus the actual Â“tragedy,Â” as Goethe had called his play, more upon Gretchen than upon Faust. As Nabokov later would remark to Appel, The verbal part of the cinema is su ch a hodgepodge of contributions, beginning with the script, that it really has no style of its own. On the other hand, the viewer of a silent film has the opport unity of adding a good deal of his own inner verbal treasure to the si lence of the picture (SO 165). Very possibly, if Nabokov did watch this f ilm, his own inner verbal treasure, like jewels stored in a pirateÂ’s buried ch est, later would be dug up for use in Lolita Recasting the American Faust German audiences may have been offended at the liberty taken by Murnau in depicting the nature of the soul-bargain, but in Hollywood that tw ist would be only the starting point, the first of many. American film not only has had a long fascination with the Faust fable, but it also has found nearly as many methods and genres to reinterpret the devil-made-me-do-it theme as there are corruptible souls. From the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1941) with Lena Horne as the demonic seductress, to the 1967 Dudley Moore-Peter Cook comedy Bedazzled (remade in 2000 with Brendan Frazier and Elizabeth Hurley), to the Disney production of The Devil and Max Devlin (1981), to To Sleep With Anger (1990) and the Keanu Reeves-Al Pacino drama The DevilÂ’s Advocate (1997), the story of a man tempte d by the prince of darkness has long been popular film fodder. Two films, however, stand out as classic American versions of the Faust legend, addingÂ—much in the same way that GoetheÂ’s version departed fr om MarloweÂ’sÂ—still
97 another layer to the fable. The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and Damn Yankees (1958) both introduce a decidedly American variation to the legend. In contrast to many other Faust-themed Hollywood filmsÂ—in whic h a man is lured into sin, often by the promise of riches and success, or else by a she-devil seductressÂ—these two films both make explicit a key component many others lack: the willingly-ente red deal with the devil. Although both films are worlds apart in terms of setting and genre (one is a black-and-white drama set in 1840Â’s New Hamp shire, the other a co lor musical set in 1950s baseball-loving America), strong connections exist nonetheless. Both films structurally use the Faust le gend, cobbling together bits and pieces from Marlowe and Goethe. But they then both place upon the story a distinctively American stamp, one discernable in three key elements. In both films the Faustian character is married. Second, (and perhap s reflecting a budding awareness of our impending litigious society) both key characters are able to find a contractual loophole to help them avoid eternal hell. Third, both men are what might be called everyday Joes, in contrast to the traditional Faus t who represented Â“the fall of a great man, usually thanks to some single moral flaw Â” (Jackson 2). These three elements are radical departures from both Marlowe and GoetheÂ’s versions where Â“from its origins, an important and recurrent them e in the tradition is that Faust is unmarried, and indeed, that this lack of a br ide is a token of his damnationÂ” (Cooksey 18), as well as that the contract with the devil Â“is inviolable once signedÂ” (20). In his essay, Â“Talk not of a wife,Â” Cooksey argues that American popular culture and film appropriated the Faust tr adition and domesticated it, transforming Faust from a tormented, alienated character into a family man and neighbor who gets
98 sucked into sin. In another twist, Goet heÂ’s Gretchen figureÂ—who represents Â“ das ewige WeiblicheÂ” (or eternal feminine)Â—morphs, in Ho llywoodÂ’s hands, into the virtuous and long-suffering wife: Â“In a sense,Â” Cooksey says Â“it is an attempt to let Faust have it both ways, to allow him to stray, but with a lifeline held by his wifeÂ” (19). American film also has transformed the temptress figure, originally Helen of Troy, into the Â“other woman,Â” who often is portrayed in demonic terms, as a she-devil home-wrecker (20). During the 1940s, this element will become full-blown in film noir, when Â“demonic women wreak their vengeance on menÂ” (Belton 229). But Hollywood, in turns out, is more forgiving of its Faust than either Marlowe or Goethe. Not only do both characters in The Devil and Daniel Webster and Damn Yankees escape the fiery pits of hell as stated in their legal co ntracts, but they also both end up better off as a result. In HollywoodÂ’s ve rsions, Â“FaustÂ’s quest is translated into a male fantasy of wish fulfillment, in which he hits the jackpot, gets rich, has the girl, wins the big game, but still goes to HeavenÂ” (Cooksey 28). Another element connects these two films. The Faust legend often has reflected the time in which it was written, altering the story to suit the spirit of the times. In MarloweÂ’s era, for example, the brilliant schol arÂ’s sinful desire and ultimate damnation needed to serve a warning to all those who might similarl y stray. In the Age of Reason, on the other hand, Goethe no doubt recognized that audiences would have laughed raucously at FaustÂ’s fate, prom pting him to extol, instead, the virtue of Â“streben,Â” or striving. But just as Marlowe and Goethe had done centuries before, American filmmakers also altered the le gend to reflect the particular age. Likewise, within both
99 these two films we can see a hand-held cultural mirror, one that reflects societal mores and the zeitgeist in which each interpretation was created. Within the moralistic The Devil and Daniel Webster for example, one can discern the lingering effects of the Depr ession as well as AmericaÂ’s imminent involvement in World War II. Within Damn Yankees based on a successful 1955 Broadway play, we are presented with an a ltogether different image: a seemingly vapid America, one immersed in a type of le t-the-good-times-roll se nsibility, a culture determined to put World War IIÂ—and any tr oubling existentialist questions about the nature of good and evilÂ—as far behind it as pos sible. The message of this latter Faust tale seems to be: Flip the channel, donÂ’t ta lk about anything important; baseball is on. The Devil and Daniel Webster William Dieterle, who played the role of Valentine in MurnauÂ’s Faust, directed this black-and-white film version of Ste phen Vincent BenetÂ’s 1937 short story, and BenetÂ’s later screenplay. The story is set outside a New Hampshire village called Cross Corners in 1840. Originally released by Ja nus Films under the title Â“All That Money Can Buy,Â” the film concerns a young farmer named Jabez Stone, his wife Mary, and the famed New England orator and senator, Daniel Webster, upon whose shoulders JabezÂ’s fate ultimately will rest. The film opens with a long shot of the Jabez Stone farm and the coupleÂ’s small, simple home. A fenced-in area with pigs, a lean horse and plain buggy, and a dilapidated barn all of create the sense of poverty. For 1941 audiences this would have evoked the lingering effects of the Depression. The camera zooms in on a branch and
100 opening buds, and then cuts to Jabez and his wife side-stepping mud puddles. These elements suggest it is a spring morning, tr aditionally a time associated with hope and spiritual renewal. Jabez, a fit-looking farmer in his late 20s, begins hitching his horse to the buggy. In the distance we hear church bells ringing from nearby Cross Corners, telling us it is a Sunday. One event after anot her, however, prevents Jabez, his wife and his devout mother-in-law from attending the ch urch service; ultimately, they are forced to remain home. Already, a hint exists that not attending church will lead to trouble. Jabez is portrayed as an essentially good, simple man having a streak of bad luck. Jabez, however, isnÂ’t alone in his tr oubles. Several neighbors come by his house to discuss their dire farming situations as well as how Daniel Webster, the Massachusetts senator, is proposing to help fa rmers with bankruptcy legislation. In this scene, Webster is made out to be an Ameri can folk hero, an orator as persuasive as Cicero: Â“They say,Â” says one neighbor, Â“that when he goes out to fish, the trout jump out of the stream and right into his pock ets, because they know it's no use arguing.Â” Says another: Â“Why, they say that when he speaks, stars and stripes come right out in the sky.Â” This scene dissolves into WebsterÂ’s night time study. The senator sits at a plain desk, upon which is only a piece of paper, hi s inkbottle and a small table lamp, all of which serve to create a sense of austerity and deep concentration. WebsterÂ’s face is lit only by a table lamp, the rest of the room in darkness, which serves to establish that Webster is working into the wee hours of the night. And then comes the sudden appearance of the devilÂ’s shadow, which b ecomes larger and longer on the wall behind Webster. We then hear the devilÂ’s voice-over counsel: Â“Why worry about the people
101 and their problems? Start thinking of your own. You want to be president of this country, don't you Â…and you ought to beÂ…Â” Clearly, the devil is onto something here; he obviously is aware of how tempted Webster must be to just go to bed and leav e the peopleÂ’s problems for another day, and also quite possibly how WebsterÂ’s deepest de sire might be to become president. But Webster suddenly pounds his fist down on the desk in a clearly re sounding rejection of the devilÂ’s temptation to sin in exchange for personal desire. This scene, alone, is noteworthy. Although Jabez Stone is this filmÂ’s Faustian figure, this scene nevertheless appears to ha ve been taken directly from Part I of GoetheÂ’s drama, which opens with Faust in his dimly-lit study and calling forth the Earth Spirit. By placing Webster within the study, the film creates a visual overlay: Webster is superimposed upon Faust, and vice versa, and thus the two can be seen in stark juxtaposition. Unlike GoetheÂ’s German professor, who succumbs to MephistoÂ’s temptations, the American senator remains in corruptible. Thus, the scene promotes the idea that the German gave in to sin, but the American would not. In those dark days of the war, this po ssibly represents an indirect commentary on the Nazis and the war raging at the time in Europe, what might be viewed as Â“the temper of an age and nationÂ” (Belton 23). In a 1942 essay titled Â“The Function of English in Wartime: A Symposium,Â” for exam ple, authors Dudley Miles and Ann Ward Orr discuss the role of literature in the wa rtime English classroom, focusing particular attention on the text of Â“The Devil and Daniel WebsterÂ” as representa tive of all that is good and truly American. The essay begins:
102 What effect should AmericaÂ’s entry in to World War II have on our English classrooms? One of the first effects w ill doubtless be for the English teacher to focus attention more narrowly on the Ameri can way of living as it is recorded in literatureÂ…The aim every English teacher will keep before him is to leave on the developing minds of his students a more conscious awareness of what it means to be an AmericanÂ…To reach this goal the content of the literature course will have to be carefully sele cted. Presentation of typical figures and situations should fill the growing mi nds with warmly human images of American character. To give but one example, Stephen Vincent BenetÂ’s The Devil and Daniel Webster dramatizes indigenous t ypes with a vividness that will clear up several hazy notions about true Americans. It does not codify concepts. It nowhere describes government. It merely pictures human beings at a crisisÂ… (Miles/Orr 227). In the film, the scene in WebsterÂ’s study cro sscuts back to the Stone farm, where Jabez learns that his land will be repossessed by the local loan shark unless he immediately comes up with payment. His only option incl udes selling the next seasonÂ’s precious seedÂ—but as he tosses the seed bag onto the ground, its contents spill into the mud. Â“ThatÂ’s enough to make a man sell his soul to the devil!Â” Jabez says in total frustration. Â“And I would, too, for about two cen ts!Â” Here the dialogue represents a de facto calling forth of the devilÂ—similar to GoetheÂ’s Faust evoking the Earth SpritÂ—and Jabez appears to realize it. He stops, with a startled expression, as he pulls out of his
103 pants pocket two shiny new penni es. It is then that the devil, Â“Mr. ScratchÂ” (Walter Huston), suddenly appears behind Jabez. It is not so much ScratchÂ’s costume (tight fitting jacket, turned up cap) that tells us who he is, but his Â“chin whiskers, s uggesting a satanic parody of Uncle SamÂ” (Cooksey 20). Scratch leads Jabez into a sma ll barn, where Scratch kicks at a pile of hay, which reveals a pot of gol d filled with bright oversize coins. Seven years of good fortune, Scratch tells Jabez, can be his in exchange for signing his name in blood to a soul-selling contract. There is no haggling over terms, no talk of extending the seven years to, say, ten; Jab ez pricks his finger and, voila the deed is done. One of the most significant aspects of this scene, particularly when viewed in contrast to the long history of the Faust lege nd, is the essentially su perficial nature of the American version of the soul-bargain. In contrast to Marlowe or GoetheÂ’s Fausts, both of whom knowingly and willingly barter their eternal souls in exchange for the manifestation of their deepest desires, Jabez enters into the bargai n for expediency, for a few years of good luck. This trivialization of the moral significance of the soul later will find full expression in Damn Yankees as well as in Lolita Nabokov, for example, parodies this flippant Americ an attitude about the human soul, such as when Humbert says at one point, Â“This, to use an Amer ican term, in which discovery, retribution, torture, death, eternity appear in the shape of a singularly repulsive nutshell, was ITÂ” (235). A central theme here, however, also is JabezÂ’s transformation into a greedy capitalist, in contrast to his god-fearing wifeÂ’s lack of inte rest in riches. Mary remains in the coupleÂ’s tiny house with their young s on and her mother, and continues to wear
104 the same simple clothes and go to church each Sunday. Jabez, in contrast, moves to a mansion, filled with gilded furniture, grand mirrors and marble floors, where his housemate, to put it delicately, is a she-devil femme fatale named Belle, who was sent by Scratch to corrupt him. As Cooksey notes, the film Â“explores the course of StoneÂ’s moral decline when he lets his new succe ss and materialism pervert his inherent goodness. Thus, he is torn between the polar ities defined by Webster and Scratch and by the good angel Mary and the bad angel BelleÂ” (20). It is only when Mary contacts Daniel Webster Â—and Jabez realizes that he actually is on the verge of burning in hell for all eternityÂ—that Webster agrees to represent Jabez at a Â“trialÂ” arranged by Scratc h. In this scene, set in JabezÂ’s barn, we see CookseyÂ’s theory of legal loopholes coming into play. It is here too that we receive the first glimpse of how Hollywood introdu ces the legal Â“escape clauseÂ” into the ongoing, changeable Faust legend. In the filmÂ’s climatic trial scene, Daniel Webster, dressed in a dark jacket, presents a powerful appeal about patriotism to the ghostly jury (comprised of shamed, historical American figures, including Benedict Arnold). He reminds each member of his original notion of American freedom, as well as why each jury member strayed from the good and moral path. The barn is dimly lit and shadowy, contributing to the ghostly sense of the proceedings, and the camera pans across the juryÂ’s faces. In his closing argument, Webster pleads to thes e shamed, dead, eternally damned men: Â“DonÂ’t let this country go to the devil! Â” This oratory, worthy of acclaim by Cicero, results in ScratchÂ’s legal defeat and JabezÂ’s release from the satanic contractÂ’s terms.
105 Here, of course, is another turning point in the Faust legend. It is a kaleidoscopic spin, one as noteworthy as Go etheÂ’s decision to allow Faust to escape hell because of the angelic Gretchen/MargareteÂ’s ultimate forgiveness and declaration of love for him. While technically accurate that WebsterÂ’s speech Â“nowhere describes government,Â” as the English classroom essa y noted above asserts, WebsterÂ’s oratory nonetheless is in a perfect position to promot e American values, particularly those that ostensibly were designed to transmit Â“vividne ss that will clear up several hazy notions about true AmericansÂ” (Miles/Orr 227). In many respects, however, it also could be seen as propagandist, as attempting to bolst er the will and resolve of a nation about to go into war. In the filmÂ’s final scene, Scratch is sitting on a wood fence outside the village and flipping through a small book. He is caref ully considering the names on his list, running his finger down the page and wonde ring aloud who will be next. Suddenly he turns and looks directly into the camera, as if staring directly into the souls of the audience. Â“Maybe,Â” Scratch says, it will be you.Â” This final, almost Brechtian cinematic effect clearly is meant to jolt audiences out of an objective view point; and it is not difficult to imagine how audiences in 1941 might have sat uncomfortably in their seats as the devil cocked his head and peered inquisitively at th em before the film faded to black. But one also can only imagine what Na bokov would have thought if he, too, had been among that audience. Most likely he would have summed it up with one simple word: poshlust
106 Damn Yankees Jump cut, now, to the year 1958. World War II has been over for more than a decade, and Americans are wellentrenched in enjoying the good life. All the deprivations of the Depression and the Second World War are far behind them. It al so is age of acquisition of new goods like dishwashers, washing machines and sleek FrigidaresÂ—and, of course, televisions. By the end of the 1950s, ninety percent of American homes had a television set (Belton 305), and there existed Â“a pos twar spending boom, during which many Americans both literally and figuratively bought their wa y into a new worldÂ” (Belton 307). It also is the blossoming age of June Cl eaver-ish stay at home wives. Rosie the Riveter, of course, was fired long ago when her husband returned from the European theater, and now Rosie, like millions of ot her American women, has effectively been banished to her home after her husband reclai med his throne as breadwinner and headof-household. But Rosie, it turns out, now secretly misses the sense of purpose she briefly tasted during the wa r years; and her husband, although no doubt grateful to be alive and home again, conversely has reali zed that going to the office each day, and supporting his now-idle wife and kids in subur bia, isnÂ’t quite as idyllic as he once might have imagined inside a German foxhol e. In fact, coming up with all that money for all those consumer goods placed upon me n in the 1950s a heavy burden, as well as Â“onerous rulesÂ” (Hewlett 306). Warner BrothersÂ’ Damn Yankees written and directed by George Abbott, and based on the hugely-popular Broadway musical in many respects reflects some of this internal discontent, although it is carefully masked. As Belton notes, by nature Â“the
107 musical creates a utopian space in which th e problems we regularly encounter in our lived experience in the world no longer exis tÂ…work-related exhaustion is replaced by limitless energy; the dreariness of everyday routine is exchanged for excitement and intensityÂ” (166). In this American Faust story, not unlike the later singing and dancing SS officers in Mel BrooksÂ’ The Producers evil is transformed into entertainment. The Faustian figure here may sin; he may by lure d to sell his soul for something that, on the surface appeals superficial; but a 1958 audien ce, particularly men, very well may have recognized within him their own desire to es cape the burdens at home. This film thus presents still another portal into which we can examine the Faust legend, one told within another era and zeitgeist In Damn Yankees choreographed by Bob Fosse, the pact with the devil surrounds the unfulfilled yearnings of a middl e-aged real estate salesman named Joe Boyd, who is frustrated that his favorite ba seball team, the Washington Senators, once again is losing to the Yankees. The opening scene inside JoeÂ’s home suggests, however, that JoeÂ’s frustration may spring from someth ing far deeper, namely, the trappings of his surroundings. The camera pans across th e house, revealing a spotless living room with a new sofa, lamps and frilled curtains, and then stops at Joe, who sits in front of a television. We hear the roar of a crowd a nd then see baseball players on the diamond, and then see JoeÂ’s wife repeatedly and uns uccessfully trying to get his attention. By cutting back and forth between Joe and his wife a sense of emptiness is created; this, in turn, allows JoeÂ’s wife to seamlessly break into song about how she becomes a sports widow each year during baseball season.
108 Like Jabez Stone, Boyd also makes an off-hand remark about being willing to sell his soul to see his team win. The devil in this film appears in the nattily-dressed form of Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston), who pe rsuades Joe to swap hi s soul in exchange for pulling his favorite team out of its slump. This reflects still a nother twist: the soulswap is not for personal fulfillment or glor y (although Joe ends up briefly achieving it), but rather for the good of the team. JoeÂ’s deal with the devilÂ—much like MurnauÂ’s version, where Faust tries to save his vill age from the plagueÂ—thus appears almost altruistic and selfless. Similarly, just as in GoetheÂ’s (and MurnauÂ’s) Faust, who ingests a magical potion that restores his youth a nd vitality, Joe Boyd lik ewise is transformed into a young man, a 21-year-old Babe Ruth-like baseball player named Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), who ends up captur ing the nationÂ’s attention. In GoetheÂ’s version, of course, Faust ingests the magic potion and, with his youth and sexual vigor restored, immediat ely begins wooing Gretchen. Joy Boyd, on the other hand, does almost exac tly the opposite. In order to fulfill his dream of saving his beloved baseball team, Joe must leave his devoted and long-suffering wife, Meg (a nod to GoetheÂ’s Margarete) and sneak away during the night. This, however, he clearly does not want to do. Lit by porch light, Joe looks upward. The camera cuts to an upstairs bedroom window where his middle-aged wife is sleeping, and then cuts back to Joe as he sings Â“Good-bye Old GirlÂ” while Applegate waits impatiently nearby. But another difference also exists in this film. In contrast to Jabez Stone, who blithely enters into a seven-year cont ract, Joe Boyd demands an escape clause, transforming the soul-bargain into something that more resembles a mortgage contract (Cooksey 21). Joe insists on this, he tells Appl egate, because he has Â“responsibilities,Â”
109 the implication being that, regardless of hi s own personal desires, he cannot simply walk away from his Â“realÂ” life. Indee d, throughout the film Joe remains intent on returning to his wife. At one point, for example, the young baseball player, now unrecognizable to his wife, even goes back and rents a room from her. Applegate, of course, does not want Joe to return to his wife, which would be an exercise of his escape clause. To prevent this, the devil thus calls upon the demonic wiles of a femme fatale named Lola (Gwe n Verdon) to lead Joe astray. In one particularly memorable scene, young Joe Har dy sits in the Senato rsÂ’ locker room as Lola enters. Musicals, of c ourse, are filled with songs and dancing, and here Lola breaks into Â“What Lola Wants,Â” slinking ar ound Joe as she attempts, unsuccessfully, to seduce him. Ironically, although Joe already ha s Â“leasedÂ” his soul to the devil, he remains resolutely incorruptible, apparently not even tempted for an instant, much as was the case with Daniel Webster. JoeÂ’s failure to slide into debauchery represents still another twist on the Faust legend, but it will not be the last in this f ilm. After Joe is prevented from exercising his escape clause and sinks into despair, Lola takes pity on him, touched by his devotion to his wife. LolaÂ’s response, and her decision to help him, is Â“much as the jury of the damned is moved by Daniel WebsterÂ’s el oquence to acquit JabezÂ” (Cooksey 21). Thus, Lola functions as GoetheÂ’s Margarete, ultim ately becoming Â“the indirect cause of his salvationÂ” (Cooksey 21). Jabez Stone and Joe Boyd/Hardy certainl y are not the traditional Faustian figures we know from Marlowe or Goethe, wher e the Â“basic drive of FaustÂ’s psyche is to expandÂ” (Browning 463). Neither one of th em lusts after power, is insatiable, or
110 expresses ennui with the wo rld. What these two American versions do present, however, is a kind of naivet, with each one temporarily succumbing to his particular fixation. It is perhaps because of this that Â“ each is finally able to relent and turn his back on his particular obsession, where th e traditional Fausts are by definition insatiable, trapped in an eternal cycle of quest and disappointmentÂ” (Cooksey 26). For both Jabez Stone and Joe Boyd, the n, personal salvation means going back to their wives, unfettered by any troubli ng existentialist quest ions about sin or temptation, good or evil, damnation or redemption. And in classic Hollywood resolutions, for both of these Faustian figur es, homeÂ—along with al l of the creature comforts that come with itÂ—now begins to look very much like Heaven.
111 Chapter FourÂ—Sins and Souls : A Rhetorical Construction An erudite, cultured, middle-aged European scholar meets a prepubescent girl and instantly is consumed with lu st. The possible price to his lif eÂ—and indeed, even to what may occur afterwardÂ—becomes negligible. Soon, the girlÂ’s widowed mother is dead; the protagonist has sexually and emotionally expl oited the young girl; a cross-country flight ensues; and the protagonist, apparently insensib le to his role in th e young girlÂ’s suffering, is wanted for murder. These plot points are from NabokovÂ’s master piece of modern American literature, Lolita the novel that so frightened American lit erary houses that the book first had to be published in France, in 1955, before it found a U.S publisher three years later. What many readers may not have recognized, however, is that these same plot points all appeared almost exactly 150 years earlier in a work decidedly less controversial: GoetheÂ’s Faust. Like Humbert, Faust also was a scholar w ho seduced a young girl and ruined her life, descending in the process into depravity and mo ral turpitude. And, just like Humbert, Faust also was indirectly responsible for the deat h of the girlÂ’s widowed mother and also murdered the girlÂ’s so-called Â“rescuer.Â” But audiences clearly assessed Faust and Hu mbert in vastly different ways. Faust became revered, Humbert reviled. Faust attained heroic proportions, while Humbert became a symbol of pedophilia a nd lechery. Interestingly, even the two girls in both works,
112 Gretchen and Lolita, were judged differently: Gr etchen became viewed as a tragic figure, whereas Lolita became synonymous with a youn g, sexually promiscuous siren. (Even those unfamiliar with NabokovÂ’s novel, for example, have probably heard of Amy Fisher, the teenager who shot her married loverÂ’s wife, dubbed the Â“Long Island Lolita.Â”) These disparities raise co mpelling questions. What might account for such a variance in views of two men w ho, in strikingly similar them atic and often textual ways, essentially commit the same crimes? If the tw o texts are compared si de by side, along with their respective receptions, is a modern-day reader to conclude that eighteenth-century Germany was more accepting of sexual exploita tion and murder than was mid-twentieth century America? And perhaps more importantly, if we accept the premise that both texts are inherently existentialist, how might FaustÂ’s innermost desire for knowledge and experience, versus HumbertÂ’s innermost desire to possess a nymphet, inform the readerÂ’s notion of Â“the human conditionÂ” as a social construct? Whether there is evidence that Nabokov cons idered these issues is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Nabokov undoubt edly was cognizant of how HumbertÂ’s graphically-depicted sexual relationship with a teenage girl would be received by modern American audiences in the 1950s. Before we re ad even one word of HumbertÂ’s text, the novelÂ’s fictional editor, John Ray Jr., Ph.D., te lls readers in his forward that Humbert Â“is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining exam ple of moral leprosyÂ…A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolv e him from sins of diabolical cunningÂ” (Annotated 5). As if anticipating the repugnan ce of HumbertÂ’s manuscriptÂ—and very likely to NabokovÂ’s manuscript as wellÂ—John Ray, Jr. te lls readers that they can be Â“entranced with the book while abho rring its authorÂ” (5).
113 No such abhorrence occurred with the ch aracter of Faust, or Goethe. To the contrary, as Walter Kaufmann points out in hi s introduction to one edition of the drama, Faust was immediately embraced by the German people as an ideal prototype, as the Â“incarnation of the German characterÂ” (G oetheÂ’s Faust 22). The overarching theme of FaustÂ’s Â“strivingÂ”Â—his goal to acquire infinite knowledge and infinite experience, even if it meant selling his soul to the devil in the proces sÂ—apparently struck such a deep cultural or psychic nerve that it overshadowed any mora l Â“lapseÂ” committed along the way. The fact that Faust never truly Â“knewÂ” Gretchen at all (just as Humbert eventually comes to recognize the same thing), and the fact that Faust was responsible for four deaths by the end of Part I of the dramaÂ—all apparently became viewed by the Germ an people as a mere tollbooth fee on the highway to Â“striving.Â” True, Faust became what John Ray, Jr. Ph.D. could have called a Â“shining example of moral leprosy.Â” And true again, FaustÂ’s sins, like HumbertÂ’s, accurately could ha ve been described as compelling examples of Â“diabolical cunning.Â” But hey, folks, at least Faust tried Really he did. And isnÂ’t that what forgiveness is all about? But many Germans clearly took that forgiven ess even further. Af ter the publication of Part I of Faust in 1808, Kaufmann notes, Â“millions of young men decided they were like Faust, and some found the German destiny in boundless, ruthless, Faus tian strivingÂ” (22). To place this observation into some type of cultural, historic, or moral perspective, consider, for a moment, reading that same pa ssage with Â“HumbertÂ” ex changed for Â“Faust.Â” What would it have said about American cultur e if millions of Ameri cans had decided that they, too, were like Humbert? If millions had recognized their Â“destinyÂ” in the Â“boundless, ruthlessÂ” striving for a nymphet? What would it have said about the American psycheÂ—
114 indeed, about American society in generalÂ—if Humbert had re sonated so deeply that he was perceived as Â“an incarnationÂ” of the American character? By raising these questions I realize that, to a certain degree, I am obligated on at least two separate fronts. The first concer ns KaufmannÂ’s claim that Â“millions of young men decided they were like Faust...Â” Kaufmann offe rs no empirical evidence for this statement, and in the absence of an eighteenth-century vers ion of the Gallup poll, one is forced to ask how this conclusion was drawn. The second element, intrinsically tied to the first, concerns the manner by which the embracing of Faustia n Â“strivingÂ” would have made itself manifest. How, in other words, would this ha ve expressed itself? Th ese questions are not simply academic. Indeed, in the years directly following World War II, scholars gave renewed attention to the Faus tian concept of Â“strivingÂ” a nd the traditiona l view of a Â“heroicÂ” Faust. Moreover, many drew dir ect connections between the so-called Â“incarnation of the German characterÂ” with that of the Nazis. As Alfred Hoelzel notes, Â“Perhaps nothing gave this issue wide r exposure than did Thomas MannÂ’s profound portrait of the Faust-Nazi link in his Doktor FaustusÂ” (3), published originally in German in 1947, in which the Faustian theme is transfe rred to the fictional biography of a German composer. The last paragraph of MannÂ’s novel, which re fers to events in the last months of 1940, makes explicit that Faust-Nazi link: Germany, the hectic on her cheek, was reeli ng then at the height of her dissolute triumphs, about to gain the whole world by virtue of the one pact she was minded to keep, which she had signed with her blood. Today, clung round by demons, a hand over one eye, with the other staring into horrors, down she flings from despair to
115 despair. When will she reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of uttermost hopelessnessÂ—a miracle beyond the power of beliefÂ—will the light of hope dawn? A lonely man folds his hands and speaks: Â“God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend, my Fatherland!Â” (510) NabokovÂ’s disdain for Mann, as well as the concept of poshlust already is well documented. Thus, one can only assume what NabokovÂ’s response would have been to this last paragraph, if not the entire novel. One can easily imagine him discussing with Vera, as he did with an interviewer on one occasion, the Â“topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at MannÂ” (Annotated 315). MannÂ’s notion of sin and salvation very possibly would have st ruck Nabokov not only as resembling one huge block of plaster, but also one that deserved a Â“good crackÂ” on his own part. The question no doubt would have been: How? For Nabokov, relegating temptation and sin to a purely Â“GermanÂ” issue, especially amid the rampant anti-German sentiment fo llowing World War II, would have been too easy a literary route to take. Despite the fact that Nabokov had pe rsonally witnessed the rise of the Third Reich and also experien ced first-hand how Nazi Â“ideasÂ” had been translated into actual deedsÂ—his brother Sergei, for example, perished in a Nazi concentration camp (Speak 258); and his wife Ve ra, a Jew, grew increa singly at risk the longer the Nabokovs remained in GermanyÂ—Nabokov knew that the Germans, by no means, were the only ones capable of selli ng their souls. This, too, Nabokov had witnessed first-hand.
116 As a Russian migr in Berlin fr om 1923-37, Nabokov and his fellow Russian expatriates often discussed the Â“monstrously un-Russian and subhumanÂ” literary behavior of writers who had remained behind. As Nabokov writes in his 1947 autobiography, Â“what the Tsars had never been able to achieve, na mely the complete curbing of minds to the governmentÂ’s will, was achieved by the Bolshevi ks in no time after the main contingent of the intellectuals had escaped abroad or had b een destroyedÂ” (Speak 280). What seemed to horrify Nabokov was what he called the Â“servi leÂ” literary response by remaining Russian writers; the Â“art of prostration,Â” Nabokov writes, Â“was growing th ere in exact ratio to first LeninÂ’s, then StalinÂ’s political police, and the successful S oviet writer was the one whose fine ear caught the soft whisper of an official suggestion long before it had become a blareÂ” (282). By submitting their minds and their art to the governmentÂ’s will, Nabokov suggests, those writers also were giving the government their souls. Nabokov and many of his fellow expatriates in Berlin, it should be noted, were barely surviving financially by writing alone, th eir literary options severely limited. Most were forced to take Â“menia lÂ” jobs on the side (Nabokov, fo r example, taught English to German businessmen and also gave tennis le ssons to their daughters). Frequently, Nabokov says, they asked themselves Â“if the sense of enjoying absolute mental freedom was not due to working in an absolute voidÂ” (280). Stil l, particularly in th e early 1930s Â“when the national precipice was only faintly perceived,Â” Nabokov and his fellow Russian migrs shared a similar goal. Despite th eir dire financial situations, the idea of attaining Â“successÂ” by trading what was most dear to them was unthinkable. Â“Sou l-saving,Â” Nabokov said, Â“came firstÂ” (284). The notion of saving versus selling oneÂ’s soul, then, was not simply an abstraction for Nabokov: the idea that within eac h of us exists the potential willingness and
117 capacity to betray any moral tenet, to si nk to any depth in exchange for temporary rewardsÂ—country of origin notwithstandingÂ—was one that had touched him both personally and profoundly. Still, one must consider the issue of degrees, if indeed su ch a term may be used in connection with Â“soul-selling.Â” Can one sell o ff just a Â“pieceÂ” of oneÂ’s soul? Or does any soul-deal necessarily imply lock, stock a nd barrel? Put another way, would a morallyminded man who steals a loaf of br ead to feed his family be just as guilty of selling his soul as, say, a struggling female film director who was guaranteed fame and fortune if she agreed to work as HitlerÂ’s propagandist? Such distinctions matter, pa rticularly if one is attempting to discern the meaning of temptati on within any artistic por trayal of the human condition. How else could temptation be placed into any meaningful rhetorical contextÂ— and not simply into a historic or cultur ally-specific oneÂ—if there also were not a corresponding consideration of a human beingÂ’s innermost desi re, of the one thing he or she craved for existential meaning above all else? These issues very possibly were part of the literary enigma Nabokov grappled with in regard to GoetheÂ’s Faust in addition to the workÂ’s long-e nduring critical reception in the German canon and its revised reception following World War II. Finding a literary frame to recast the Faust story anewÂ—especi ally after the publication of MannÂ’s critically acclaimed versionÂ—very likely presented itself to Nabokov like one of his initially baffling chess problems, in which clues must be carefully sel ected to lead would-be solvers astray. And to be sure, numerous elements within Lolita were meant to do just that. Just as with GoetheÂ’s expressed desire in a letter to a friend to create in Faust an Â“open riddle,Â” Nabokov likewise intentionally weaves into Lolita a vast array of Â“delusive
118 opening movesÂ” and Â“false scentsÂ” that lead read ers into what initially might be seen as a major artery, but which later branch out into a series of ancillary ve ins or capillaries. In other literary works we might use the term Â“red herringÂ” to describe this narrative techniqueÂ—for example, Humber tÂ’s numerous murder-mystery allusionsÂ—but in a text as complex and richly allusive as Lolita this term does not suffice. There is too of sure a hand behind the design of Lolita, too confident a driver of the vehicle that we, as readers, occupy from the back seat. But how, then, do we unc over those Faustian clue s scattered throughout Lolita ? How do we begin piecing together what once was a huge Faustian mirror, and which later, under NabokovÂ’s steady hand, was shattered, its shards surreptitiously sprinkled throughout the text? To begin, we first must be willing to pr oceed in a non-linear fashion throughout the text of Lolita just as Nabokov would have done while composing the novel. We must, in other words, be willing to suspend any exp ectation of a strict corresponding chronology between Faust and Lolita Â—which, of course, Nabokov already has described as a compositional technique he esch ewed. After this, as Humbert might have said of Nabokov: Imagine him; he shall not exi st if you do not imagine him! We must imagine Nabokov with his stack of index cards (which later were relegated to an incinerator-lik e fate), and then visualize how he might have proceeded: by writing down a line or scene out of Faust and then composing upon a corresponding index card the scene or dialogue th at later would appear in Lolita And then, after we have imagined all of that, there still is one more task for us. We then must envisage Nabokov taking all of those index cardsÂ—a ll of his reinventions, all of his recreated Faustian images, which often appear inverted, as if viewed through an ol d-fashioned Brownie cameraÂ—and
119 then picture him shuffling thos e cards as deftly as a Las Vegas blackjack dealer before placing themÂ—face-up, face-down, sometime s sidewaysÂ—throughout the text. Only then can we hope to discern some of the conjurerÂ’s tricks, which Nabokov has so Â“lovingly preparedÂ” to lead us astr ay. As Appel so correctly observes, This is how Nabokov seems to envision the game of life and the effect of his novels: each time a Â“scrambled pictureÂ” has been discerned Â“the reader cannot unseeÂ” it; consciousness has been expande d or created. (Annotated xx-xxi). Let us begin, then, by Â“unscramblingÂ” fragments of Faust within Lolita wherever we find themÂ—and then attempt a rhetorical reconstruction. The Dedication GoetheÂ’s Faust, as we read it today begins with a 32-line Â“Dedication to Faust.Â” When he composed this in 1797, more than two decades had passed since Goethe had written the first draft of the play in 1 775. Many scholars interpre t GoetheÂ’s dedication poem as a reflection of his emotiona l state in revis iting the text of Faust after more than twenty years had passed since, di rectly following the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther Goethe had first put his rough sketch down on paper. During that long lapse, friends had died. Loves had been lost. But Nich olas Boyle, in his bi ography of Goethe, also notes the Â“strange titleÂ” of the dedication, Â“as if life were here being dedicated to art, rather than the reverse, yet dealing not with the contents of the work to which it was to be prefixed but with the effect on him of writi ng it and with the audience for which it was intendedÂ” (507). Cyrus Hamlin similarly observe s that when Goethe returned to the text after such a long time at the urging of his younge r friend Friedrich Schill er, Â“the characters
120 of the drama haunt him like spirits half-reali zed from his past, and this calls to mind the days of his youth and the departed friends who were close to him when he was first writing the playÂ” (309 ). We can see evidence of those haunting Â“spir itsÂ” in just the first few lines, in which Goethe evokes the sense of being compelled by the memory of them: Once more you near me, wavering apparitions That early showed before the turbid gaze. Will I now seek to grant you definition, My heart essay again in the former daze? You press me! Well, I yield to your petition, As all around, you rise from mist and haze; What wafts around your trai n with magic glamor Is quickening my breast to yout hful tremor. [lines 1-8] Goethe does not tell usÂ—nor should we expect him toÂ—in whose guise these Â“apparitionsÂ” appear to him. He does, however, allude to th e loss of a Â“first loveÂ” that revives in him a feeling of grief: First loveÂ’s and friendshi pÂ’s echoes are replayed; Old grief revives, a mour nful plaint retraces LifeÂ’s labyrinthine and erratic gait, And names the dear ones who, by fortune cheated Of blissful hours, before me have retreated.Â” [lines 12-16] Two elements of the dedication s eem particularly relevant to Lolita At the beginning of the novel, Humbert also recalls days of his youth. He describes how, as a boy, he fell in love
121 with Annabel, whom he lusted after, and like Goethe he might be said to have been Â“by fortune cheated of blissful hours.Â” Indeed, Humbert makes a point of describing how he and Annabel were constantly thwarted from such bliss: All at once we were madly, clumsily, sham elessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because th at frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbi bing and assimilating every particle of each otherÂ’s soul and flesh; but there we we re, unable to mate even as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do so. (12). And then, Humbert tells us, Annabel dies f our months later of typhus. Thus, Nabokov, like Goethe, not only has begun his st ory with a Â“wavering apparitionÂ” that exists for him in the form of Annabel; but Nabokov also has addressed his Â“first loveÂ” and Â“old griefÂ” that caused his Â“mournful plaintÂ” to Â“retraceÂ” what was lost. In Lolita Nabokov appropriates GoetheÂ’s dedica tion early in the novel. But in contrast to GoetheÂ’s vague and unnamed appar itions, Humbert recreates the Â“old griefÂ” and the echo of Â“first loveÂ” that is Â“replayedÂ” in his memory w ith precise detail. And thisÂ—as Nabokov will reveal throughout the novelÂ—will pr ove to inform all of HumbertÂ’s actions, all of HumbertÂ’s rationales for his actions, all of HumbertÂ’s rh etoric about desire and fate. Indeed, Humbert becomes convinced that Lolita is a reincarnation of his lost Annabel, that fate, in essence, has offered him another chance The little girl Â“with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever sinceÂ—until at la st, twenty-four years la ter, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another,Â” he tells us. Indee d, he says he is convinced Â“that in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with AnnabelÂ” (13-14).
122 Is it then mere coincidence that, like Goethe Â’s first lines of the dedication, the next object of HumbertÂ’s lust would al so refer to Â“hazeÂ” (line 6), namely in the form of Dolores Haze? Within the first 15 lines of the dedication, Goethe evok es ghosts from his past that are rising up and says that he is Â“seized by a long-unwonted yearning Â” (line 25). The same, as we will see, becomes true when Humbert meets Lolita. Humbert and Heinrich Faust and HumbertÂ’s backgrounds are sim ilar in many respects, including their professions, their dissat isfaction with their lives as schol ars, as well as their emotional states. Each also reveals a singular obsession, as well as the methods by which past attempts to fulfill those obsessions have been unsuccessful. Goethe and Nabokov, however, present the Â“back storyÂ” of their prota gonists in decidedly different ways. When we first meet GoetheÂ’s Faust in hi s study, we learn immediately that he is profoundly depressed about his academic life, and also that he is long ing for some kind of deeper meaning and a sense of purpose. He wonders aloud: How does the mind sustain some hope and pleasure ThatÂ’s stuck forever to the same old terms With greedy fingers grubbing after treasure And gratified to dig up worms! [lines 601-605] Initially, then, we are led to believe that what Faust most hungers for revolves around his life as a scholar, and that until now he has been rewarded only with a few Â“wormsÂ” instead of his hoped-for academic gold mine, or what would lend genuine meaning to his life. No doubt, doctoral students everywhere in any era, can relate.
123 But as R.M. Browning notes of GoetheÂ’s Urfaust, an early sketch of the drama written in 1775, Â“the basic drive of FaustÂ’s psyc he is a compulsive urge to expand; further Â…his subjective concept of that toward which he expandsÂ—the spirit worldÂ—is tragically at variance with its objective manifestation (t he Quixote situation)Â” (463). Browning also adds a rhetorical analysis of FaustÂ’s language, seeing it in sexual terms: Â“The underlying rhythm of the first 168 linesÂ—FaustÂ’s rhythm Â—is that of up and down, organically related of course to inhibited expansion. Meta phors expressive of FaustÂ’s longing are predominantly erotic in nature and are char acterized by the figures of hovering, bathing, thirsting, quenching, violent out-flowing and of course their frus trating oppositesÂ” (46364). In common parlance, as Humbert might have put it, Faust needs a date. Unlike Faust, Humbert does not require 168 lines to express essentially the same erotic elements. In Lolita, the nature of his longing, the true object of his desire, is expressed in the first sentence of the novel: Â“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loinsÂ” (9). Interestingly, in the second line, Humbert condenses what might be viewed as the overarching theme of GoetheÂ’s dramaÂ—the will ingness to commit any sin in the search of personal gratification in exchange for oneÂ’s et ernal soulÂ—into just four words: Â“My sin, my soulÂ” (9). The simplicity of NabokovÂ’s distillation could almo st be reduced to its most rudimentary arithmetic components: Sin equals X, Soul equals Y, and X also equals Y. In GoetheÂ’s drama, Mephisto first appears to Faust in the guise of a poodle, which he first sees while out on a walk with Wagner. Â“See that bl ack dog through seed and fallow roaming?Â” he asks. Something about the poodle cl early is disturbing to Faust, although he obviously does not recognize the dogÂ’s true identity: Do you observe him near and nearer, looping
124 A narrowing spiral like the convolute snail? Unless I err, there rises in his track A swirling fiery effusionÂ… He seems to snare our feet with magic, weaving Some future bondage, thread by stealt hy thread. [lines 1147-1159] Wagner, of course, convinces Faust that it is simply a dog, nothing more. Â“You see? A dogÂ—there is no specter hereÂ” [line1163]. But when the anim al later comes home with Faust into his study, it begins running and growling and trying to escape. The poodle is trapped; it cannot leave because of a DruidÂ’ s claw in FaustÂ’s study. When the poodle begins to reveal its true nature, grow ing Â“long and broadÂ” with Â“fiery eyes and fearsome tooth,Â” Faust realizes he is at an advantage; immediately he turns to a book of magic and begins reciting insensible incantations to co ntrol the evil spirit s surrounding the dog. Here, of course, the reader knows what Faust does not: that in the previous Â“Prologue in HeavenÂ” scene, the Lord and Mephisto, surrounded by angels, already have made a wager over FaustÂ’s soul. Mephisto has e xpressed confidence that he will prevail, that temptation holds a far greater power than anything the Lord has to offer. And indeed, what Mephisto has to offer Faust is his deep est desire, his innermos t longing for infinite knowledge and infinite experi ence, something for which he has hungered all his life. In Lolita Humbert refers to MephistoÂ’s initial appearance to Faust when he describes his marriage to Valeria. What initially attracted him to Valeria, he says, Â“was the imitation she gave of a little girl.Â” She gave it not because she divined someth ing about me; it was just her styleÂ—and I fell for it. Actually, she was at least in her twenties (I never established her exact
125 age for even her passport lied) and had mi slaid her virginity under circumstances that changed with her reminiscent moods. I, on the other hand, was nave as only a pervert can be. (25) But reality, Humbert tells us, Â“soon asserted itse lf.Â” Instead of what he thought was a Â“pale little gutter girl,Â” Humbert discovers that wh at he actually has on his hands is Â“a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breaste d and practically brainless baba Â” (26). Here Nabokov evokes a transformation in ValeriaÂ’s nature th at is just as stunning to Humbert as the poodleÂ’s sudden transformation into a creature w ith Â“fiery eyes and f earsome toothÂ” was to Faust. But this is not the only manner by which Nabokov evokes MephistoÂ’s initially disguised appearance: Humbert then describes walking out of an office building with her one day Â“when Valeria, as she waddled by my side, began to shake her poodle head vigorously without saying a wordÂ” (28). HumbertÂ’s attempts to fulfill his own deepest desireÂ—to possess a nymphetÂ—have appeared earlier in the novel, as he seeks out young prostitutes. In each instance Humbert has willed himself to believe he was encount ering the real deal, as Nabokov might have put it; but in each case Humbert knows he has had only a pale imitation, a pseudo-nymphet. With Valeria, however, the allusion works on an even deeper level. Here Humbert actually has been duped, tempted by what he believed was one thing and which later turned out to be something entirely different. The refere nce to Valeria shaking her Â“poodle headÂ” strongly suggests a textual nod to Faust, who likewise did not realize what he had brought home with him. But the dog in Faust Â—which Goethe may have bo rrowed from an early chapbook in which Faustus was said to have owned a black dog with demonic powersÂ—also makes
126 several other notable appearances in Lolita But before HumbertÂ’s dog steps once again onto the literary stage of Na bokovÂ’s novel, however, perhaps a quick bit of background is in order. Humbert first comes to Ramsdale, we mi ght recall, because his uncleÂ’s former employee suggested he spend a few months Â“in the residence of his impoverished cousins,Â” the McCoo family, in order to focus on his Â“s cholarly exertions,Â” which Humbert tells us Â“had begun to interest me againÂ” (35). Such a suggestion normally would have been about as attractive to this snobbish European scholar as a gift of a black velvet Elvis portrait, except for one additional enticement: Â“He said they had two little daughters, one a baby, and the other a girl of twelve, and a beautiful garden, not far from a beautiful lake, and I said it sounded perfectly perf ect.Â” Humbert glosses over the me ntion of the twelve-year-old girl as if she were equal in appeal to the garden or the lake; and it isnÂ’t until a few lines later that he admits he envisioned Â“the en igmatic nymphet I would coach in French and fondle in HumbertishÂ” (35). Sa dly for Humbert, however, this envisioned opportunity does not come to pass. As he tells us: Nobody met me at the toy stat ion where I alighted with my new expensive bag, and nobody answered the telephone; eventually, however, a distraught McCoo in wet clothes turned up at the onl y hotel of green-and-pink Ramsdale with the news that his house had just burned downÂ—possibly, ow ing to the synchronous conflagration that had been raging all night in my veins. (35) HumbertÂ’s initial response to news of the fire then, is that he e quates it withÂ—and indeed, almost attributes it toÂ—the fire burni ng within his own body, presumably from the Â“synchronousÂ” thought of meeting his envisioned nymphet. What initially appears to him
127 as bud luck, however, turns out not to be the case: From the charred ashes of the McCoo house arises another one of Na bokovÂ’s beloved phoenixes, this time in the form of another possible rental opportunity over on nearby Lawn Street (a home, it should be noted, that Humbert initially feels only socially obligated to inspect, but has no real intention of inhabiting). This, of course, turns out to be the Haze household, wherein dwells Lolita. On the surface, such a turn of events might appear as simply another instance of NabokovÂ’s obvious love of orchestrating what some might call Â“coincidences,Â” of Nabokov the puppeteer pulling the literary strings of so-called chance and so-called sudden opportunities. HumbertÂ’s descriptio n of arriving at the train stat ion, to be sure, contains a bit of all of these elements; but behind this passage lies still another connection to the Faust legend, one that goes back ev en farther than Goethe. Goethe, we already know, was an openly una pologetic borrower of picking literary Â“flowersÂ” wherever he found them. And very possibly, one of those flowers came from Gotthold Lessing, an older contemporary of Go etheÂ’s who had begun his own Faust play in 1755, twenty years before Goethe began his version in 1775. Unfortunately for scholars, only a few fragmentary sketches of LessingÂ’s Faust remain, but those that do reveal a defense of Rationalism which later would para llel some of GoetheÂ’s own views. Lessing, for example, who some have called the Â“Father of the Enlightenment,Â” asserted that we are only able to know God based on what we are ab le to actually observe in the natural world, because it is only in the natural world that G od does not interfere (Greystonestreet). In many respects, this view of nature would co rrespond with BloomÂ’s description of Goethe as a man who Â“from his start was a wholly secu larized writer, with little use for God or Christ...His curious excursions into natura l scienceÂ—the metamorphoses of plants and
128 theory of colorsÂ—are reflections of his deep identification of himself with a nature always in the process of becoming, a non-Godhead waiting to be bornÂ” (Genius 175). LessingÂ’s Faust fragments thus very like ly would have held deep appeal for GoetheÂ—and this appeal very likely ma de its way to Nabokov. As Franke notes: The most important of these fragments, pres erved to us in copies by some friends of LessingÂ’s, is the prelude, a c ouncil of devils. Satan is receiving reports from his subordinates as to what they have done to bring harm to the re alm of God. The first devil who speaks has set the hut of some pious poor on fire; the second has buried a fleet of usurers in the waves. Both excite SatanÂ’s disgust. Â“For,Â” he says, Â“to make the pious poor still poorer m eans only to chain him all the more firmly to GodÂ”; and the usurers, if, instead of being buried in the waves, they had been allowed to reach the goal of their voyage, would have wrought new evil on distant shores. Much more satisfied is Satan with the report of a third devil, who has stolen the first kiss from a young, innocent girl and thereby breathed the flame of desire into her veins; for he has worked evil in the world of spirit, and that means much more and is a much greater triumph for hell than to wo rk evil in the world of bodies. (Lectures) In GoetheÂ’s play, we can detect the influence of LessingÂ’s refe rences to waves and fire in the Prologue in Heaven scene, wher e Michael the Archangel declares: And tempest roars, with tempest vying From sea to land, from land to sea, In their alternate furies tying A chain of deepest potency. A flash of fiery disaster
129 Precedes the thunder on its way. [lines 259-264] Both Lessing and GoetheÂ’s versions beco me incorporated by Nabokov. LessingÂ’s version of the first devil setting the hut of the Â“pi ous poor on fireÂ” has been transferred to the McCoo house; and GoetheÂ’s Archangel who predic ts the Â“flash of fier y disasterÂ” preceding the Â“thunder on its wayÂ” lays the groundwork for HumbertÂ’s fi rst response to Lolita where he declares, Â“I find it most diffi cult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognitionÂ” (39) Can there be any doubt that Humbert, in essence, is describing his own version of thunder and lightning within his innermost soul? This brings us back to the poodle in GoetheÂ’s Faust as well as NabokovÂ’s almost medieval chapbook-like references to a dog with demonic powers. In Lolita it is a dog, of course, that ultimately might be said to be re sponsible for the Â“fantastic giftÂ” that Humbert receives, namely that of possessing his nymphe t. Charlotte (NabokovÂ’s nod to the heroine in GoetheÂ’s Werther or else to the hist oric Charlotte von Stein?) has read HumbertÂ’s hidden diary. Blinded by tears at his depiction of her and his designs on her daughter, she rushes outside to mail three damning letters. Just then, a car swerve s onto the wet sidewalk, hitting Charlotte to avoid hitting a dog. Humber t considers the Â“intrica cies of the pattern (hurrying housewife, s lippery pavement, a pest of a dog, st eep grade, big car, baboon at its wheel)Â” and Â“dimlyÂ” acknowledges his own ro le in CharlotteÂ’s dash to the mailbox. Nevertheless, he wonders again at the precis e ingredients that, co mbined, created this fateful moment. Even if his journal had not cr eated her blinding tears, he says, Â“still nothing might have happened, had not precis e fate, that synchronizing phantom, mixed with its alembic the car and the dog and the sun and the shade and the wet and the weak and the strong and the stoneÂ” (103).
130 We have, however, seen this dog before. On the day of his arrival in Ramsdale, Humbert sees the animal from his Â“funerealÂ” limousine as he is taken from the McCoo house to the Haze home: Â“Sp eaking of sharp turns: we almost ran over a meddlesome suburban dog (one of those who lie in wait for cars) as we swerved onto Lawn StreetÂ” (36). But this will not be the last reference to dogs, whichÂ—at least to HumbertÂ’s thinkingÂ— often appear to be four-legged demonic messe ngers, or perhaps servants of another demon he names directly. When Humbert returns to the Enchanted Hunters hotel after Lolita has run off with Quilty, for example (Â“a curious urge to relive my stay there with Lolita had got hold of meÂ”), he notices that th e hotelÂ’s stationery has change d since the last time he was there. On it he reads: THE ENCHANTED HUNTERS NEAR CHURCHES NO DOGS All legal beverages Humbert wonders Â“if a hunter, enchanted or othe rwise, would not need a pointer more than a pew, and with a spasm of pain I r ecalled a scene worthy of a great artist: petit nymph accroupie ; but that silky cocker spaniel had pe rhaps been a baptized oneÂ” (261). By conflating Lolita with the silky cocker spaniel, Humbert exhibits what might be seen as the opposite of anthropomorphizing, with Lolita now assuming animal qualities. But here we also can observe another theme that later will prove central for Humbert: By speculating about baptismÂ—a rite designed to ensure one Â’s admittance into heavenÂ—he reveals his inclination to view Lolita as ul timately unstained by anything he did to her. We can see this in the Â“fatidicÂ” date of Lolit aÂ’s death on Christmas DayÂ—the da y of ChristÂ’s birthÂ—as well as in the depiction of LolitaÂ’s dog at th e home she shares with her husband, a dog,
131 completely stripped of any demonic qualities, that now harmlessly utters a friendly Â“woofÂ” before being shooed outside by Lolita. These elements later will figure prominently when Humbert speculates about the fate of hisÂ—as well as LolitaÂ’sÂ—immortal soul. Still another early similarity in both works concerns the emotional stability of Faust and Humbert. In GoetheÂ’s play, we see this in the Prologue in Heaven scene, in which Mephisto, speaking to the Lo rd, observes of Faust: He serves you in a curious fashion Not of this earth the madmanÂ’s drink or ration HeÂ’s driven far afield by some strange leaven HeÂ’s half aware of his demented quest He claims the most resplendent stars from heaven. [lines 299-304] Of particular interest is Me phistoÂ’s comment about the Â“mad manÂ’s drink or rationÂ”Â—as if suggesting that FaustÂ’s emotional difficulties extend beyond his dissatisfaction with his life of a scholar and actually might involve some form of deeper emotional instability. (Indeed, before the Earth Spirit appears, Faust actua lly is on the brink of committing suicide by drinking a poison.) When considered in connection with Lolita MephistoÂ’s comments take on a new shade of meaning. Like Faust, who is called Â“HeinrichÂ” by Gretchen, Humbert also is a European scholar mired in what might be called academ ic malaise and existential ennui. Prior to coming to Ramsdale, he tells us he arrived in New York where Â“I eagerly accepted the soft job fate offered me: it mainly consisted of thi nking up and editing perfume adsÂ” (32). Later, he is asked by a university to write a text on French literature for English speaking students, hardly the type of project one imagin es would have lent deep purpose to his life.
132 Further, the oblique reference to Â“madmanÂ” in Faust is rendered explicitly in Lolita : Â“A dreadful breakdown sent me to a sanatorium fo r more than a year; I went back to my workÂ—only to be hospitalized againÂ” (33). Following a brief period in which Humbert tells us that he Â“fe lt curiously aloof from my own selfÂ” and Â“no temptations maddened me,Â” he describes still another breakdown. Â“The reader will regret to learn that after my return to civilization I had another bout w ith insanity (if to melancholia and a sense of insufferable oppression that cruel term mu st be applied)Â” (34). But where GoetheÂ’s Faust actually was on the verge of killing himself, Nabokov gleefully turns this suicidal urge on its head. After Charlotte is run over and killed, John and Jean Farlow, CharlotteÂ’s friends, are so convinced that Humbert might harm himself that they track down someone to keep an eye on the man they believe to be a suffering widower: That day John had to see a customer, and Jean had to feed her dogs, and so I was to be deprived temporarily of my friendsÂ’ company. The dear people were afraid I might commit suicide if left alone, and si nce no other friends were available (Miss Opposite was incommunicado, the McCoos were busy building a new house miles away, and the Chatfields had recently been called to Maine by some family trouble of their own), Leslie and Louise were commissioned to keep me companyÂ… (99) Besides taking a jab at the suicidal Faust, Na bokov in this passage al so interjects, in his own bitterly incisive style, a knife blade of social commentary: the Farlows, supposedly a concerned couple seeking to make certain that poor Mr. Humb ert in his grief and despair should not do anything rash, at the same time cannot attend to him themselves because of JohnÂ’s Â“customerÂ” and JeanÂ’s hungry dogs.
133 In GoetheÂ’s play, of course, it is the explicit soul-wager between Mephisto and Faust that propels the events and FaustÂ’s moral decline. In Lolita however, there also is a soul-wager of sorts, but it is rendered implic itly. Shortly before Lolita is sent away to summer camp, Humbert writes in his journal th at he hopes for some awful event to occur that will give him his nymphet: I long for some terrific disaster. Earthqua ke. Spectacular explosion. Her mother is messily but instantly and permanently eliminated, along with everybody else for miles around. Lolita whimpers in my arms. A free man, I enjoy her among the ruins. (53) Humbert does not use the word Â“prayÂ” when desc ribing this desire (as he does elsewhere in the novel), but when his envisioned scenario does occurÂ—Charlotte is run over by a carÂ— Humbert views CharlotteÂ’s death as an answer to his deepest longing. Â“I had actually seen the agent of fate,Â” Humbert tells us, after th e driver of the vehicle, a man named Beale, comes to the house to offer to pay for Charlo tteÂ’s funeral. Interest ingly, even Beale is described in dog-like terms, Â“looking like a kind of assistant executi oner, with his bulldog jowlsÂ” (102). Humbert continues with a sense of awe at the events that have transpired: Â“I had palpitated the very flesh of fateÂ—and its padded shoulder. A brilliant and monstrous mutation had suddenly taken place, and here wa s the instrument.Â” Indeed, so powerful is this moment for Humbert, so overwhelming is his awareness of having touched the fleshy hand of fate, that he reit erates its effect on him: Fat fateÂ’s formal handshake (as reprodu ced by Beale before leaving the room) brought me out of my tor por; and I wept. (103)
134 A Â“formal handshake,Â” of course, is what o ccurs between people when a deal has been concluded or an agreement reached. In GoetheÂ’s play the soul-pact is sealed with a drop of blood; but in Lolita FaustÂ’s pact with Mephisto is evoked through BealeÂ’s handshake and HumbertÂ’s recognition of him as Â“the agent of fa te.Â” It is the same agent that Humbert has recognized earlierÂ—whether as McFate, or perh aps one of McFateÂ’s subagents in the guise of Â“opportunityÂ” or Â“chance.Â” Anticipating the nymphet who is about to be his, Humbert decides that Â“the house of heaven must seem pretty bare after thatÂ” (103). Whatever a future Â“house of heavenÂ” may have to offe r Humbert pales in co mparison to possessing Lolita here on earth, right now. As Humbert has told us earlier, it is only the earthly paradise that concerns him: What had begun as a delicious distention of my innermost roots became a glowing tingle which now had reached that point of absolute security, confidence and reliance not found elsewhere in conscious li fe. [Â…]The least pressure would suffice to set all paradise loose. I had cease d to be Humbert the Hound, the sad-eyed degenerate cur clasping the boot that w ould presumably kick him away. I was above the tribulations of ridicule, bey ond the possibilities of retribution. (60) Like Faust, who Weigand notes Â“had dismissed hell as a figment of morbid fantasyÂ” (455), Humbert, too, believes himself beyond retributionÂ—a word, it should be noted, that has a far different definition than Â“j ail time.Â” Once Lolita actually has become Â“his,Â” Humbert operates as if he had been give n the same advice presented in Faust : TomorrowÂ’s late for whatÂ’s not done today. ThereÂ’s not a day to lose, and so, WhateverÂ’s possible, resolve robust
135 Should take it by the forelock fast. [lines 225-228] Humbert also seizes the hanging Â“forelock,Â” an image that is synonymous with Â“seizing the OpportunityÂ” and which dates back to ancient Greece. He recognizes this in the Enchanted Hunters hotel room after he has just had sex with Lolita, and an Â“ashen sense of awfulnessÂ” washes over him as he watches her: Brown, naked, frail Lo, her narrow white bu ttocks to me, her sulky face to a door mirror, stood, arms akimbo, feet (in new sli ppers with pussy-fur tops) wide apart, and through a forehanging lock tritely mugge d at herself in th e glass. (137-138) Humbert clearly has no intention of letting go of that forelo ck, but already he seems to sense that a terrible price for it lies ahead. The Devil is in the Details Faust, of course, has Mephist o to assist him in his quest s. But Humbert, too, has his own devilish ally in Â“McFate.Â” Even though McFa te may be far more ethereal and silent than FaustÂ’s mocking, sarcastic, in-the-flesh demon, McFate neverthele ss is a presence to which Nabokov, like Goethe, imbues with distinctive char acteristics. Â“It would have been logical on the part of Aubrey McFate (a s I would like to dub that devil of mine) to arrange a small treat for me on the promised beach, in the presumed forest,Â” Humbert says, alluding to McFateÂ’s tendency to take pleasure in taunting and toying with him (56). At anot her point Humbert notes, Â“I want the reader not to mock me and my mental daze. It is easy for him and me to decipher now a past destiny; but a destiny in the making is, believe me, not one of thos e honest mystery stories where all you have to do is keep an eye on the clues.Â” That, he says Â“is not McFateÂ’s wayÂ” (210-211). In another
136 reference, Humbert does not mention McFate directly, but nevert heless alludes to a demonic influence in his daily life: It will be seen that for all the devilÂ’s i nventiveness, the scheme remained daily the same. First he would tempt meÂ—and then thwa rt me, leaving me with a dull pain in the very root of my being. (55) Other times, McFate rewards him, as when Humbert uses a pay phone to call LolitaÂ’s camp, and the inserted coins jingle out like a slot machine jackpot: One wonders if this sudden discharge, this spasmodic refund, was not correlated somehow, in the mind of McFate, with my having invented that little expedition before ever learning of it as I did now. (107) Elsewhere, however, it is Lolita herselfÂ—a nd all nymphetsÂ—who is perceived by Humbert to possess demonic qualities. In many respects, th is harkens back to MarloweÂ’s version of Faust, in which Helen of Troy was portrayed as the Â“she-devilÂ”: I should have understood that Lolita had already proved to be something quite different from innocent Annabel, and th at the nymphean ev il breathing through every pore of the fey child that I had pr epared for my secret delectation, would make the secrecy impossible, and the dele ctation lethal. I should have known (by the signs made to me by something in LolitaÂ—the real child Lolita or some haggard angel behind her back) that nothing but pain and horror would result from the expected rapture. Oh winged gentlemen of the jury! (125) HumbertÂ’s she-devil portrayal of Lolita is e xhibited in another passage, in which Humbert says of her, Â“Â…Every nerve in me was still anointed and ring ed with the feel of her bodyÂ— the body of some immortal daemon child disguised as a female childÂ” (139).
137 But Lolita is not the only one besides McFa te to be imbued with demonic qualities. Quilty also takes on devilish attributes. In ma ny respects, Quilty thus acts as HumbertÂ’s Â“doppelgangerÂ” or alter ego, possibly a refere nce to FaustÂ’s remarks to Wagner about the dueling urges that possess him. Indeed, so power ful is this sense of harboring an Â“OtherÂ” for Faust that he articulates the pr esence of Â“two soulsÂ” within him: You are by just a single urge possessed; Oh may you never know the other! Two souls, alas are dwelling in my breast, And neither would be severed from its brother. [lines 1112-1115] Appel observes that NabokovÂ’s use of parody in cludes Â“not only narrative clichs and subject matter but genres and prototypes of th e novelÂ” as well. (l) The doppelganger motif, of course, was popular in 18th and 19th century literature, an d this Nabokov does not hesitate to engage. Quilty, as Appel notes, Â“i s both a parody of the Double as a convention of modern fiction and a Double who formulat es the horror in HumbertÂ’s lifeÂ” (li). That horror, however, is not unlike the type that Faust refers to when he senses the two Â“soulsÂ” in his breast that pull him in opposite directions, each one incap able of being severed from the other. It is FaustÂ’s recognition of these opposing fo rces, and his prayer that something will appear in his life to mediate between them, that summons fo rth Mephisto. (Similarly, here we can recall HumbertÂ’s longing fo r a Â“terrific disasterÂ” to occu r to Charlotte, a desire that summons forth the Â“peskyÂ” neighborhood dog.) But as Brown observes, Mephisto will serve Faust only as long as Faust remains unsat isfied with anything th e devil has to offerÂ— which is anything the world alone has to offe r. In this respect, then, Brown notes that
138 The traditional significance of the pact is subverted, since Faust must now embrace every temptation of the devil in order to be saved. More important is the specific formulation: Â“WerdÂ’ ich zum Augenblick sa gen:/Verveile doch! du bist so schoen!Â” (Should I ever say to the moment: Tarry a while, thou art so fair!...) The word Augenblick Â“moment,Â” contains in it the word for Â“eye.Â” Such moments of temptation to make time stand still and lo se the bet will be moments of vision, moments in which Faust somehow can Â“seeÂ” the ineffable Absolute in the world. The bet articulates both the instability of any knowledge of the Other and also its dependence on an insight project ed from within. (96) In order for Faust to save his soul, then, he cannot be self-reflective. He must continue to strive, continue to black out the Â“ineffable AbsoluteÂ” in the world; he cannot possess knowledge of the Â“Other,Â” and indeed must esch ew any search of it if he does not want to lose his bet for his immortal soul. As Mephisto tells him: Cheer up! Throw over all reflection, And off into the world post-haste! Take it from me: the sl ave of introspection Is like a beast on arid wasteÂ…[lines 1828-1831] Initially, this imperative to eschew introspecti on is true of Humbert as well. Once he gives into Â“fat fateÂ’s formal handshake,Â” Humbert forces from his consci ousness any notions of retribution, of any future cost or consequence. His Â“fantastic giftÂ” prevents him from seeing any farther than the next motel parking lot in to which he and Lolita will drive, any farther than the dim awareness that Lolita the nymphe t, one day soon, no longer will be his Lolita. Until nearly the end of HumbertÂ’s prison Â“mem oir,Â” HumbertÂ’s sense of time is measured
139 only by his so-called Â“scientifi cÂ” ideas about the age at which a nymphet ceases to be a nymphet; and in this respect the only mortality he is able to perceive is that of LolitaÂ’s nymphet-ism. Only after Lolita disappears, and Humbert has killed Quilty, does Humbert begin to hear the drumbeat of his own mortal ity. This is what creates the narrative shift; this is what creates an overlay for his prev ious lack of self-refl ection. Thus, HumbertÂ’s grand narrative, as it were, actually is transformed into one that is all about self-reflection and introspectionÂ—even if, in the process, Hu mbert either ends up deceiving himself, us, his rhetorical jury, or else all of the above. He reflects, then, about his previous lack of reflection, in what Kuzmanovich calls Â“som ething recursive and di zzying, a linguistic vertigo created when consciousness is investigated with consciousnessÂ” (20). Unlike Faust, whose future immortal soul depends on his uninterrupted striving and lack of self-reflection, HumbertÂ’s immortal so ul willÂ—at least to his own thinkingÂ—rest on just the opposite. Humbert need s to understand for himself, as well as for us and for his envisioned Â“jury,Â” why he did what he did, and reveal his motives in their barest and starkest terms. He must tell these detailsÂ—ones that, in 1950 Â’s America, prompted some critics to call Â“pornographic, Â” Â“amoral,Â” Â“immoral,Â” or Â“unwholesome,Â” to name but a fewÂ—because HumbertÂ’s truth even if it is a lie to himself, even if is self-delusional, even if it is full of rationalization and justification, even if it is deceitful, is all that stands between him and the cessation of mortal being th at he clearly senses lurks just around the proverbial corner of his jail cell. That certainly is not to imply that we should read HumbertÂ’s Â“memoirÂ” as a deathbed confession. To the contrary, as num erous scholars including Appel have pointed out, Lolita is a Â“burlesqueÂ” of the co nfessional novel, a parody of that form along with so
140 many others, including murder mysteries. But to leave the label at Â“burlesque,Â” to my thinking, not only involves a great oversight, but it also minimizes NabokovÂ’s deeply held ideas about the human soul. Modern American l iterature may have trea ted the existence of the human soul as an anachronism; but that did not mean that Nabokov felt the need to do so as well. Lolita in fact, is proof of that; Lolita in fact, exists in defiance of that. The issue of immortality, of course, is one that is extremely important to Mephisto, even if it is not to Faust. In order to win the betÂ—and thus to win FaustÂ’s soulÂ—Mephisto must use all of his wiles to lull Faust into satisfaction and comfort. One of the most significant ways in which the devil attempts to do this is by taunting Faust. As Kaufmann notes, in the figure of Faust Goethe created a Â“poetic but unscrupulous titan who, for all his noble sentiments, becomes involved in brutal deedsÂ—[and] is the constant butt of MephistoÂ’s mockeryÂ” (24). The theme of demonic mockery, how ever, also appears throughout Lolita One example is after Quilty Â“rescuesÂ” Lolita and Humbert unsuccessfully pursues clues to their cryptic trail through hotel ledgers. Humbert doe s not yet know the identity of LolitaÂ’s coconspirator; nevertheless, he attributes to him the same qualities that could describe GoetheÂ’s Mephisto: In one thing he succeeded: he succeeded in thoroughly enmeshing me and my thrashing anguish in his demoniacal game. With infinite skill, he swayed and staggered, and regained an impossible balanc e, always leaving me with the sportive hopeÂ—if I may use such a term in speaking of betrayal, fury, desolation, horror and hateÂ—that he might give hims elf away next time. (249)
141 The more frustrated Humbert becomes, the more demonic LolitaÂ’s Â“rescuerÂ” seems to grow in his mind: He mimed me and mocked me. His allusi ons were definitely high brow. He was well-read. He knew French. (249) But Humbert also becomes afraid of the cap rices of his imagined demonsÂ—or else GodÂ— just as does Faust. At one point, for example, Lolita is sitting on his lap and he is reciting the jumbled, insensible words to a popular song. In modern parlance Humbert might be said to be Â“buying timeÂ” by his wordsÂ—that is, he is attempting to hold Lolita temporarily under his spell. This scene strongly evokes Faus tÂ’s insensible incantati ons to the poodle in his study, when Faust uses magical incantations to control the spirits around him. As Humbert relates it: Having, in the course of my patter, hit upon something nicely mechanical, I recited, garbling them slightly, the words of a f oolish song that was then popularÂ—O my Carmen, something, something, those somethi ng nights, and the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen; I kept repe ating this automatic stuff and holding her under its special spell (spell because of the garbling), and all the while I was mortally afraid that some act of God might interrupt meÂ…(59) This is, by no means, the only time Humbert fears that some act of God or demon will come between him and his nymphet. Almost lik e an ancient Greek giving equal deference to both Zeus and Hades, Humbert treats the possi bility of heaven or hell, God or the devil, with the same amount of credence or possibili ty. Each seems to him to hold equal power; each seems to himÂ—on the off-chance that one of them actually might turn out to be realÂ— to deserve his equal attention.
142 After CharlotteÂ’s death, for example, Humber t tells us that what prevented him from seeking guardianship of Lolita Â“was the awful fee ling that if I meddled with fate in any way and tried to rationalize her fant astic gift, that gift would be snatched awayÂ” (173). Â“Fate,Â” here and in numerous other passages, become s a catch-all for the unknown, for what either is the work of God or the devil. In another passage, Humbert, hoping to take Lolita to the seaside for Â“the Â‘gratificationÂ’ of a life time urge, and release from the Â‘subconsciousÂ’ obsession of an incomplete childhood roman ceÂ” with Annabel (167), is thwarted. Â“The angels knew it,Â” Humbert says, attributing the ensuing bad weather to an act of God, Â“and arranged things accordingly. A visit to the plausible cove on the Atlantic side was completely messed up by foul weatherÂ” (167). Like Faust, Humbert also de sires one thing above all else : a nymphet. And also like Faust, never before has his deepest desire been so close to his grasp. Before Lolita, Humbert says, when Â“the vision was out of reach, with no possibility of attainmentÂ…I would crowd all the demons of my desire against the rai ling of my throbbing balconyÂ” (264). But those demons apparently begin di sbanding from the balcony as soon as Lolita appears in CharlotteÂ’s garden. Until Lolita, Humbert never has truly possesse d a nymphet. It has been a near lifelong obsession, to be sure, ever since he and A nnabel, many years earlier, were continually thwarted. His later encounters with youngish prostitutes were at be st only facsimiles of what he truly hungered for, and it is only when Lolita is Â“givenÂ” to him that he comes face to face with the possibility of finally obtaining his deepest yearning. And, just as with Faust and Gretchen, Humbert is indebted by this Â“giftÂ” to a demonic element.
143 The passion I had developed for that nymphe tÂ—for the first nymphet in my life that could be reached at last by my awkw ard, aching, timid clawsÂ—would certainly have landed me in a sanatorium, had not the devil realized that I was to be granted some relief if he wanted to have me as a plaything for some time longer. (56) One striking portrayal of McFate occurs when Humbert reads the roster of LolitaÂ’s classmates at the Ramsdale school (50-51). He lists all forty studentsÂ—beginning with Â“Angel, Grace.Â” This is no acci dent, and certainly calls to mind the angels hovering in heaven above Faust while Mephisto is attempti ng to capture FaustÂ’s soul on earth. Indeed, this reference harkens back to the Prologue in Heaven scene, in which the Lord says to Mephisto: Man all to easily grows law and mellow, He soon elects repose at any price; And so I like to pair him with a fellow To play the deuce, to stir, and to entice. But you, true scions of the godly race Rejoice you in the front of livi ng grace! [lines 340-346] GoetheÂ’s mention of the Â“godly raceÂ” is a refe rence to the Â“sons of God, the angels,Â” who are Â“represented by the Archangels in th e opening hymnÂ” (Hamlin 9). But Nabokov, an adherent of the specific detail over what he ca lled the Â“Literature of Ideas,Â” transforms the Â“living graceÂ” into an actual person, a schoolmate of LolitaÂ’s: Grace Angel. This is similar to how Humbert has envisioned his own pe rsonal Â“devil,Â” Aubrey McFate. Further down the list of LolitaÂ’s clas smates, Humbert sees the name Â“Haze, DoloresÂ” (Lolita is the diminutive, just as Gretchen is the diminutive of Margarete) and
144 then, a few names below, is another: Â“McFat e, Aubrey.Â” HumbertÂ’s demonic allyÂ—the one he previously told us he has chosen to Â“dub that devil of mineÂ”Â—thus appears here as an actual student. By placing LolitaÂ’s name between Â“Grace AngelÂ” and Â“Aubrey McFate,Â” Lolita literally has been sandwiched between an d an angel and a devil, between heaven and hell. To Humbert, then, Lolita exists in rela tion to his soul as a kind of croupierÂ—one who either collects or pays out a debt, dependi ng on how Chance and Opportunity cooperate. Personifying McFate as an actual student, however, very possibly is another nod to GoetheÂ’s Mephisto, who accompanies Faust throughout the play as an in-the-flesh demon and is visible to others, even though most of themÂ—with the exception of GretchenÂ— cannot not discern his true char acter. It also, however, coul d refer to a comment Mephisto makes, in which he informs Faust that he is able to be everywhere simultaneously: that is, visibly by FaustÂ’s side, for example, while at the same time watching Gretchen as she confesses her sins in church. In other word s, the devilÂ—and the accompanying threat of eternal damnationÂ—lurks everywhere. The Slippery Slope Although FaustÂ’s original pact with Me phisto is for experience, knowledge and infinite answers to infinite questions, he qui ckly descends into de pravity and debauchery. In many respects, just as in the case of Hu mbert, Faust can be seen as epitomizing a concept some psychologists have referred to as Â“the slippery slope,Â” in which one step over a moral line quickly leads to an abyss. To be sure, identifying precisely where that moral line existsÂ—in either Faust or Lolita Â—is open to debate. But viewed in its broadest terms,
145 one might begin by asking the question: At what point does sin begin: w ith desire, or with the acting upon it? Nabokov alludes to this inherently existe ntial question when he describes Lolita, sitting on the sofa next to Humbert, as Â“hol ding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red appleÂ…She tossed it up into the sun-du sted air, and caught itÂ—it made a cupped polished plop Humbert intercepted the appleÂ” (57-58). Similarly, FaustÂ’s Â“o riginalÂ” sin has been viewed by some scholars as having ex isted long before his actual seduction of Gretchen, and instead at the moment he allowed his hunger for knowledge to overshadow all other longings. In the biblical Eden, of cour se, it was AdamÂ’s same de sire that led to the coupleÂ’s eviction from paradise. Even if one accepts NabokovÂ’s view that great literature should have no moral in tow, it still remains di fficult to read either Lolita or Faust without being tempted to conjure up the human beings at the heart of both works, to envision the complex and often largerthan-life figures who, whether deeply or due to throw-away terms like Â“the Faustian bargainÂ” or Â“the Long Island Lolita,Â” have i ndelibly etched themselv es into our collective consciousness. But such an inclin ation to view either as larger than life, in my view, would be a mistake. Much like one of NabokovÂ’s Â“false scentsÂ” in his artfully-designe d chess strategies, Humbert, like Faust, is potentially just as mu ch an Â“everymanÂ” in terms of his desires as anyone else, the age of Enlightenment or Modernism notwithstanding. Experience, education and erudition aside, Faust and Humb ert both personify human longing and desire for existential meaning on its deepest level. Where they part company, however, is where each perceives the cost of that desire.
146 It is difficult to discern any point during Pa rt I of GoetheÂ’s drama, which ends with GretchenÂ’s impending execution, where Faust exhibits any awareness of where his Â“slippery slopeÂ” moral line might have existed. GretchenÂ’s trajectory in the drama progresses from innocence, to attraction to Faust, to surrender, and then, after she realizes her fate, to despair and finally madness. Fa ust, meanwhile, is unaware of GretchenÂ’s suffering. In the Forest and Cave scene, he reve als that while he is d eeply involved in selfanalysis and reflection about his essential nature his self-analysi s and existential exploration are fully removed fr om the context of hi s relationship with Gretchen, with what his Â“strivingÂ” has caused her in terms of genuine human suffering. Although many of these observations certainly might hold true for Humb ert as well, an essential difference exists between them. Unlike Faust, Humbert is astoundingly adep t at self-reflective questioning of his own moral code, promptly finding ways to break that code, and then questioning the basis by which he has broken it. Humbert, then, cons tantly questions what he knows and how he knows it, reinterprets that knowledge agai n, so that his narrative becomes like epistemological crochet. Still, there appear s to exist at least one clear moral line for HumbertÂ—even if he sees it only in retrospect And that line is at the doorway to room 342 at the Enchanted Hunters hotel: The key, with its numbered dangler of carved wood, became forthwith the weighty sesame to a rapturous and formidable futu re. It was mine, it was part of my hot hairy fist. In a few minutesÂ—s ay twenty, say half-an-hour, sicher ist sicher as my uncle Gustav used to sayÂ—I would let myself in to that Â“342Â” and find my nymphet, my beauty and bride, emprisone d in her crystal sleep. Jurors! If my
147 happiness could have talked, it would have filled that genteel hotel with a deafening roar. And my only regret today is that I did not quietly deposit key Â“342Â” at the office, and leave the town, the country, th e continent, the hemisphereÂ—indeed, the globeÂ—that very same night. (123) But Humbert, as we know, does no such thing. He stands on the hotelÂ’s porch where he has a brief, cryptic conversation with a man he does not yet know is Quilty (Â“Where the devil did you get her? Â“I beg your pa rdon? Â“I said: the weather is getting better.Â”) (127). And then he heads back inside to where Lolita is sleeping: I again chose the stairs. 342 was near the fire escape. One could stillÂ—but the key was already in the lock and I was in the room. (127) HumbertÂ’s reference to the Â“fire escapeÂ” strongly evokes the po ssibilityÂ—now seen in retrospect, of courseÂ—that he could have avoided the fires of hell by not entering the room. His atypical sentence structur e also reflects his conflicti ng thought processÂ—Â“one could stillÂ—Â” which further leads one to believe he views this as having been his only turningback point. That, or else it is the point at which Humbert believes there will be no possibility of ever attaini ngÂ….dare we call it redemption? Nabokov insisted, of course, that Lolita was not about redemption. To be sure, this admonition still resonates. Still, I would respectfully advance the following questions: Should NabokovÂ’s denial of any redemptive element in Lolita remain sacrosanct to the point that it serves, e ssentially, as a critical gauntlet to further exploratio n of any variant view? Is it possible, for ex ample, that for a host of possi ble reasons Nabokov intentionally might have desired that certain thematic elements within Lolita would have remained
148 cryptic? Goethe, too, it should be recalled, on numerous occasions expressed his desire that Faust would remain an Â“open riddle,Â” and Â“the more cryptic, the better.Â” One supportive element to this theory is provided by Nabokov himself, when he describes in his autobiography the strategies he attempted to devise for sophisticated chess solvers: Deceit, to the point of dia bolism, and originality, vergi ng on the grotesque, were my notions of strategy; and a lthough in matters of construc tion I tried to conform, whenever possible, to classical rules, such as economy of force, unity, weeding out of loose ends, I was always ready to sacrif ice purity of form to the exigencies of fantastic content, causing form to bulge and burst like a sponge-bag containing a small furious devil. (289-290) In Lolita that small furious devil frequently stands in direct opposition to Â“godlyÂ” elements, harkening again back to Faust and the Â“Prologue in HeavenÂ” scene. Humbert refers repeatedly to these dual worlds, to th ese two apparently warri ng forces of demons versus angels, of heaven versus hell. But he also departs from Goethe on at least one other significant point. In Faust heaven is clearly represented at one end of the spectrum, hell at the other. For Humbert, however, Â“heavenÂ” and Â“hellÂ” are not exclusively relegated to opposing destinations in the hereafter; both exist, side by side, often simultaneously. Â“I am trying to describe these things not to relive then in my present boundless misery,Â” he says at one point, Â“but to sort out the portion of hell and the portion of heaven in that strange, awful, maddening worldÂ—nymphet loveÂ” (135). Heaven and hell thus are both already known to Humbert in this world, this life. This can be discerned in another passage, when Lolita is
149 ready to turn away from him with what he calls Â“something akin to plain revulsion,Â” when he tells us that Â“despite he r nastiness, I still dwelled d eep in my elected paradiseÂ—a paradise whose skies were the color of hell-flamesÂ—but still a paradiseÂ” (166). Heaven and hell on earth thus exist for Humbert side by side ; each one contains a tinge of the other. But Humbert, it should be noted, does not focus solely on demons or demonic influences. He also addresses, in numerous passages, his own uncertain concepts of God. What is particularly noteworthy is that God, for Humbert, frequently is portrayed as a mental construct, as an act of will: The afternoon drifted on and on, in ripe silence, and the sappy tall trees seemed to be in the know; and desire, even stronger th an before, began to afflict me again. Let her come soon, I prayed, addressing a loan GodÂ…(62) At numerous points in the narrative, when Humbert addresses a rhetorical jury, it also frequently contains some godly or angelic refe rence: Â“Ladies and ge ntlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, th e misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look now at this tangle of thornsÂ” (9 ). Or: Â“Winged gentlemen! No hereafter is acceptable if it does not produce her as she wa s then, in that Colorado resortÂ…Â” (230) Let us keep in mind HumbertÂ’s use of the word Â“hereafter.Â” Th roughout the text, to be sure, Humbert appeals to numerous Â“juriesÂ”: he addresses readers; but also, in numerous instances, he appeals to anot her important audience as well But if we pass over his numerous references to Â“wingedÂ” jury member sÂ—if we dismiss these as purely farcical, as some scholars have suggested we should doÂ—w e lose a critical dimension of HumbertÂ’s memoir, one that dwells within his own se nse of his impending mortality. HumbertÂ’s fictional editor, John Ray Jr. Ph.D., would have us believe that HumbertÂ’s narrative
150 actually was meant to be used as notes for hi s upcoming trialÂ—but John Ray Jr. is only half correct. It is not a trial in fr ont of a jury of his Â“peersÂ” that Humbert cares about; it is a jury regarding the Â“hereafterÂ” that he cares about mo st. This is the dimension to his rhetorical appeal that will become even more evident, and urgent, when further examined in relation to GoetheÂ’s Faust Gretchen and Lolita Any comparison of Faust and Lolita of course, necessitates an examination of how both men respond to Gretchen and Lolita. Not onl y are their responses strikingly similar, but so too are the conditions under which both men encounter the girls. When Faust first sets eyes on Gretchen, for example, she is on he r way home from church. Faust has just left the witchÂ’s kitchen, where he has just drunk a Viagra-like potion to restore his youth and sexual vigor. Faust later meets Gretchen in the garden of her neighbor Marthe, a woman probably about the same age as GretchenÂ’s mother, and whom Mephi sto pretends to woo (simultaneously revealing, in the process, his obvious distaste of the task). Similarly, right before Humbert sets eyes on Lolita in CharlotteÂ’s garden, he refers to a kitchen, telling us that Â“A colored maid let me inÂ—and left me standing on the mat while she rushed back to the kitchen where something was burning that ought not to burnÂ” (36). The presence of the maid stands in di rect opposition to GretchenÂ’s pronouncement to Faust that Â“we have no maidÂ” [line 3111]. As with MephistoÂ’s distasteful task of wooing Marthe, Humbert likewise will use this technique on the doomed Charlotte. The moment Faust sees Gretchen he im mediately commands Mephisto: Â“Get me that young wench.Â” But MephistoÂ—who, it should be recalled, has promised to fulfill
151 FaustÂ’s every desire, per their pactÂ— balks. He tells Faust he has Â“no hold at allÂ” over Gretchen since she has just co me from confession. Further, Me phisto adds, she is Â“a right innocent lass/who brought mere nothings to c onfessÂ” [lines 2624-2625] FaustÂ’s response to this information is striking, partic ularly when viewed in comparison to Lolita Mephisto, after all, has just revealed two important thi ngs: one, that there are certain innocent beings he cannot corrupt; and two, that his presence is ubiquitous. Without stating it outright, Mephisto has told Faust he was ab le to be with him in the wi tchÂ’s kitchen and also at the same time in the confessional with Gretchen. Fa ustÂ’s only reply to this information? Â“SheÂ’s over fourteen, afte r allÂ” [line 2627]. This statement is stunning on several leve ls, particularly if one is willing to entertain the premise that Na bokov seized upon it for use in Lolita By this statement, it is clear that GretchenÂ’s unques tionable innocence has no bearin g at all upon FaustÂ’s lustful desires. He displays not a shred of moral c onflict about MephistoÂ’s information; to the contrary, he informs Mephisto th at their deal will be offÂ—th e pact for his soulÂ—unless his desire is granted. To that end, Faust and Mephi sto later sneak into GretchenÂ’s bedroom and plant jewels to win her over, or, as Mephisto puts it, Â“to bend/that sweet young thing to your heartÂ’s wish and en dÂ” [lines 2746-2747]. This bribery motif, too, will later appear in Lolita when Humbert likewise employs the use of material items, such as clothes and an Â“allowance,Â” to get what he wants. One of our first hints of it comes in the Enchanted Hunters hotel room: She tried on the two-piece navy wool, th en a sleeveless blouse with a swirly clathrate skirt, but the first was too ti ght and the second too ample, and when I begged her to hurry up (the situation was beginning to frighten me), Lo viciously
152 sent those nice presents of mine hurtling into a corner, and put on yesterdayÂ’s dress. When she was ready at last, I gave her a lovely new purse of simulated calf (in which I had slipped quite a few pennies and two mint-bright dimes) and told her to buy herself a magazine in the lobby. (138) But FaustÂ’s mention of GretchenÂ’s age is notew orthy for other reasons as well. For one, it was no more acceptable during the eighteenth century for a fourteen-year-old girl to engage in extramarital sex than it would have been for a girl of fifteen or si xteen or seventeen. For another, Faust, until this poi nt, has been a respected schol ar, a man who most certainly would have known the fate that often befell young girls who had sexual encounters outside marriage. Certainly, too, Faust would have known what happened if those same girls became pregnant, as does Gretchen. It is not un til later in the drama that we learn that Gretchen, abandoned by Faust after the death of her mother and the murder of her brother, Valentine, gives birth to FaustÂ’s child and late r kills it. Gretchen is then imprisoned in a dungeon and awaits execution while Faust is off in the countryside. Hamlin notes that the theme of seducti on Â“was predominant in domestic, middleclass drama and a preoccupation of the age,Â” as was the theme of infanticide, when innocent young girls Â“subsequently fell victim to the intolerance of eighteenth-century middle class society, usually l eading to their execution, while the seducer escaped without penaltyÂ…Â” (Faust 318). Hamlin argues pers uasively that this historical background supports the modern readerÂ’s impression that it is GretchenÂ—and not FaustÂ—who actually is central to the seduction sequen ce in Part I of the drama, and that the real tragedy actually is GretchenÂ’s. Faust, Hamlin says, Â“functions ab ove all as the instrume nt of her destruction, however authentic his erotic motives may be.Â”
153 In many respects, this same obs ervation easily could apply to Lolita Regardless of how Â“authenticÂ” HumbertÂ’s love for Lolita ultimately may have turned out to be (when he declares his loves for her, despite the f act that she no longer is a nymphet), Humbert nevertheless serves as the instrument of Lo litaÂ’s destruction. Likewise, despite HumbertÂ’s claim at one point that Â“this book is about Lo lita,Â” we know that the majority of his narrative is not about Lolita at all. As Michael Wood observes, Â“It is about Â‘L olitaÂ’, about the obsessive dream of Lolita which captures the actual child and took her away. Â‘My own creation, another, fanciful Lolita,Â’ as Humber t claims, Â‘Â—perhaps more real than LolitaÂ…Â’ Perhaps. The ape has drawn th e bars of his cageÂ” (115). Not only does HumbertÂ’s self -centered narrative mirror Faust by largely ignoring LolitaÂ’s suffering, but by calling his manuscript Â“LolitaÂ” and not Â“Humbert,Â” Nabokov further parodies the idea that Faust, and not Gretchen, was the Â“tragicÂ” figure in the drama. This notion is further supported by NabokovÂ’s self-described insp iration for writing Lolita : a newspaper report he read about an ape that drew the bars of its own cage. If we take Nabokov at his word, then, the initial creativ e inspiration for his novel concerned itself with suffering and imprisonment, two central themes present in Faust As if to highlight FaustÂ’s dismissive mention of Gret chenÂ’s age, Humbert, in contrast, goes to great lengths to justify his lu st for Lolita despite her age. He ponders, for instance, other by-gone cultures where age meant little (Â“After all, Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was nineÂ”), as well as the conflicts and apparent arbitrariness of various state laws. Â“In MassachusettsÂ…a Â‘way ward childÂ’ is, technically, one Â‘between seven and seventeen years of ageÂ…Â’Â” (19). Â“The median age of pubescence for girls has been found to be thirteen years and nine m onths in New York and ChicagoÂ” (42). Â“The
154 stipulation of the Roman law, according to wh ich a girl may marry at twelve, was adopted by the Church, and still is preserved, rather ta citly, in some of the United States. There is nothing wrong, say both hemispheres, when a brut e of forty, blessed by the local priest and bloated with drink, sheds his sweat-drenched fi nery and thrusts himself up to the hilt into his youthful brideÂ” (135). Humber tÂ’s numerous ruminations a bout the Â“age of consentÂ” certainly reflect his awareness of and anxiety about the possible legal consequences of his actions, but they also can be viewed as an attempt at moral justification. Such an attempt, it seems to me, is completely absent in the character of Faust. One of the more significant parallels between Faust and Lolita concerns the young girlsÂ’ mothers, as well as the protagonistsÂ’ treatment of them. Gretchen and LolitaÂ’s mothers are both well-provided-for widows, and both experienced the death of a child. Gretchen tells Faust, in poigna nt detail, how she cared for he r baby sister before she died; whereas Humbert treats the death of LolitaÂ’s ba by brother as a mere afterthought. In typical Nabokovian, kaleidoscopic fashion, it is not Lo lita who shares this information with Humbert, but Charlotte. While reconstructi ng his Â“journalÂ” that was lost and his conversation with Charlotte, Humbert says, Â“I ha ve left out a lyrical passage which I more or less skipped at the time, concerning LolitaÂ’s brother who died at 2 when she was 4, and how much I would have liked himÂ” (69). In Faust we never actually see GretchenÂ’s mother, her presence rendered solely through GretchenÂ’s dialogue with Faust. Still, just as with Charlo tte Haze, GretchenÂ’s mother clearly presents an obstacle to FaustÂ’s lustful intentions. When Gretchen tells him she would leave her bedroom door unlatched ex cept that Â“any little thing will wake my mother/ And if she found us with each other/ I would just perish at her sight!Â” [lines 3507-
155 3509] Faust has a ready solution. He gives Gretch en a sleeping potion to administer to her mother, assuring Gretchen that the substance is harmless. But it proves lethal. This plot point is revealed in GoetheÂ’s drama with a fe w, brilliantly rendered brushstrokes; and it is only in the next scene, when Gretchen is in front of a church, that we understand what has occurred. It is likewise left up to us to imagine GretchenÂ’s suffering at the realization of what she has done, at her own hand in her motherÂ’s death. Humbert, too, employs a sleeping potion on LolitaÂ’s mother, but it has a different effect on Charlotte Haze: Throughout most of July I had been expe rimenting with various sleeping powders, trying them out on Charlotte, a great taker of pills. The last dose I had given her (she thought it was a tablet of mild brom idesÂ—to anoint her nerves) had knocked her out for four solid hours. I had put the radio at full blas t. I had blazed in her face an olisbos-like flashlight. I had pushed he r, pinched her, prodded herÂ—and nothing had disturbed the rhythm of her calm and powerful breathing. However, when I had done such a simple thing as kiss her, she had awakened at once, as fresh and strong as an octopus (I barely escaped). (94) Later, in the Enchanted Hunters hotel, Humber t also uses sleeping ta blets for his planned seduction of Lolita. But this, likewise, proves insufficient for his purposes: I had not dared offer her a second helpi ng of the drug, and had not abandoned hope that the first might still consolidate her slee p. I started to move toward her, ready for any disappointment, knowing I had better wait, but incapable of waiting. (131) In GoetheÂ’s drama, there is no question that Gr etchen is Â“innocentÂ” in every sense of the word, and that only with Mephi stoÂ’s assistance is Faust is able to seduce her. He
156 accomplishes this not only through planted jewels in her bedroomÂ—designed to convince Gretchen that she is being wooed by a Â“ nobleÂ” man with noble intentionsÂ—but also by FaustÂ’s purported Â“devotionÂ” to her. One textual passage is part icularly notable, especially when compared to Lolita As Gretchen and Faust stro ll in a neighborÂ’s ga rden, Gretchen presses Faust about his religion and faith. After an evasive answer, Gretchen asks him directly: Â“Do you believe in God?Â” Faust gives anot her long, roundabout, inconclu sive answer. Â“So you donÂ’t believe?Â” Gretchen presses. Â“My dear one,Â” answers Faust, Â“who may say: I believe in God?...Are not the vaulted heavens hung on high? Is not earth anchored below? And do not with kindly gaze/Eternal stars no t rise aloft?Â” [lines 3442-3445] But Gretchen is still not entirely at ease with his answer Â“Put in this way, it has a lik ely tone,Â” she ventures warily. Â“And yet itÂ’s all askew to me; For you have no ChristianityÂ” [lines 3466-3468]. This scene is strikingly similar to one in which Humbert attempts to prove his purported Â“devotionÂ” to Charlotte, and Char lotte likewise enquires about HumbertÂ’s faith: Immediately after she had become mo re or less my mistressÂ…good Charlotte interviewed me about my re lations with God. I could have answered on that score my mind was open; I said, insteadÂ—paying my tribute to a pious platitudeÂ—that I believed in a cosmic spiritÂ….She saidÂ…tha t if she ever found out I did not believe in Our Christian God, she would commit suic ide. She said it so solemnly that it gave me the creeps. It was then I knew sh e was a woman of principle. (75) Nabokov borrows from GoetheÂ’s seduction theme of Gretchen but makes it inherently more problematic, leaving it purposefully enigmatic whether it was Lolita who seduced Humbert or the other way around. Readers have only Hu mbertÂ’s notoriously un reliable word for
157 what transpired in the Enchanted Hunters hotel room (a nod, no doubt to the Â“Stag and HoundÂ” in Faust ): I had thought that months, perhaps years w ould elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange; it was she who seduced me. (132) This conscious confounding of the actual se ducer, I would submit, is just as singular, significant, and original a cont ribution to the historic Faust legend as any made by Marlowe or Goethe. In MarloweÂ’s versi on it is Helen of Troy, the Â“she -devil,Â” who seduces Faust; in GoetheÂ’s version it is Faust who seduces the innocent Gretchen; but Nabokov purposefully leaves open the question of LolitaÂ’s Â“inno cenceÂ” and who seduced whom, indeed making this point central to how Lolita will be judged by readers. As Humbert remarks after their first se xual encounter at th e Enchanted Hunters hotel: Â“Suffice it to say that not a trace of modesty did I percei ve in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the cam pfire racket and so forth had utterly and hopelessly depraved. Sh e saw the stark act merely as part of a youngsterÂ’s furtive world, unknown to adultsÂ” (133). But then come two lines that confound the reader, causing us to wonder if HumbertÂ’s perceptions of LolitaÂ’s camp experiences are not really as ex tensive as he claimed earlier: While eager to impress me with the world of tough kids, she was not quite prepared for certain discrepancies between a kidÂ’s life and mine. Pride alone prevented her from giving upÂ… (134)
158 This last line must serve as both a clue and a warning that Humbert either is self-deceived, or else attempting to deceive his readers; for if Â“pride aloneÂ” kept Lolita from making him stop, then we are, in essence, being told that Lolita, in fact, had never experienced this before. And this, of course, undercuts his clai m that Lolita already had been Â“hopelessly depraved,Â” and thus once again makes problematic the issue of LolitaÂ’s Â“innocence.Â” Of all the parallels between Goethe Â’s drama and NabokovÂ’s novel, however, perhaps none is as powerful as the manner by which both men respond to the suffering of the young girls they seduce and ru in. In many respects, however it is possible to view FaustÂ’s awareness of the agony he has inflicted upon Gretchen as even less than HumbertÂ’s in relation to Lolita. Consider, for instance, the scene in whic h Faust, having fled the city to evade prosecution for killing GretchenÂ’s brother, Vale ntine, contemplates nature. Despite the fact that he has indirectly caused the death of Gr etchenÂ’s mother, leaving Gretchen an orphan; that he has directly killed her brother, who came to avenge GretchenÂ’s besmirched honor; that he has abandoned Gretchen with no concer n about what her present condition might be (she is pregnant with their child); despite these facts, after Faus t flees the city with Mephisto, he does not mention GretchenÂ’s na me again once. Instead, his comments are about the beauty all around him: How strangely in the vales it glimmers, As of a lurid sunrise sheen, And probes with summer-lightning shimmers The deepest clefts of th e ravine. [lines 3916-3919]
159 Imagine, for a moment, that Humbert had uttered those same aforementioned lines. Would thereÂ—ahemÂ—be any doubt about the im petus of his Muse? Would any modern reader seriously view this poetic rhapsody as anything other than parodic, as mocking nature as a distraction from Â“r ealÂ” life, fully aligned with NabokovÂ’s impish literary style? But those lines are not NabokovÂ’s; they are GoetheÂ’s. True, GoetheÂ’s so-called age of Â“EnlightenmentÂ” and Â“ReasonÂ” Â—in contrast to the industria lized and so-called Â“lostÂ” generation of modern America Â—glorified nature, along with its attendant Â“sensibilityÂ” and depth of emotional response to it. And true ag ain, any modern reader would be negligent to ignore or discard this powerful overarching historical and cultu ral context in any analysis of GoetheÂ’s drama. In many respects, however, these same issu es appearÂ—in a different guise, to be sureÂ—in Lolita Whereas Faust fails on the most pr ofound level to examine his role in GretchenÂ’s destruction, in the murder of her brother, or in the death GretchenÂ’s mother, Humbert, in contrast, rationalizes his behavior at every turn. Fa ust, in other words, ignores; Humbert justifies. In both cases, however, it might be argued that the end resultÂ—moral abdicationÂ—is the same. Still, and despite the danger of falling prey to what some literary critics have called Â“presentismÂ”Â—the tendency to view the pa st through the lens of the presentÂ—one nevertheless is reminded of Fr ankeÂ’s observation that Faust came to be revered by the Germans as Â“ a champion of truth, nature and individual freedom.Â” These same accolades, reinterpreted by Nabokov, easily can be perceived within HumbertÂ’s own poetry, which he composes during the three years he searches for Lolita after Quilty, much like the doomed Valentine, comes to Â“saveÂ” her:
160 Â…Happy, happy is gnarled McFate Touring the States with a child wife, Plowing his Molly in every State Among the protected wild life. (256) When Faust learns of GretchenÂ’s fate in prison, he is appalled and distraught, accusing Mephisto of concealing this fact from him. Â“I am rent to the living core by this single oneÂ’s suffering,Â” Faust says, but Â“you pass with a carefr ee grin over the fate of thousandsÂ” (Faust 110). Mephisto is hardly moved. Â“Who was it that plunged her to ruin?Â” Mephisto responds. Â“I or you?Â” (111) This scene is strongly evoked when Humbert confronts Quilty, who responds to HumbertÂ’s accusations by echoing MephistoÂ’s response: Â“IÂ’m not responsible for the rapes of others. Absurd!Â” (298) While Faust was striving, st riving, striving for infinite knowledge and experience, he treated Gretchen, in many respects, as a mere cobblestone on his pathway to fulfillment. He was obsessed with her and needed her in his quest for ultimate experiences, but Faust had no awareness or concern for Gretchen. As Brown notes, Â“Gretchen, like WertherÂ’s Lotte, disappears as an individual in the plethora of emotions and ideals Faust projects onto he r; her tragedy is that she does not really exist in the face of FaustÂ’s subjectivityÂ” (92). Indeed, while Faust is in the countryside, Gretchen has born his child, killed it, and b een thrown into a dungeon to await execution. There, caged and alone, she suffers in complete agony. It can be argued that Humbert, in many respects, takes no more individual responsibility for the suffering he causes Lo lita than does Faust. Indeed, HumbertÂ’s callousness and utter disregard for Lolita is striking. Â“There she was, sprawling and
161 sobbing and pinching my caressing hand,Â” he says at one point, Â“and I was laughing happilyÂ…Â” (169) At another point, when Lolita becomes ill, Humbert says, Â“She complained of a painful stiffness in the upper vertebraeÂ—and I thought of poliomyelitis as any American parent would. Giving up all hope of intercourse, I wrapped her up in a laprobe and carried her in to the carÂ” (240). Upon learning of GretchenÂ’s fate, Faus t demands that Mephisto take him to Gretchen immediately. Mephisto warns him that he still is wanted for ValentineÂ’s murder, but Faust insists. There, in the dungeon, Faust pl eads with Gretchen to escape with him, to walk with him through the door. Â“Take heart, dear love, come, let us go, I will caress you with a thousandfold glow; Just followÂ—that is all I beg of you!Â” [lines 4499-4500] But Gretchen is consumed with guilt for killing her mother and her baby; emotionally and mentally incapacitated, she imagines she sees blood on her hands. Faust pleads with her: Â“Let what is past be pastÂ—Oh Lord, youÂ’re killing me,Â” Faust tells her. Â“Come out from here! You can! Just want to! See, the door is openÂ…O ne stepÂ—and you can leave at will!Â” [lines 4518-4519] But Gretch en has gone mad; she is not certain who he is, and she fears that if she walks out the dungeon door with him, she will be ambushed by townspeople. She is resigned to her fate. This scene has been called one of the most tragic in German literature. Hamlin notes that it also represents a Â“turning pointÂ” for Faust, who not only has put his life at risk by going to the dungeon, but also recognizes his Â“love for Gretchen, which now approaches catastrophic and tragic collapseÂ” (323).
162 One might ask, however: How has FaustÂ’s love been revealed within the text at all? What evidence exists to show that Faust is no t simply responding to guilt? FaustÂ’s fury at Mephisto for withholding information about Gr etchenÂ’s imprisonment might be seen as another form of justification, as a means to ab solve himself of her suffering. Just as FaustÂ’s own hand was not the actual one that administered the fatal dose to GretchenÂ’s mother, and just as it was Mephisto who goaded Faust to stab Valentine, the underlying theme hereÂ— and which Nabokov so fearlessly addresses in Lolita Â—is that of indivi dual responsibility, or rather, the lack of it. Gretchen, of course, ends up in a literal dungeon. Throughout NabokovÂ’s novel, however, Lolita has inhabited a virtual dunge on of HumbertÂ’s creation. He accomplishes this through his words, manipulating her w ith language to keep her caged. After her motherÂ’s death, for example, he threatens Lolit a with reform school or becoming a ward of the Public Welfare Department if anyone finds out about their relationship. Â“I succeeded in terrorizing LoÂ…who was not as in telligent a child as her I.Q. might suggestÂ” (148). In another scene, when Lolita does not return homely promptly, he says, Â“You have been absent 28 minutes,Â” suggesting the type of c ontrol exerted by a jailer. Responds Lolita: Â“Go to hellÂ” (225). Elsewhere in the novel, however, Humbert makes direct reference to the Â“dungeonÂ” he has created for Lolita: I wandered through various public rooms, glory below, gloom above: for the look of lust always is gloomy; lust is never quite sureÂ—even when the velvety victim is locked up in oneÂ’s dungeonÂ—that some rival devil or influential god may still not
163 abolish oneÂ’s prepared triumph. In common parlance, I needed a drink; but there was no barroom in that place full of perspi ring philistines and period objects. (125) But perhaps nowhere is the dungeon scene in Faust more powerfully evoked in Lolita than after Humbert receives a letter from Â“Mrs. Ri chard Schiller.Â” (It was the young Friedrich Schiller, of course, who urged the older Goethe to revisit his Â“UrfaustÂ” and develop it into a full length play.) Upon learning of LolitaÂ’s fate Humbert quickly rushes to see her. Lolita is now married, and also broke. She and her hus band are living in a run-down hovel, barely able to scrape by. At first, Humbert is focu sed solely on learning the identity of the man who stole her from him. Here, Nabokov empl oys an inversion of the dungeon scene in Faust In GoetheÂ’s drama, of course, it is Faust who tells the guilt-ridden Gretchen to Â“let what is past be the past.Â” In Lolita it is Dolly Schiller who utters essentially the same words to Humbert: Â“She asked me not to be de nse. The past was the past. I had been a good father, she guessedÂ—granting me that Â” (272). By this point, Lolita is hugely preg nant and wearing pi nk glasses, perhaps signifying that, for the first time, she can cl early see Humbert for who he is. The nymphet he once lusted after is gone forever, but Hu mbert realizes he loves her nonetheless Â“Â…And I looked at her, and I knew as clearly as I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere elseÂ” (277). By rebuffing his pleas to come away with him, to walk out that door, Lolita confronts Humbert, just as Faust was confronted by Gretch en, with the destruction and suffering he caused her. Clearly this is a critical scene in the novel, just as it is in GoetheÂ’s drama. Not only has Humbert overcome his nymphet obsession and uncovered his genuine love for her, but he also is confronted with what must have been the depth of LolitaÂ’s
164 suffering because of him. Whether Humbert proce sses this information, this reality of what he has done to LolitaÂ’s life, is open to questio n; initially he appear s more involved in his own suffering, and what her rejection of him has done to him. Â“Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatev er spiritual solace I might findÂ…nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted on herÂ” (283), he says. And then Humbert adds, Â“To quote an old poet, Â‘The mora l sense in mortals is the duty/We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.Â” We, readers, do not know what Â“old poetÂ” he is quoting; indeed, this seems NabokovÂ’s own invention. Still, it echoes the themes in Faust of striving for beauty and knowledge and experienceÂ—and the pr ice that is paid for that Â“s triving.Â” At another point, however, Humbert thinks about Lolita and acknowledges he was more aware of her suffering than he wanted to consider. Â“Â…Th ere were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl brave Dolly SchillerÂ” (285). Just as has been said of Faust, this too is a turning poi nt for Humbert; by his aw areness of his genuine love for Lolita, Humbert has transcended his lifelong obsession. But HumbertÂ’s earlier statemen t that Â“I knew as clearly as I am to dieÂ” also provides us with additional insight into the impetus for his grand narrative, for the diary/trial notes/journal that later, in the hands of John Ray, Jr., become the Â“posthumousÂ” book we now know as Lolita Nabokov himself acknowledges that th e last few pages of HumbertÂ’s memoir contain a shift in tone, one in which he says he want ed Â“to convey a constriction of the narratorÂ’s sick heart, a warning spasm cau sing him to abridge names and to hasten to conclude his tale before it was too lateÂ” (SO 73).
165 Humbert, we must recall, wrote every wo rd of his fictional apologia during less than 60 days in his prison cell after having e xperienced several cardi ac attacks or spasms; and thus it can be persuasive ly argued that Humbert knows, fu lly, that he is about to dieÂ— either by natural causes, or else by a murder conviction that carries with it the death penalty. If imminent death is not enough to prov oke contemplation about the future fate of oneÂ’s immortal soul, what is? To paraphrase an old adage, there are no atheists in foxholes. But when Humbert implores Lolita to leav e the ramshackle home she shares with her husband, Dick Schiller, and in language that is hauntingly similar to that uttered by Faust as he pleads with Gretchen in the dunge on scene, Humbert is not yet entrenched within that existential foxhole. It is only in HumbertÂ’s re trospective narrative that LolitaÂ’s refusal to leave with him becomes german e to the question of his forgiveness and redemption: Â“Lolita,Â” I said, Â“this may be neither here nor there but I have to say it. Life is very short. From here to that old car you know so well there is a stretch of twenty, twenty-five paces. ItÂ’s a very short walk. Make those twenty-five steps. Now. Right now.Â” (278) But Lolita, just like Gretchen, cannot leave. Sh e cannot be unkind to her husband, she says, but more importantly, she cannot leave with him She tells Humbert she would almost rather go back to Quilty. Quilty! The man who never loved her, used her, who only wanted her for pornographic movies! As Humbert leaves her house, he implores her one last time. Â“Â…Someday, any day, you will not come to liv e with me? I will create a brand new God and thank him with piercing cries, if you give me that microscopic hopeÂ” (280).
166 Humbert, just like Faust, departs alone. A nd just like Gretchen, who shortly will be executed, Lolita too will shortly die on the fatid ic Christmas Day. Says Humbert: Â“For she is dead and immortal if you are reading this. I mean, such is the formal agreement with the so-called authoritiesÂ” (280). To what Â“authoritiesÂ” is he referri ng? Just as with the passage when Humbert cites Â“fat fateÂ’s formal handsha keÂ” in an implied soul bargain, the reference here to Â“the formal agreementÂ” implies an understood outcome that Humbert believes is now destined. This passage likewise ha rkens back to the dungeon scene in Faust where Mephisto booms, Â“She is condemned!Â” and a Â“voice from aboveÂ” an swers with a single, contradictory word: Â“Redeemed!Â” (117) In GoetheÂ’s drama, Faust does not realize until the end of his life that his ultimate salvation actually rests solely on Gretchen /Margarete; it is only because of her pronouncement of her authentic love for him in Pa rt II of the drama that he is saved from eternal damnation. Lolita, on the other hand, makes no such pronouncement of forgiveness or eternal love for Humbert (and nor does one imagine she would, even in a rhetorical afterlife). After all, Lolita has told Humbert outright that she would far prefer going back to Quilty than to ever go back to him. Nabokov appears to have taken this Â“redemptionÂ” theme and addressed the question of HumbertÂ’s ultimate fate and the role Lolita plays in itÂ—at least from HumbertÂ’s perspectiveÂ—with in the poem that Humbert hands to Quilty before killing him: Because you cheated me of my redemption because you took her at an age when lads play with erector setsÂ… (300)
167 As if to underscore how eternally separated Humb ert fears that he and Lolita will be in their immortal fates, consider the last two lines of NabokovÂ’s novel: Â“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophe tic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I ma y share, my LolitaÂ” (309). Art can be a refuge in oneÂ’ s current life, Nabokov suggests, but not in the hereafter. (NabokovÂ’s inside joke, of course, is that even as he wrote the text he seemed to know that both he and Lolita would forever be connect ed in literary immortality.) Even more important, however, is HumbertÂ’s use of the words Â“may shareÂ”: he cannot be absolutely certain about the fate of his immortal soul, even if he fears the worst. This, of course, is where Nabokov departs from Marlowe and Go ethe; Nabokov leaves HumbertÂ’s ultimate fate unknownÂ—which, after all, is the esse nce of the human condition. Boyd alludes to this when he says that Humbert Â…epitomizes the insatiable hunger of the human imagination butÂ—and this special twist makes the whole novelÂ—his at tractive urge to trans cend the self decays at once into nothing more than its own foul parody, into the mere promotion of the self. In writing Lolita Humbert expresses so splendid ly his yearning for something more than life allows that at moments he seems to speak for us allÂ—until we recoil at such complicity. We see him attempt to escape the trap of time, and hope for a moment he may have found a way out for ev eryone; then we shudder, look again at the bars of his cage, and sigh with relief. (American 227-228). In many respects Boyd also is describing the fundamental issues in Faust, namely the human yearning to transcend the prisons of the se lf, the constraints of time and space, to eat of the forbidden fruit and yet remain in what Humbert might call an Â“elected paradise.Â” But
168 where I differ from Boyd is that the bars of HumbertÂ’s cage are only holding him within his lifespan; that is, his litera l prison is only temporal. Nabokov is concerned with an altogether different kind of prison, one that lies outside of human time. Humbert does not know with certainty what his immortal fate will be, whether by his Â“confessionÂ” he has redeem ed himself, in the eyes of the winged gentlemen of his jury, in order to join Lolita in her immortality. (He has little doubt what her fate will be.) Thus the r eader, to my thinking, is not m eant to Â“sigh with relief,Â” as Boyd asserts; to the contrary, HumbertÂ’s unc ertainty about his i mmortal soul is the uncertainty we all possess. That state of not knowing is our commonality; indeed, it is what makes us most human. But this not knowing this existential doubt, also brings us full circle to the point where NabokovÂ’s breakthrough came while writing in the yearbook Vera had given him so many years earlier. In the last sentence of the novelÂ—Â“And th is is the only immortality you and I may share, my LolitaÂ”Â—we are returned to the six words that I believe led Nabokov to his triumphant use of Faust as his hidden compositional structure: Â“The future of the immortal soul.Â” We are, all of us, tempted. But what both Goethe and Nabokov speak to is a different kind of temptation, one that touches upon our innermos t souls, one that whispers in the sultriest, most seductive voice imaginable: Â“ You can have me. I am yours, if only you submit .Â” These sirens of desire Â—like those heard by Odysseus who plugged his sailorsÂ’ ears and had himself strapped to the mastÂ—a re both the symbol and essence of manÂ’s existential burden. Lolita then, in many respects might be viewed as a mirror that once was Faust and which, under NabokovÂ’s hand, has been sh attered, placed into a kaleidoscope,
169 and then repeatedly spun to reveal new patterns. With each turn, some familiar shard from the Faust story can be perceived, but very often it is so mixed with colored bits from other texts and other references that the original is nearly unrec ognizable. But I say Â“nearly.Â” NabokovÂ’s use of Â“cluesÂ” throughout his novel is designed to deliberately turn the alert readerÂ’s head away, much as a protective property owner, observing a pack of skilled hunting dogs whipped up by a strong scent, might divert those same animals by tossing an odor-laden cloth in the opposite direction. And yet, at the same time, Nabokov plants cl ues, almost as if begging us to unravel and decipher his intricately designed riddle, one that no doubt would Â“amply rewardÂ” us for the Â“misery of the deceit,Â” as he notes in hi s autobiography, and later give us Â“the simple keyÂ” that would provide us with Â“a synthesis of poignant arti stic delightÂ” at the discovery (Speak, 292). Indeed, we can see additional Faust clues sprinkled thr oughout the text: In the Â“witchÂ’s kitchenÂ” scene with its babbling animals, versus the lab experiment involving Valeria; in the Â“clean little roomÂ” of Gret chen versus the messy room of Lolita; in ValentineÂ’s almost chew-the-scenery death scen e, versus QuiltyÂ’s campy death scene; in the play-within-a-play Â“Intermezzo,Â” versus Lol itaÂ’s school play; in FaustÂ’s flight into the countryside, versus HumbertÂ’s flight across America; in Le ipzig versus Lepingville; in Auerbach Tavern versus Â“Ourgl ass LakeÂ”Â…and the list goes on. With that in mind, it is difficult to read the following sentence from Lolita and not sense the literary chess st rategist happily at work: Â“Mr. Purdom, independent tobacco auction eer, said that since 1925 he had been an Omen Faustum smokerÂ” (262). The odor of Faust ? Undoubtedly, Nabokov would have denied any such Â“odorÂ” or influence, even if he had been asked about it outright. But this
170 does not mean that, even outside the text, Nabokov did not continue to taunt and tease interviewers about their inability to unravel the Â“str uctural knotÂ” of Lolita much as he did about his last novel, Transparent Things Take, for example, what Nabokov describes as an Â“exchangeÂ” in 1971, shortly before his seventy-second birthd ay, with Alden Whitman of the New York Times Nabokov does not tell us how this interview was conducte d, but it seems safe to infer from the brief responses and lack of follow-up questions that, as with many other interviewers, Alden was forced to submit written questions and then work from NabokovÂ’s written answers. The very last question of AldenÂ’s interview is particularly noteworthy when viewed in relation to GoetheÂ’s Faust Â“If you were writing the Â‘bookÂ’ for Lolita as a musical comedy,Â” Alden asks, Â“what would you select as the main comic point ?Â” (SO 180) Nabokov answersÂ—and ends the interviewÂ—with a cryptic, one-sentence response: Â“The main comic point,Â” he replies, Â“would have been my trying to do it myself.Â” Goethe, we can be assured, would have been glad to have helped.
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About the Author Aurora Mackey obtained her undergraduate degree in German from San Francisco State University before she turned her sights to journalism. An awar d-winning former staff reporter and columnist with the Los Angeles Ti mes, and former medi cal reporter with the Los Angeles Daily News, she has had more than 500 articles publishe d in newspapers and magazines nationwide. She received her masterÂ’s degree in writing from the University of San Francisco and her Ph.D. in rhetoric a nd composition from the University of South Florida.