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The Technique of Time in Lolita   (continued)
by William Vesterman

But ghosts do walk here. First-time readers learn only toward the very end of the book that Mrs. Richard F. Schiller—by then one long forgotten and apparently trivial fact among thousands of others—is Lolita's married name. That is, re-readers learn in the Foreword both that the story of Lolita's life is over before it begins and that its full meaning was finally unavailable to Humbert, who died on November 16, 1952. Our re-reading of Lolita's past in the light of her future is like our re-reading of Annabel's past (though on a vastly larger narrative scale) with the same harmonic resonance of deepened tragedy always added in the base line of the reprised themes, including that of Humbert's effort to do full justice to Lolita's story and thereby to his own.

In many ways large and small the technique of expanding and redoubling time continues when Lolita enters Humbert's story. For example, we are given an apparently minor detail of Humbert's first arrival at the house where Lolita lives with her mother, then Charlotte Haze: "Speaking of sharp turns: we almost ran over a meddlesome suburban dog (one of those who lie in wait for cars) as we swerved into Lawn Street" (I, 10). Some fifty-three pages later this dog will become one of the proximate causes of Charlotte Humbert's death by auto when she rushes weeping into the curving, steep, newly watered street after discovering in Humbert's diary his passion for Lolita.

But the most important disguised or deceptive narrative promises that first-time readers miss and re-readers discover are those within larger pleromatic plots devoted to and created by Clare Quilty, the man with whom Lolita leaves Humbert. These plots are so complexly woven into the fabric of Lolita that it seems hardly adequate to call them "foreshadowings." Quilty's shadow is in fact not only cast forward but backward and sideways throughout the book, where his presence adumbrates past, present, and future for Humbert and re-readers of his story. And while my examples of Quilty's pleromatic presence (far from complete and excerpted from hundreds of pages of context) may seem from my presentation too obvious for anyone to miss, I can testify that such is not the case. In almost forty years of teaching the book to thousands of students, no new reader observes them the first time through, except those who have seen a filmed version or have heard about the story from someone else. In many such cases, students have vigorously lamented their inability to read the book with fresh eyes.

In one of his many early temporal digressions from the account of his pre-Lolita past forward to the time of composition in his prison cell, Humbert lists the few books available to him there. They include among others a set of Dickens, A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie, and Who's Who in the Limelight, a theatrical directory. "In looking through the latter volume, I was treated last night to one of those dazzling coincidences that logicians loathe and poets love. I transcribe most of the page." He lists the entry for Roland Pym and then gives two others:

Quilty, Clare, American dramatist. Born in Ocean City, NJ., 1911. Educated at Columbia University. Started on a commercial career but then turned to playwrighting. Author of The Little Nymph, The Lady Who Loved Lightning (in collaboration with Vivian Darkbloom), Dark Age, The Strange Mushroom, Fatherly Love, and others. His many plays for children are notable. Little Nymph (1940) traveled 14,000 miles and played 280 performances on the road during the winter before ending in New York. Hobbies: fast cars, photography, pets.
Quine, Dolores. Born in 1882 in Dayton, Ohio. Studied at American Academy. First played in Ottawa in 1900. Made New York debut in 1904 in Never Talk to Strangers. Has disappeared since in [a list of some thirty plays follows].
How the look of my dear love's name, even affixed to some old hag of an actress, still makes me rock with helpless pain! Perhaps she might have been an actress too. Born 1935. Appeared (I notice the slip of my pen in the preceeding paragraph, but please do not correct it, Clarence) in The Murdered Playwright. Quine the Swine. Guilty of killing Quilty. Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with! (I, 8)

First-time readers naturally wonder which of the several coincidences it is that Humbert refers to. Is it only Lolita's formal name? Roland Pym has appeared in The Strange Mushroom—is that it? And so on. Re-readers of course see that A Murder is Announced. We know from his first page that Humbert is a murderer, but we wonder throughout the book who he has murdered. At one point he plans to murder Charlotte after he marries her and tells us ("A few more words about Mrs. Humbert while the going is good (a bad accident is to happen quite soon)." (I, 19) Will he kill Lolita when he finally finds her again three years after her duplicitous departure? The detective-story aspects of the book are among its admirable features. As in the best of the genre, clues are not concealed in any artistically meretricious way, but remain invisible only through the inattention first-time readers share with Humbert as he lives through his life, constantly distracted by the apparently more exciting facts of his ongoing present. In many other ways, re-readers see the entry for Quilty fulfilling its deceptive or disguised narrative promises. For example, "his many plays for children are notable" takes on a new salacious significance, as do Quilty's apparently inane hobbies.

When Humbert's plans for a summer of simulated or drugged sex with Lolita are interrupted by Charlotte's sending her to camp, Humbert's apparent present failure turns into apparent future success. Before driving off to Camp Q., Charlotte leaves a letter proposing marriage. Humbert reads the letter in Lolita's bed over which she has pasted cut-outs from magazines. One of them shows a man bringing a woman breakfast in bed:

Lo had drawn a jocose arrow to the haggard lover's face and had put, in block letters: H.H. And indeed, despite a difference of a few years, the resemblance was striking. Under this was another picture, also a colored ad. A distinguished playwright was solemnly smoking a Drome. He always smoked Dromes. The resemblance was slight. (I, 16)

The resemblance may be slight, but it defines the range of good looks that appeals to Lolita. Both men are her type. Humbert's pleasure in the confirmation of her crush on him keeps him from investigating the earlier crush evident in the earlier-hung picture of Quilty, whose name in the testimonial advertisement Humbert does not bother to notice or (therefore) to mention. We later learn that Quilty had once spoken at Charlotte's book club where he had pulled the then ten-year-old Lolita onto his lap.

Many pages further on, in a similar transformation of apparent failure into apparent success for Humbert, Charlotte's discovery of his diary is followed almost instantly by her accidental death. After a hasty funeral Humbert drives to pick up Lolita at Camp Q. Concealing the news of her mother, he takes her to a hotel called The Enchanted Hunters. In the dining room Lolita becomes excited:

"Does not he look exactly, but exactly, like Quilty?" said Lo in a soft voice, her sharp brown elbow not pointing, but visibly burning to point, at the lone diner in the loud checks, in the far corner of the room.
"Like our fat Ramsdale dentist?"
Lo arrested the mouthful of water she had just taken, and put down her dancing glass.
"Course not," she said with a splutter of mirth. "I meant the writer fellow in the Dromes ad." (I, 27)

At the time, of course, Humbert like his reader has other things than celebrities to think about. Humbert has drugged Lolita at dinner and when she goes to bed in their shared room, he leaves for a balcony off the hotel's main floor to wait for Papa's Purple Pills to take full effect. There in the dark he hears or—courtesy of a guilty conscience—mishears an apparently drunken conventioneer slurring his words:

"Where the devil did you get her?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said: the weather is getting better."
"Seems so."
"Who's the lassie?"
"My daughter."
"You lie—she's not."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said: July was hot. Where's her mother?"
"Dead."
"I see. Sorry. By the way, why don't you two lunch with me tomorrow. That dreadful crowd will be gone by then."
"We'll be gone too. Good night."
(I, 28)

Like Humbert, first-time readers are too interested in finding out what will happen in Room 342 to care much about this odd conversation, but a re-reading of the apparently misheard words fills out—only by inference and in the context of facts scattered throughout the book as a whole—Quilty's relation to the story. Humbert returns to the room to find that his drugs have failed—his doctor has deceived him with a placebo. The next morning it is Lolita who seduces him, having been sexually initiated herself at Camp Q. Still, at the very moment of Humbert's sexual possession and the apparent realization of his life's dream, an agent of reality is already at work on the task of Humbert's ultimate dispossession.

Knowing from his book club experience in Ramsdale that Charlotte was a widow and learning on the balcony that she has died, Quilty had promptly proposed a pedophilic ménage á trois. Though for the moment disappointed in life, Quilty the artist has been inspired. He writes a play called The Enchanted Hunters which has an avant garde success in New York. Over a year later Lolita is to star in the piece when it is chosen for her school play. Contacted for authorial permission by a girls' school, Quilty eagerly comes to assist in the production. He re-encounters Lolita, seduces her, and plans her escape from an increasingly detested Humbert. The escape will be dramatic in every sense. Lolita could disappear at almost any time, but Quilty has something more artistic in mind, a plot that requires perepeteia. However, the basic scenario has already been written in the form of his play.

We come to know all this back story only by implication and only fully at the end of the book, when we at last come face to face with Clare Quilty, the style becomes the man, and Humbert meets his maker. Earlier evidence then fulfills its pleromatic functions and is re-composed into a final causal plot. What we know at the time of the school play is only what Humbert knew. First-time readers of Humbert's contemptuous summary of The Enchanted Hunters naturally miss its later significance, and Humbert at the time of school rehearsals misses even the very odd coincidence of the play's title. He assumes that The Enchanted Hunters refers to a common bit of American Folklore—something along the lines of The Headless Horseman—a reference that he as a foreigner naturally does not know. Here is Humbert's plot summary of the script: To me—inasmuch as I could judge from my charmer's part—it seemed to me a pretty dismal kind of fancy work, with echoes from Lenormand and Maeterlinck and various quiet British dreamers. The red-capped, uniformly attired hunters, of which one was a banker, another a plumber, a third a policeman, a fourth an undertaker, a fifth an underwriter, a sixth an escaped convict (you see the possibilities!), went through a complete change of mind in Dolly's Dell, and remembered their real lives only as dreams or nightmares from which little Diana had aroused them; but a seventh Hunter (in a green cap, the fool) was a Young Poet, and he insisted, much to Diana's annoyance, that she and the entertainment provided (dancing nymphs, and elves, and monsters) were his, the Poet's invention. I understand that finally, in utter disgust at this cocksureness, barefooted Dolores was to lead check-trousered Mona to the paternal farm behind the Perilous Forest to prove to the braggard she was not a poet's fancy, but a rustic down-to-brown-earth lass—and a last minute kiss was to enforce the play's profound message, namely, that mirage and reality merge in love. (II, 13)

In an instant of poetic vision at the hotel, Quilty has understood the meaning of Humbert's past and present. As an unacknowledged legislator of mankind, Quilty the Poet is confident that he could easily control the future of a mere Anyman or Everyman and the future of his Enchantress as well, given the chance. With the school play the chance has come. Like his emblematically dressed, check-trousered Poet-Hero and in his inveterate checked or quilted style, Quilty will prove to Lolita that the poetic imagination rules reality. The Enchanted Hunters will be re-enacted in life with Humbert its unwitting Method actor and America its stage set, for Lolita will not star in the school production of the play after all.

Instead, Lolita and Humbert leave for their second trip around the United States when he becomes frantically alarmed by her obviously increasing alienation. He discovers that like Madam Bovary she has been lying about attending her piano lessons, but after the ensuing furious quarrel, reconciliation seems to take place. Humbert finds her in a telephone booth after she has fled the house: "Tried to reach you at home," she said brightly. A great decision has been made." Lolita says she wants to quit the play, leave school, and travel again. "But this time we'll go where I want, won't we?"

Where Lolita wants to go turns out to be where Quilty wants her to go, a route apparently following his summer schedule of drama productions and festivals. The route may be partly known to Lolita in advance, but (as we see afterwards) Quilty gives new stage directions along the way—by talking to Lolita at a gas station when Humbert is in the men's room, for example, or by sending her a message in a letter by her friend and former co-star, Mona Dahl:

With Lo's knowledge and assent, the two post offices given to the Beardsley postmaster as forwarding addresses were P.O. Wace and P. O. Elphinstone. Next morning we visted the former and had to wait in a short but slow queue...
I forget my letters; as to Dolly's, there was her report and a very special-looking envelope. This I deliberately opened and perused its contents. I concluded I was doing the foreseen since she did not seem to mind and drifted toward the newsstand near the exit.
"Dolly-Lo: Well, the play was a grand success. All three hounds lay quiet having been slightly drugged by Cutler, I suspect, and Linda knew all your lines. She was fine, she had alertness and control, but lacked somehow the responsiveness, the relaxed vitality, the charm of my—and the author's—Diana; but there was no author to applaud us as last time, and the terrific electric storm outside interfered with our own modest off stage thunder...
"We're going to New York after tomorrow, and I guess I can't manage to wriggle out of accompanying my parents to Europe...
"As expected, poor Poet stumbled in Scene III when arriving at the bit of French nonsense. Remember? Ne manqe pas de dire à ton amant, Chimène, comme le lac est beau car il faut qu'il t'y mène. Lucky beau! Qu'il t'y-What a tongue-twister! Well, be good, Lollikins. Best love from your Poet, and best regards to the "Governor." Your Mona.

As author of letter or author of play, Quilty is manifested and invisible at one and the same time. Humbert will of course take her to the beautiful lake because it is necessary that he take her there as part of Quilty's larger plot.

Like Hamlet watching The Murder of Gonzago, Humbert thinks that he himself is a real person, but later (unlike Hamlet) he comes to realize that that he was only a character in someone else's play all the while. As a playwright, Quilty is not exactly a believer in art for art's sake. Like Humbert he uses his artistic imagination to create and control the meaning of life; unlike Humbert, the goal of Quilty's artistic efforts is not the love of Lolita but the love his own amusement. He therefore waits to liberate Lolita from Humbert's possession until July 4th—Independence Day—to make a Symbolic Point for the climax at the end of Act II. Act III follows, for the living play is not over when Lolita exits for the paternal farm—The Duk Duk Ranch—surely the most salacious place name in literature. Act III reverses the trip in time and space, replaying its menace as farce. Knowing Humbert as fully as if he had created him, Quilty has planted in advance clues within motel registries, sure that Humbert will seek a new revelation by re-reading an earlier testament.

For some time on their second trip Humbert had suspected that he was being followed by an Aztec Red convertible whose driver resembled a Swiss cousin of his, Gustave Trapp. We have earlier seen the family resemblance of Quilty and Humbert in the Dromes advertisement over Lolita's bed, and with this new detail we come a little closer to knowing the man who will perform a human sacrifice by ripping the living heart out of his victim and tumbling him down the steep steps he has so painfully climbed. One of the motel registry clues designed for Humbert's torture is "G. Trapp, Geneva, NY," indicating that Lolita had communicated Humbert's suspicions even as they were forming. Another clue is "A. Person, Porlock, England," showing Quilty's plan to interrupt Humbert's dream of Paradise, as Coleridge claimed to have been interrupted in the composition of "Kubla Khan—a Fragment" by "a person on business from Porlock." Humbert summarizes the effect of the 20 motel traces he is sure of:

The clues did not establish his identity but they reflected his personality, or at least a certain homogenous and striking personality; his genre, his type of humor—at its best at least—the tone of his brain, had affinities with my own. He mimed and mocked me. His allusions were definitely highbrow. He was well-read. He knew French...His main trait was his passion for tantalization. Goodness what a tease the poor fellow was! (II, 23)

Humbert can characterize the style, but he still cannot identify its author. After exhausting the motel clues, hiring a detective, and searching all over the country for three years in an attempt to discover his tormentor and recover his love, Humbert learns the longed-for name only after he receives a letter from Lolita asking for money and tracks her down by the return address. She is now seventeen, pregnant, and married to one Richard F. Schiller, Quilty having kicked her out shortly after she fled with him because she would not act in his pornographic movie.

Humbert's re-encounter with Lolita makes one of the most surprising scenes in the book, but for the moment I will be concerned only with Humbert's discovery of the mysterious name of his enemy. As a narrator, he gives us one more chance to discover it on our own:

She said really it was useless, she would never tell, but on the other hand, after all— "Do you really want to know who it was? Well it was—"
And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her parched lips, she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle, the name that the astute reader has guessed long ago. (II, 29)

But we haven't guessed it—or at least I had not—even though the fact was in front of us all the time, like Valeria's Maximovitch. Humbert gives us still another chance and more time to ponder the matter, because in Lolita's further conversation about her brief time with Quilty we hear him called only "Clare" and "Cue." And if first-time readers have still not guessed, they must wait some twenty pages further into a story that has now become concerned with Humbert's plans for revenge.

We finally meet the distinguished playwright himself only in the penultimate section of the book where disguised or deceptive pleromatic promises are finally kept or disappointed and the master plot of Humbert's narrative may at last be understood—at least by re-readers. Though it effectively ends the book as published, Quilty's death scene was in fact the first that Nabokov put down fully on paper after planning his story in imagination and making extensive notes. In that crucial scene "the end-in-the-process-of-realizing-itself" is finally and fully revealed to dramatize at once the failure of Humbert's life and the triumph of his art over time.

Contributor's Note
William Vesterman teaches English at Rutgers. He is the author of The Stylistic Life of Samuel Johnson and essays on British and American literature. At present he is at work on a book about literary time called All What While? Some Versions of Time in Twentieth-Century Fiction.



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