EARLY ON IN Lolita Humbert Humbert lovingly reminisces about the nymphets who most tormented him during his life in Paris:
Once a perfect little beauty in a tartan frock, with a clatter, put her heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip her slim bare arms into me and tighten the strap of her roller skate, and I dissolved in the sun, with my book for a fig leaf, as her auburn ringlets fell all over her skinned knee, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on her radiant limb next to my chameleonic cheek.
But, it turns out, Humbert isn’t the only one to have drooled over this particular roller-skatered goddess, for it was she who, about fifteen years earlier, drove to a similar despair the prototype Humbert of Nabokov’s Volshebnik – literally ‘magician’ or ‘conjuror’ – the short story in which ‘the first little throb’ of Lolita was initially developed in 1939, when Nabokov was still living in Europe, and composing mainly in Russian.
For unimaginable reasons, however, Nabokov was not pleased with his story. He even thought he had destroyed it sometime after moving to America the following year, but in fact the manuscript turned up again in 1959; and, by then, with Lolita four years behind him – though he was still working on the screenplay – he had quite changed his mind; ‘It is a beautiful piece of Russian prose,’ he enthused to his publishers, ‘precise and lucid …’ Still, for whatever reasons, the manuscript in the end was never sent.
Now it is at last published by Picador, translated by the indefatigable Dmitri Nabokov, and hailed on the jacket as his father’s ‘Long Lost Novel’. Well, it’s not quite that – it takes about an hour and a quarter to read – but it’s certainly one of the most exciting novellas ever written, Nabokov near, or at least clearly anticipating, his very best.
The story is roughly that of Part 1 of Lolita, the awkward, rapturous obsessive manoeuvering towards his dream prepubescent, but forced to marry, in the process, the grotesque mother, ‘a tall, pale, broad-hipped lady, with a hairless wart near a nostril of her bulbous nose.’ Fortunately this time she’s an invalid, but the miseries of a wedding-night consummation are still graphically imagined – how ‘to tackle those broad bones, those multiple caverns, the bulky velvet, the formless anklebones … not to mention the rancid emanations of her wilted skin …’ But she is too unwell for any of that, so unwell that her daughter must remain exiled in the country with old family friends…
As in Lolita the timorous pederast can only toy with ideas of murder, but luckily ‘the person’ (‘he found the appellation “wife” inapplicable to her’) succumbs to a botched operation, leaving him under oath to look after the girl as if he were her real father; and plunging him into dreams of infinite caresses, cunningly disguised as innocent storytales – ‘the pet giant, the fairy-tale forest, the sack with its treasure … ‘ But quotations of this kind also underline the vast difference between this story and Lolita, which is the difference between, say, Flaubert and Henry James. The Enchanter packs a crude, horribly accurate punch, but it lacks the ‘aesthetic bliss’ that transfigures Nabokov’s most perfect works (for the English reader anyway), such as Lolita or Pale Fire. The Enchanter is exhilarating, though, precisely to the extent that it keeps suggesting Nabokov is on the threshold of a breakthrough. Most of his stories of a comparable length up to this period are dourly observed depictions of emigre Europe: the bleak accuracy of Chekhov broods over them. But towards the end of his European exile Nabokov began to experiment with richer, more imaginary types of narrative, as in, for instance, the two marvellous fragments Ultima Thule and Solus Rex, from an unfinished novel, which so clearly pre-figure Pale Fire. The extraordinary thing is that Nabokov’s route into the realm of self-contained fantasy is via the mundane, rather than instead of it.
Why pederasts, or mad scholars like Pnin and Kinbote, should have so liberated Nabokov is hinted at in the Lolita postface, when he recalls how the initial shiver of inspiration was prompted by a newspaper story about an ape, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever by an animal: the sketch ‘showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.’ But for Nabokov obsession is pure release; The Enchanter dizzily follows a girl ‘with shoulders the color of gingerbread’ across a courtyard to watch ‘some black salad devouring a green rabbit’; when he finds himself immersed in sexual reverie he lays down his book ‘ like a dead fish folding its fin’; when alone in the hotel with his dream-child at last ‘a waffle-textured towel half-extracted by its ear’ peeps from her suitcase with a mysterious, sinister significance; the sordid and fantastic somehow unite.
The Enchanter isn’t long enough, though, to build up the helpless intimacy one shares with Humbert. The element of discovery – the love-affair with the American language – is obviously missing. The protagonist’s clownish frustrations are less exquisite than Humbert’s, more glaringly perverted, and the girl is a mere victim, unfocussed, unable to share the story on any level. But it’s far more than the ‘dead scrap’ of Lolita Nabokov once thought it. On its own more astringent terms it delivers abundantly the charge Nabokovians live for, that is, to use Martin Amis’s phrase, ‘the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer.’