Humbert: An Introduction

Jerome David Salinger, Author of Lolita

  Editor's note: In July of this year, cleaning out my "N" file, I discovered the pristine galleys for Mercy Pang's foreword to a book on Nabokov—one, to my knowledge, never published. Pang was a friend, later enemy, of the family; her current whereabouts are unknown. In truth she drove me up the wall. The title above, after Borges, is my own. I do not know "Chad Ravioli." —E.P.

Leif D. Warden's book-length study of Vladimir Nabokov remains, 20 years after its writing, a most lucid, thorough, and above all honest treatment of that talented lepidopterist's life and art. With the exception of Andrew Field's outstanding book1, one regards the more lauded works in the arena of Nabokov studies with alarm. Alfred Appel Jr.'s simpering Lolita annotation is shamelessly Kinbotean, while New Zealander Brian Boyd's two-volume travesty might make more sense in Maori.

illustration: Shane Harrison

At last, re-Leif: Originally entitled Vlad the Impaler, Warden's classic study is to be published next month (under my admittedly modest house's imprint) as Warden's Nabokov. The original manuscript's suppression at the hands of G.P. Putnam's disturbed Warden surprisingly little; he was (in the words of a mutual friend) "content to shepherd toward publication his next masterpiece of anti-Vlad criticism, The Prismatic Bezel." How handsomely that lustrous title glows today, over a dozen years later! And how fortunate for today's readers that Innsmouth Press is including the entire text of The Prismatic Bezel in its deluxe edition of Warden's Nabokov!

Though many remember Warden as a gruff, opinionated man, our acquaintance was a warm one. My years at Ursinus College were brightened immeasurably by the walks we took around Collegeville, during which we discussed the writers who obsessed him: Nabokov, of course (whom he considered a "phony" and a "snob"), the now obscure thriller writer E. Phillips Oppenheim (E.P.O., an "acronymical anagram" of Poe), and especially Salinger—an alum of dear Ursinus, and, from what I understood then, a great intimate of Professor Warden's niece. (I should point out here that Warden did not actually teach at Ursinus—but he always carried chalk.) We would often stop by the campus watering hole for a pint of obscure Teutonic lager, challenging the huddle of timid English majors to debates on matters literary. Few took us up on our challenge, but those who did took as sound a drubbing as they were likely to obtain anywhere in western Pennsylvania.

Warden similarly shows no mercy in the pages of Warden's Nabokov. His most devastating attack is on Lolita, the demonic pinnacle of Nabokov's career. Citing a cache of letters belonging to his niece, Esmé Rockhead, Warden claims that Nabokov—though indubitably the author of such works as The Eye—did not, in fact, write Lolita. Warden sets about to prove that the author was none other than one J.D. Salinger.

The visible works of Jerome David Salinger may be quickly enumerated on the fingers of one hand:

(a) The Catcher in the Rye, 1951. Your favorite.
(b) Nine Stories, 1953. Notable for its one perfect story—Nabokov thought so, too.
(c) Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, 1955. Commas are not literature.
(d) Seymour: An Introduction, 1959. One of the strangest creatures I know.
(e) Franny and Zooey, 1961. Regrettable and forgettable.

The above notations are Warden's, not mine. Though he felt that Salinger was a true American genius, he thought most of Salinger's meager output failed quite utterly. The "one perfect story" of the Nine is "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Though Ms. Rockhead's letters from a certain "J.S." reveal explicitly her correspondent's plans for writing Lolita, and the secret terms of his ghostwriting (as agreed upon with Nabokov), I will refrain from citing the letters, which have since been lost. Instead, I will reiterate what he lists as the major points of similarity between Lolita and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," and let the reader connect the numerous dots. As Warden writes in Master Warden, his charming autobiography (1969), in a remarkable footnote drawing from Novalis: "To read in a book something which one has experienced in life is to become the author of that book; to read in a book something which one has read in another book is to render the two authors interchangeable, equivalent, while simultaneously assigning to the reader—the one who makes the cognitive connection between the two—the role of supreme author." His conclusion, I trust, is hardly disputable.

I just found this note in a binder—a note from Leif D. Warden. In an article ("Inspiration") written for The Saturday Review, Nabokov cites several favorite stories by his contemporaries, trying to extract exemplary elegant lines. These are "A-plus" stories, says VN, and he attempts to explain his love for, among others, "Bananafish": " 'Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle . . . ' This is a great story, too famous and too fragile to be measured here by a casual conchometrist." ( Strong Opinions, p. 313)

The example is a dud; the word conchometrist makes no sense. The sentence only vibrates when the reader realizes that it is the child's foot which Seymour Glass—the repressed pedophile, the suicide—kisses . . . and the castle looms in significance once the image of young Humbert and Annabel comes flickering into view: They pawed each other desperately on that distant beach, where "sometimes a chance rampart built by younger children" granted them "sufficient concealment to graze each other's lips." Is this too-blatant similarity one of the reasons Nabokov seems at a loss for words?

Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets