Humbert: An Introduction

Jerome David Salinger, Author of Lolita

But on to the main event. Many have noted Nabokov's admiration for Salinger's story, and though one cannot expect the average critic to be privy to such a trove of information as Warden was, one wishes somebody would have noticed, after 40 [now 50—Ed.] years, that Salinger's story is at the heart of Lolita.

"Would it bore you very much," says Charlotte (Lolita's mére) to Humbert Humbert, "to come with us tomorrow for a swim in Our Glass Lake if Lo apologizes for her manners?" For some time after, the "lake is out," it is "unattainable"; weather, or Lolita's moods, prevent them from making the excursion. When Charlotte and H.H. finally visit, they go sans little Lo, and he discovers that the name is "Hourglass." Humbert contemplates drowning Charlotte—lucky for him, he does not or cannot. Appel points out that Humbert revises his chronicle as he goes along, and then spouts some nonsense about how "hourglass" symbolizes time and "our glass" represents a "circumscribing mirror"—irrelevant!

Nabokov's play on Our Glass/Hourglass might be applauded—if Salinger hadn't thought of it first. (Of course, he did; of course, he wrote Lolita.) In "Bananafish," we meet Sybil Carpenter this way:

illustration: Shane Harrison

"See more glass," said Sybil Carpenter, who was staying at the hotel with her mother. "Did you see more glass?"

"Pussycat, stop saying that. It's driving Mommy absolutely crazy. Hold still, please."

"See more glass," here, is a child's game, a solecism—the man referred to is, of course, Seymour Glass, who will put a bullet in his head by story's end. (Humbert will put bullets aplenty into Quilty, and will, himself, expire.) Seymour Glass's curse and saving grace, as any reader of that story knows, is that he (unlike H.H.) cannot and will not engage in the illicit and unspeakable with the young girl Sybil. Humbert is a wretch because he crosses that line. (The implication in the Esmé Rockhead correspondence is that "J.S." wanted to cross that line in his fiction, anonymously; VN needed a surefire bestseller in order to free him from academic drudgery.)

It is curious that some of the more "astute" commentators on Nabokov's work have missed this reference to Salinger. Could it be that Vlad himself asked Appel to ignore the "homage" of "Our Glass Lake"? In A.A.'s introduction to The Annotated Lolita, why does he bother with "satirized too is the romantic myth of the child, extending from Wordsworth to Salinger," without mentioning by name J.S.'s "Bananafish," the clear precursor to this novel? Why note that the name Sybil (given by "Nabokov" to H.H.'s aunt) should remind one of "any of several prophetesses, credited to widely separate parts of the ancient world," with nary a word about how "Nabokov's" pedophile's relation shares a name with the object of Salinger's pedophile's obsession? Warden would have acted as an abler annotator than awful Appel.

The Prismatic Bezel: Destroying Nabokov was printed privately in 1981, a year after Warden's death. I offer it as part of the omnibus edition of Warden's work because it provides a tonal counterpoint to some of the harsher judgments found in Vlad the Impaler. Bezel has as its centerpiece three astonishingly sensible essays—"The Yoknapatawpha– Zembla Express: Faulkner in Nabokov," " Lady Chatterley's Lover—Secret Keys to Pnin," and "VN's Debt to Forster"—all of which had been slated to appear in consecutive issues of the Penumbra Quarterly, Vol. VIII (1978), but which were lost by PQ's then editor, Chad Ravioli. (Fortunately, Warden later found the carbons.) Ravioli, whom I spoke to yesterday in the course of preparing this article, fondly remembers a particularly lambent line that graced one of the many hundreds of notes that the conscientious Warden fired off to the Penumbra editorial board. With regard to his Faulkner-Nabokov piece, Warden wrote a letter to Ravioli in which he paraphrased a fragment from Carlyle (1833), proposing that "all men are vectors condemned to transgress a circle of infinite circumference whose diameter is equivalent to the past minus the present plus the future." Ravioli answered with the gnomic paradox that memory rediscovers magic in the form of ecstasy, while literature is engaged in the "onomatopoeic amnesia" of myth. Warden's response—his last known epistle—claimed the existence of a proto-Hebraic tribe that once thrived in upper Saskatchewan, which tetragrimed the name of God not as JHVH or YHWH but as YMCA.

I hope to have a book of Warden's letters out by the summer.

Buenos Aires
20 March 1995


1 Warden only noticed his anagrammatic relation to Field after I told him of it one summer afternoon in Buffalo. He was over the moon.


Ed Park is the editor of the VLS.

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