Humbert: An Introduction


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.

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?

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:

“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.