Protonymphet

Frank Kermode

This “long lost novel” isn’t a novel but a story of some twenty-five thousand words, here augmented by eight thousand from the pen of the translator, and by blank pages. The existence of The Enchanter, also known as The Magician, was well attested, and its relation to Lolita was established by Nabokov himself. In his essay ‘On a book entitled Lolita’, first published in 1957, and thereafter appended to the novel, he referred to this opusculum of 1939 as the product of ‘the first little throb of Lolita’, and added that its ‘anonymous nymphet’ was ‘basically the same lass’ as Dolores Haze. At the time he supposed the story to have been lost, indeed claimed to have destroyed it: but a copy turned up soon afterwards, and in 1959 he wrote to the publisher Putnam suggesting publication, having reread the story ‘with considerably more pleasure than I experienced when recalling it as a dead scrap during my work on Lolita’. Excerpts from the essay and the letter are given here. Perhaps Nabokov didn’t press on with his plan to publish The Enchanter because he was so busy at the time; or perhaps he changed his mind. In 1967 Andrew Field in his book Nabokov: His Life and Art gave a brief but accurate account of the piece, translating two longish passages with similar accuracy, judging by the closeness of his version to Dmitri Nabokov’s. However, Mr Nabokov seems to have fallen out with Field, and says he has ‘a very sketchy idea at best’ of The Enchanter, having seen ‘only two pages of it’. This is possible, for Field says the second passage he translates would occur in print on the next-to-last page of the story, when it actually comes 14 pages before the end. Perhaps the Nabokovs showed him only samples. All the same Field gave one a reasonable notion of what the story was like.

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