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.

Since the story is about a middle-aged man’s lust for a prepubescent girl, or ‘protonymphet’, as D. Nabokov calls her, and since he marries the girl’s mother to get access to his prey, the connection with Lolita is plain enough; and since publishers enjoy selling books it will not be underplayed in the publicity. On the other hand, it is also necessary to establish that the tale has virtues of its own and is not a preliminary sketch for the novel: so D. Nabokov insists that although his father said the anonymous girl of The Enchanter was ‘the same lass’ as Lolita, she is so ‘only in an inspirational, conceptual sense’. D. Nabokov normally writes a testy, conceited critical prose imitated from his father’s, and is very severe on the ‘inane hypotheses’ of some commentators: so ‘only in an inspirational, conceptual sense’ is uncharacteristically hazy. Still, the point is made: The Enchanter and Lolita are both about middle-aged paedophilia, but differ in treatment, much as one would have expected.

D. Nabokov undertakes to explain some of the difficulties facing the reader of this complicated stretch of prose, and after a good many pages ridiculing those scholars who believe Nabokov to have written Novel with Cocaine, he addresses this task. He is keen to show that Nabokov had no special interest in little girls; he wrote studies ‘of madness seen through the madman’s mind’, and the madman might be a musician, a chess-player or a paedophile. He goes out of his way to deny that there was ever a further story on a similar theme called ‘The Satyr’, as Field claims. In any case, crazy nymphet-lovers didn’t in themselves interest Nabokov: what mattered were the ‘combinational delights’ he could derive from them as from other subjects, the disinterested play of light and shadow over them. Nevertheless it is also claimed that the morality of the tale is perfectly sound. The protagonist is represented as ‘cynical, contemptible’, and gets his due reward when run over by a truck. He is credited with an occasional ‘yearning for decency’, and his feeling for the girl is not simply lecherous but partly paternal. These thematic ambiguities are reflected in the prose, and the translator offers explanations of certain passages so knotty that he himself had difficulty in understanding them. I have to admit that in some cases the explanations left me just as baffled as before.

Given much more help than usual, what is one to make of this story? The man sees the girl rollerskating in the park, marries her mother, who conveniently dies, and after a long period of hope and despair finds himself on the point of having his way with the lass. So as not to follow too far those ‘parallel primrose paths’, the resemblances to Lolita, we need to remind ourselves that the girl in the story, unlike Lolita, is not already corrupted; it is the violence of her horrified response when she wakes in the hotel bedroom to see him plying his magician’s wand that causes him to rush out to his destruction. The unnamed protagonist (whom Nabokov seems to have thought of as ‘Arthur’) repudiates any idea of Oriental debauchery: his is a ‘unique flame’, he is totally obsessed with one little girl, lovingly and intimately described, and totally repelled by female maturity, as represented by her forty-year-old mother. He gets as big a kick out of her rollerskates as Humbert does from Lolita’s tennis racket. The thought of the girl is like cocaine melting in the loins. Does he really feel like a father, or is he using his position as stepfather to acquire ready access to bliss? Is what he feels ‘healthy shame or sickly cowardice’, concupiscence or ‘aesthetic anguish’? You can see that here, as in Lolita, there are serious questions about the differentiation of blisses. Anyway Arthur comes to a bad end, like Humbert, which is a way of settling the moral aspect of the problem.

The story is very heavily written, and requires to be read with a certain devotion. The same can be said of Lolita, but there the effect is different: the text jokes with us and with itself, the rascal lover is obsessed not only with the girl but with an alien culture and an alien language, and in all sorts of ways he interests us as much as the trickery of the book’s design. It seems to me that The Enchanter lacks these charms. The complexities of its language (the English certified as very close to the tortuous Russian) are oppressive rather than enlivening. What does seem worthy of Nabokov is the rendering of the detail of the girl’s body, and of the man’s intense desire. There are other good things – for instance, his devious and sometimes absurd progress towards climax, symbolised by his inability to find his way back to the hotel room where the girl lies asleep and unprotected.

The Enchanter might have looked less disappointing as ‘The Enchanter’, a story in a volume of stories; dressed up as a book and ambiguously hyped as elder sister of Lolita it is given a false eminence, and subjected to unavoidable comparisons. It also seems to testify to an obsession with a particular manic obsession, more timidly expressed, less blissful, than in its successor. Lionel Trilling, in a famous review, pointed out that Lolita was not pornographic but insisted that it was shocking – a complex act of transgression that only success in shocking could justify. The Enchanter is neither pornographic nor shocking in the necessary way: it is, in a curious way, too weighed down by conscience.