a synopsis in quotations

Quotations are from Lolita and Lolita: A Screenplay in the Library of America edition of Vladimir Nabokov: Novels 1955-1962, edited by Brian Boyd (1996).

[ Part 1 ] foreward
The author of Lolita, or the Confessions of a White Widowed Male died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952. Humbert Humbert, his bizarre cognomen, is his own invention and mask. Mrs. "Richard F. Schiller" died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952. I have no intention to glorify "H.H." He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author! — John Ray Jr., Ph.D.
[ prospect of my past ]
: 1 : Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Did she have a precursor? Yes she did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. : 2 : I was born in 1910 in Paris. I grew, a happy, healthy child in a bright world of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces. Mother died in a freak accident; my father owned the seaside Hotel Mirana and had various lady-friends, beautiful and kind beings who shed precious tears over my cheerful motherlessness. : 3 : In 1923, Annabel was a lovely child a few months my junior. We were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other. On the soft sand, a few feet away from our elders, we would sprawl all morning, in a petrified paroxysm of desire. Four months later she died of typhus in Corfu. : 4 : I am convinced that in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel. The shock of Annabel's death consolidated the frustration of that nightmare summer. One night she managed to deceive the vicious vigilance of her family in a nervous and slender-leaved mimosa grove. A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves. My senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing. There came from the house her mother's voice, calling her with a rising frantic note. But that mimosa grove - the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since - until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.
[ tried hard to be good ]
: 5 : The days of my youth, as I look back on them, seem to fly away from me in a flurry of pale repetitive scraps. In my sanitary relations with women I was practical, ironical and brisk. Paid ladies sufficed me. I found a job teaching English. Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets.' Good looks are not any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering insidious charm. I was consumed by a hell furnace of localized lust for every passing nymphet whom as a law-abiding poltroon I never dared approach. Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did. : 6 : I learned what they looked like, those lovely, maddening, thin-armed nymphets, when they grew up. Monique had a childish something mingling with the professional frétillement of her small, agile rump; she said she was eighteen but must have been one or two years younger. With her brown bobbed hair, luminous gray eyes and pale skin, she looked perfectly charming: a delinquent nymphet shining through the matter-of-fact young whore. I let myself go with her more completely than I had with any young lady before. : 7 : Soon after, for my own safety, I decided to marry. My choice fell on the daughter of a Polish doctor: the good man happened to be treating me for spells of dizziness and tachycardia.
: 8 : What really attracted me to Valeria was the imitation she gave of a little girl. But reality soon asserted itself. Instead of a pale little gutter girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba. In 1939 mon oncle d'Amérique died bequeathing me an annual income of a few thousand dollars on condition that I came to live in the States. She said "There is another man in my life." Maximovich was a taxi driver, a stocky White Russian ex-colonel with a bushy moustache and a crew cut. Valeria - by now shedding torrents of tears tinged with the mess of her rainbow make-up - filled anyhow a trunk, and two suitcases, and a bursting carton with her things. Visions of putting on my mountain boots and taking a running kick at her rump were of course impossible to put into execution with the cursed colonel hovering around all the time. I sat with arms folded, one hip on the window sill, dying of hate and boredom. : 9 : Divorce proceedings delayed my voyage, and after a winter of ennui and pneumonia in Portugal I at last reached the States. In New York I eagerly accepted the soft job fate offered me: it consisted mainly of thinking up and editing perfume ads. A dreadful breakdown sent me to a sanitorium for more than a year. I went back to my work - only to be hospitalized again. Robust outdoor life seemed to promise me some relief. I went on an expedition into arctic Canada. Soon after my return to civilization I had another bout with insanity (if to melancholia and a sense if insufferable oppression that cruel term must be applied). I owe my complete restoration to the discovery that there was an endless source of robust enjoyment in trifling with psychiatrists, cunningly leading them on, teasing them with fake 'primal scenes'; and never allowing them the slightest glimpse of one's real sexual predicament.
[ passionate recognition ]
: 10 : I cast around for some place in the New England countryside or sleepy small town where I could spend a studious summer. Mrs. Haze of 342 Lawn Street offered to accommodate me. We almost ran over a meddlesome dog as we swerved into Lawn Street. The Haze House, a white-frame horror, appeared, looking dingy and old, more gray than white. Presently, the lady herself - sandals, maroon slacks, yellow blouse, squarish face, in that order - came down the steps. "I see you are not favorably impressed," said the lady, as I pretended to deliberate over the absurdly, and ominously, low price that my wistful hostess was asking for board and bed. I was still walking behind Mrs. Haze through the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery - and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses. "That was my Lo," Haze said, "and these are my lilies." "Yes," I said, "they are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful." : 11 : May 30 is a fast day by Proclamation in New Hampshire. A few days before that I moved into the Haze house. The little diary I propose to reel off covers most of June. Thursday. Saw Dolores taking things off the clothesline in the apple-green light behind the house. Tuesday. I might say her hair is auburn, and her lips as red as licked candy, the lower one prettily plump. What is most singular is that she, this Lolita, my Lolita, has individualized the writer's ancient lust, so that above and over everything there is - Lolita. Thursday. Now, at twelve, she was a regular pest, said Haze. Sullen and evasive. Rude and defiant. Later, I heard a great banging of doors and other sounds coming from quaking caverns where the two rivals were having a ripping row. Friday. I was aware that mother Haze hated my darling for her being sweet on me. So I planned my lake day with a view to satisfying the mother.
: 12 : For all the devil's inventiveness, the scheme remained daily the same. First he would tempt me - and then thwart me, leaving me with a dull pain in the very root of my being. The agent of these interruptions was usually the Haze woman (who was more afraid of Lo's deriving some pleasure from me than of my enjoying Lo). : 13 : She wore that day a pretty print dress, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice, short-sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pink. She had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple. She snatched out of my abstract grip the magazine I had opened; I whisked it away. In a sham effort to retrieve it, she was all over me. Then, with perfect simplicity, the impudent child extended her legs across my lap. I managed to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her guileless limbs. Keeping a maniac's inner eye on my distant golden goal, I cautiously increased the magic friction between the weight of two sunburnt legs, resting athwart my lap, and the hidden tumor of an unspeakable passion. We were fantastically and divinely alone; I watched her, rosy, gold-dusted, beyond the veil of my controlled delight, unaware of it, alien to it, and the sun was on her lips, and her lips were apparently still forming the words of the Carmen-barmen ditty that no longer reached my consciousness. : 14 : I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor. Absolutely no harm done. And nothing prevented me from repeating a performance that affected her as little as if she were a photographic image rippling upon a screen and I a humble hunchback abusing myself in the dark. And now see how I was repaid for my pains. For three weeks Lolita, Haze decided, would go to a summer camp. And stay there till school began. To explain my grim mood, I had to use the same toothache I had already simulated in the morning. "We have," said Haze, "an excellent dentist. Dr. Quilty. Uncle or cousin, I think, of the playwright. Let me contact Ivor Quilty tomorrow morning if it still hurts."
[ a landlady's order ]
: 15 : Haze, with a dreary laugh, said she had told Lo that her beloved Humbert thoroughly approved of the whole camp idea. And on Thursday quiet Mrs. Haze drove her to Camp Q. Under the poplars, the car was already athrob. Lolita looked up - and dashed back into the house. I heard my sweetheart running up the stairs. My heart expanded with such force that it almost blotted me out. And there she was in my arms, her innocent mouth melting under the ferocious pressure of dark male jaws, my palpitating darling! The next instant I heard her - alive, unraped - clatter downstairs. : 16 : Louise left an unstamped, curiously clean-looking letter in my shaking hand. This is a confession: I love you. I have loved you from the minute I saw you. So, will you please, at once, pack and leave. This is a landlady's order. You see, chéri, if you decided to stay, the fact of your remaining would only mean one thing: that you want me as much as I do you: as a lifelong mate. My first movement was one of repulsion and retreat. My second was like a friend's calm hand falling upon my shoulder and bidding me take my time. I got into Lo's bed and reread the letter. : 17 : Suddenly, gentlemen of the jury, I felt a Dostoevskian grin dawning like a distant and terrible sun. I imagined all the casual caresses her mother's husband would be able to lavish on his Lolita. So Humbert the Cubus schemed and dreamed - and the red sun of desire and decision (the two things that create a live world) rose higher and higher. Before such an Amazing Offer, before such a vastness and variety of vistas, I was as helpless as Adam at the preview of early oriental history, miraged in his apple orchard.
: 18 : The wedding was a quiet affair. I simply can't tell you how gentle, how touching my poor wife was. Into the fifty days of our cohabitation Charlotte crammed the activities of as many years. She started to 'glorify the home.' She used up a tremendous amount of energy in washing window shades, waxing the slats of Venetian blinds, purchasing new shades and new blinds, returning them to the store, replacing them by others. The only couple with whom she had relations of real cordiality were the Farlows. John Farlow was a middle-aged, quiet, quietly athletic, quietly successful dealer in sporting goods. Jean, his youngish wife (and first cousin), was a long-limbed girl in harlequin glasses with two boxer dogs, two pointed breasts and a big red mouth. : 19 : A few words more about Mrs. Humbert while the going is good (a bad accident is to happen quite soon). She showed a fierce insatiable curiosity for my past. I had to invent, or to pad atrociously, a long series of mistresses for Charlotte's morbid delectation. Oh, she simply hated her daughter! She had underlined the following epithets, ten out of forty, under 'Your Child's Personality': aggressive, boisterous, critical, distrustful, impatient, irritable, inquisitive, listless, negativistic (underlined twice) and obstinate. It was really maddening.
[ fat fate's formal handshake ]
: 20 : I am now obliged to describe in some tedious detail our last swim together at Hourglass Lake, one tropical Tuesday morning. Bland American Charlotte frightened me. I dared not do anything to spoil the image of me she had set up to adore. "Little Lo, I'm afraid, does not enter the picture at all, at all. She goes straight from camp to a good boarding school with strict discipline and some sound religious training." I took to the woods, for a spell of despair and desperate meditation. The natural solution was to destroy Mrs. Humbert. But how? Slowly we swam out into the shimmer of the lake. The setting was really perfect for a brisk bubbling murder. Those two tiny very busy figures on the opposite side were just ner enough to witness an accident and just far enough not to observe a crime. But what d'ye know, folks - I just could not make myself do it! And now comes the point of my perfect-crime parable. From the debouchement of the trail came a rustle, a footfall, and Jean Farlow marched down with her easel and things. Jean said she had been up there, in a place of green concealment, spying on nature (spies are generally shot), trying to finish a lakescape. "I almost put both of you into my lake," she said. : 21 : It occurred to me that I had a fine brain in beautiful working order and that I might as well use it. I resolved to press my advantage and spend a good deal of time, aloof and moody, working at my book - or at least pretending to work. So Charlotte sauntered in. She felt all was not well between us. Charlotte went up to a little table of imitation mahogany with a drawer where I kept my diary hidden. "Why is this thing locked up?" "Locked up love letters." Later I checked the hiding place of the key. Remarkable how difficult it is to conceal things - especially when one's wife keeps monkeying with the furniture.
: 22 : Next day, after lunch, I went to see 'our' doctor. Throughout most of July I had been experimenting with various sleeping powders, trying them out on Charlotte, a great taker of pills. He produced a vial of violet-blue capsules banded with dark purple at one end. I left in great spirits. Everything was somehow so right that day. So blue and green. Charlotte sat at the corner bureau writing a letter. Her face, disfigured by her emotion, was not a pretty sight. "You're a monster! You're a detestable, abominable, criminal fraud. If you come near, I'll scream out the window. Get back!" I went up to the ex-semi-studio, surveying from the threshold the raped little table with its open drawer. I calmly removed my diary from under her pillow into my pocket. I rearranged my respiration and went through the hallway to the kitchen. She could never resist Scotch. I placed the glasses on the sideboard near the telephone, which had started to ring. "There's this man saying you've been killed, Charlotte." But there was no Charlotte in the living room. : 23 : A big black glossy Packard had climed Miss Opposite's sloping lawn at an angle from the sidewalk, where a tartan laprobe had dropped in a heap concealing the mangled remains of Charlotte Humbert who had been knocked down and dragged several feet by the Beale car as she was hurrying across the street to drop three letters in the mailbox. The widower, a man of exceptional self-control, neither wept nor raved. He was put to bed in Dolly's room by his two friends, gentle John and dewy-eyed Jean. The distraught father went on to say he would go and fetch his delicate daughter immediately after the funeral. And nothing might have happened, had not precise fate, that synchronizing phantom, mixed within its alembic the car and the dog and the sun and the shade and the wet and the weak and the strong and the stone. Fat fate's formal handshake brought me out of my torpor; and I wept.
[ the Enchanted Hunters ]
: 24 : For unknown adventures I was leaving the livid house where I had rented a room only ten weeks before. I do not know if in these tragic notes I have sufficiently stressed the peculiar 'sending' effect that the writer's good looks - pseudo-Celtic, attractively simian, boyishly manly - had on women of every age and environment. Jean Farlow, who was thirty-one and absolutely neurotic, had also apparently developed a strong liking for me. Tears in her bright blue eyes, she attempted, unsuccessfully, to glue herself to my lips. Dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Carlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita. : 25 : Instead of basking in the beams of smiling Chance, I was obsessed by all sorts of purely ethical doubts and fears. My scheme was a marvel of primitive art: I would whizz over to Camp Q, tell Lolita her mother was about to undergo a major operation, and then keep moving with my sleepy nymphet from inn to inn while her mother got better and better and finally died. I devoted the whole afternoon to buying beautiful things for Lo. I recalled the hotel or inn with the seductive name of The Enchanted Hunters which Charlotte had happened to mention. I decided to send a wire ordering a room with twin beds for the next night. What a comic, clumsy, wavering Prince Charming I was! : 26 : This daily headache in the opaque air of this tombal jail is disturbing, but I must persevere. That must have been around August 15, 1947. Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita.
: 27 : I reached my destination around half past two; parked my car in a pine grove where green-shirted, redheaded impish Charlie Holmes stood throwing horseshoes in sullen solitude. She was thinner and taller, and for a second it seemed to me her face was less pretty than the mental imprint I had cherished for more than a month. In the hot car she settled down beside me, slapped a prompt fly on her lovely knee. "Well, you haven't kissed me yet, have you?" Hardly had the car come to a standstill than Lolita positively flowed into my arms. We drove through weakly lighted streets in search of The Enchanted Hunters. "Wow! Looks swank," remarked my vulgar darling. In the slow clear hand of crime I wrote: Dr. Edgar H. Humbert and daughter. It was then that I sprang my surprise gifts. Then she crept into my waiting arms, radiant, relaxed, caressing me with her tender, mysterious, impure, indifferent, twilight eyes - for all the world, like the cheapest of cheap cuties. I produced a small vial containing Papa's Purple Pills. I had hoped the drug would work fast. It certainly did. She sat down on the edge of the bed, swaying a little, speaking in dove-dull, long-drawn tones. "Oh, I've been such a disgusting girl," she went on, shaking her hair, removing with slow fingers a velvet hair ribbon. "Lemme tell you -" "Tomorrow, Lo. Go to bed, go to bed." I pocketed the key and went downstairs. : 28 : I was still firmly resolved to pursue my policy of sparing her purity by operating only in the stealth of night, only upon a completely anesthetized little nude. I should have understood that Lolita had already proved to be something quite different from innocent Annabel, and that the nymphean evil breathing through every pore of the fey child that I had prepared for my secret delectation, would make the secrecy impossible, and the delectation lethal. I wandered through the various public rooms, glory below, gloom above: for the look of lust is always gloomy. In and out of my heart flowed my rainbow blood. All I would do - all I would dare to do - would amount to such a trifle ... Suddenly I was aware that in the darkness next to me there was somebody sitting in a chair on the pillared porch. "Where the devil did you get her?" "My daughter." "You lie - she's not." At least half an hour had elapsed. One could still - but the key was already in the lock, and then I was in the room.
[ such a disgusting girl ]
: 29 : I seemed to have shed my clothes and slipped into pajamas when Lolita turned her head and stared at me through striped shadows and thickly calling me 'Barbara.' As I learned later from a helpful pharmaceutist, the purple pill was too mild a sedative to affect for any length of time a wary, albeit weary, nymphet. Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me; try to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity. She was again fast asleep, my nymphet, but still I did not dare to launch upon my enchanted voyage. She freed herself from the shadow of my embrace with the neutral plaintive murmur of a child demanding its natural rest. Mists of tenderness enfolded mountains of longing. By six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me. I gently caressed her hair, and we gently kissed. All at once, with a burst of rough glee (the sign of the nymphet!), she put her mouth to my ear and whispered. I answered I did not know what game she and Charlie had played. "Okay," said Lolita, "here is where we start." She was not quite prepared for certain discrepancies between a kid's life and mine. Pride alone prevented her from giving up; for, in my strange predicament, I feigned supreme stupidity and had her have her way. But really these are irrelevant matters; I am not concerned with so-called 'sex' at all. Anybody can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeaver lures me on: to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets. : 30 : I have to tread carefully. I have to speak in a whisper. It would never do, would it, to have you fellows fall in love with my Lolita! Had I been a painter, had the management of The Enchanted Hunters commissioned me to redecorate their dining room with murals of my own making, this is what I might have thought up: There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.
: 31 : I have but followed nature. I am nature's faithful hound. Why then this horror that I cannot shake off? Did I deprive her of her flower? Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover. : 32 : Through July, every morning Barbara and Lo would be helped to carry the canoe to Onyx or Eryx by Charlie Holmes, the camp mistress' son, aged thirteen; and at one point, among the luxuriant undergrowth, Lo would be left as sentinel while Barbara and the boy copulated behind a bush. At first, Lo had refused to 'try what it was like,' but curiosity and cameraderie prevailed, and soon she and Barbara were doing it by turns with the silent, coarse and surly but indefatigable Charlie. I had Lo go to the bathroom and take a much-needed soap shower. When she was ready at last, I gave her a lovely new purse of simulated calf and told her to buy herself a magazine in the lobby. A fellow my age in tweeds was staring at my Lolita over his dead cigar and stale newspaper. Still reading, she was driven to a so-called coffee shop a few blocks south. I was unbathed, unshaven, and had had no bowel movement. My nerves were a-jangle. More and more uncomfortable did Humbert feel. It was something quite special, that feeling: an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed. "You chump," she said, sweetly smiling at me. "You revolting creature. I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you've done to me. I ought to call the police and tell them you raped me. Oh, you dirty, dirty old man." An ominous hysterical note rang through her silly words. "Look," she said in that neutral voice that hurt me so, "give me some dimes and nickels. I want to call mother in that hospital." "You can't call that number." "Why can't I call my mother if I want to?" "Because," I answered, "your mother is dead." : 33 : In the gay town of Lepingville I bought her four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary napkins, sunglasses, some more garments. At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely no where else to go.
So ends Part 1 of Lolita. To read Nabokov's version of On the Road, and find out about Humbert as housewife, the mysterious Aztec Red convertible, Lolita's betrayal, pregnant Mrs. Dolly Schiller, and the final confrontation at Pavor Manor — buy the book!
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© 1999 Bruce MacEvoy