Nabokov's nymphet novella
The Enchanter, by Vladimir Nabokov (Picador)
he Enchanter is an erotic fable composed in a perfumed style that affords a queasy contrast to the straightforward brutality of the plot, describing as it does how a paedophile marries a dying woman in order to obtain sexual access to the latter's twelve-year-old daughter. The effect is that of raw liver exquisitely arranged in a pink frilly box.
But not a very large helping of raw liver. So the novella's scant seventy pages have been bulked out with two prefaces culled from Nabokov's assorted prose and some notes by the translater, his son, Dmitri. Much of this impedimenta circles round the question of the relation of the hitherto unpublished The Enchanter to the great novel with which the elder Nabokov first sprang to international fame, Lolita.
The Enchanter was written in Russian in Paris late in 1939; and then, evidently, lost. The much longer, infinitely more complex Lolita was written in English some ten years later, in the US. In 1956, in the note on Lolita reprinted here, Nabokov declared: 'the nymphet ..was really much the same lass and the basic marry-her-mother idea also subsisted but otherwise the thing [ie Lolita] was new and had grown in secret the claws and wings of a novel.'
This suggests that Nabokov was prepared to accept that it was not only length but quiddity that The Enchanter lacked, even if, in 1959, in a letter used as a second preface, he refers to it as 'a beautiful piece of Russian prose. ' All the same, no claws. No wings. It is startling but frail.
The Enchanter begins with a forty-old-jeweller's meditations upon his own paedophiliac tendencies whilst he sits on a bench in a public park. His pondering is interrupted by the arrival of a schoolgirl on roller skates. And he is lost. (So is she, of course; but this is not her story, and her feelings and fate are not taken into consideration by either her would-be seducer or her creator.)
There is a distinction between amour fou and sexual obsession. Humbert Humbert will be a fully self-aware pervert mad with love. The eponymous 'enchanter' is a constantly self-justifying but hitherto thwarted pervert who suddenly spots the possibility of gratification and thereafter pursues it through thick and thin.
Almost as soon as she has been resentfully married, the sick mother dies. The 'enchanter' gleefully carries his stepdaughter off by car to a distant hotel, in a brief, pale, trial run for Humbert Humbert's later wanderings. He seizes the opportunity of masturbating over her sleeping body. She wakes up, catches him at it and screams; he rushes out into the street, to be abruptly terminated by a passing vehicle, a curiously moralistic and awesomely rapid punishment.
Nabokov does not care to give a proper name to any of the characters in The Enchanter, except to allot the ubiquitous name, Marie, to the minimal presence of a maid in the absent-minded manner of one tipping a servant. The nymphet of The Enchanter may have Lolita's russet curls but she has none of her presence on the page. She is an assemblage of dimples, curls and schoolgirl underwear, uncharacterised beyond a reference to her 'slightly vacuous' eyes.
We learn in passing that she has a tendency to car sickness but otherwise are told more about her panties than we are about her personality. She is the hapless object of desire, the pure, anonymous creation of soft core pornography.
The jeweller is a little more three-dimensional; at least, he possesses a few more than merely physical attributes. For example, he is full of self-deceit; the miserable creature reassures himself that at least he made the last months of his wife's life happy. He is a hypocrite, too. He fondly imagines how he will be a good father to her child, as well as a considerate lover. These moral posturing endow him with a certain twitching life.
But there is also a hypocrisy within the narrative itself, in the succulent way in which the child's sexuality is presented. It is not so much that the reader is drawn helplessly into the paedophile's obsession; rather, that obsession is depicted in the conventional language of voluptuousness, 'suede-like fissures' (whatever that means), 'shapely thighs' and all.
The narrative is written in the third person and therefore cannot retain its objectivity when undressing the little girl, so that the paedophile's idea of the little girl's irresistibility is presented as a universal truth that is obviously apparent at the same time as it is castigated as 'unnatural. '
As a result, the paedophile's desire starts to seem as feasible as the next man's, and the moral underpinning of the story falls away, leaving, surely unintentionally, only the infrastructure of pornography.
In Lolita, Nabokov solves the technical problem of the specious objectivity of the third person narrative by telling the story in the person of Humbert Humbert, and Humbert Humbert can constantly remind the reader of the unsanctified nature of his desires.
The nameless paedophile of The Enchanter meets his end in the soiled raincoat characteristic of the habitué of dirty bookshops; but, of course, I am not assuming that it was indeed Nabokov's intention to write a dirty book, even if the masturbators consummation is written in such a way that it looks as if he is having his titillatory cake and eating it. Indeed, I would not put it past Nabokov to be parodying a dirty book, though Paris in the winter of 1939 seems an odd place to play this game.
The text is adorned with a number of modernist arabesques. There is a 'black salad devouring a green rabbit' that would have seemed a little dated and expressionist in 1939 but now, thanks to changing fashions, comes up as fresh as paint. Nowhere is the expression less than elegant and the translation reads like an original. The wonder is, that Lolita, in its irony, complexity and verbal felicity, sprang in part from this scanty wee seedlet once it was transferred to the fertile if alien soil of the United States.