Review: The Annotated Lolita

The Annotated Lolita
The Annotated Lolita
Vladimir Nabokov
Edited with preface, introduction, and notes by Alfred Appel, Jr.
New York: Vintage Books, 1991

Review Copyright © 2000 Garret Wilson — August 5, 2000 9:00 a.m.

Lolita came with high expectations. Vladimir Nabokov, reportedly one of Arudhati Roy's favorite authors (the other being Flaubert), was a native Russian who, after learning the English language late in life, has written a novel the title of which has not only ingrained itself into the English vernacular but has also as a novel consistently made "best of" lists. As it turns out, Nabokov plays with the language in his own way, producing a novel to own.

Certain expectations are validated right away: yes, it is a novel about an older man who takes advantage of a young school-girl (and her mother, for that matter). That's not what the novel is "about." The story is a playground for Nabokov to toy with English and to sew together bits of knowledge he's collected from who-knows-where. At least half of the attraction to Lolita (the book) is its allusiveness, its intricacy, its self reflexivity. Sometimes this occurs close enough together in the story to give the reader an instant feeling of satisfaction:

"Not at the moment," I said, turning volume C of the Girls' Encyclopedia around to examine a picture printed "bottom-edge" as printers say.

Charlotte went up to a little table of imitation mahogany with a drawer. She put her hand upon it. The little table was ugly, no doubt, but it had done nothing to her.

"I have always wanted to ask you," she said (businesslike, not coquettish), "why is this thing locked up? Do you want it in this room? It's so abominably uncouth."

"Leave it alone," I said. I was Camping in Scandinavia.

"Is there a key?"


"Oh, Hum..."

"Locked up love letters."

She gave me one of those wounded-doe looks that irritated me so much, and then, not quite knowing if I was serious, or how to keep up the conversation, stood for several slow pages (Campus, Canada, Candid Camera, Candy) peering at the window-pane rather than through it, drumming upon it with sharp almond-and-rose fingernails (92).

Any reader can instantly decipher from where (a few lines back) all the C's are coming from, but Nabokov isn't content to stop there — towards the end of the novel he alludes back to this section of the Girls' Encyclopedia. Allusions, however, are not all Nabokov has in store; that "he little table was ugly, no doubt, but it had done nothing to her" illustrates Nabokov's cleverness, his self-recognized wittiness that produces truly memorable verbal constructions. One of the most memorable, perhaps, is made up not of words but of sounds:

I was not able, alas, to hold my breakfast but dismissed that physicality as a trivial contretemps, wiped my mouth with a gossamer handkerchief produced from my sleeve, and, with a blue block of ice for heart, a pill on my tongue and solid death in my hip pocket, I stepped neatly into a telephone booth in Coalmont (Ah-ah-ah, said its little door) and rang up the only Schiller—Paul, Furniture—to be found in the battered book. Hoarse Paul told me he did know a Richard, the son of a cousin of his, and his address was, let me see, 10 Killer Street (I am not going very far for my pseudonyms). Ah-ah-ah, said the little door (268).

"Ah-ah-ah" indeed.

The notes of this annotated edition bring a more mixed review. Sometimes they seem pointless, or at least uninspired: Do we really need to have the annotator tell us that there really are titles similar to "Know Your Own Daughter" (174)? On the other hand, the notes do explain obscure allusions that would probably be missed by many readers; that "her bi-iliac garland still as brief as a lad's" does need the annotator's explanation of "bi-iliac" and the allusion to Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young": "The garland briefer than a girl's" (175, 398).

Sometimes even simple allusions can be missed, but not by the annotator. Does it seem obvious, in retrospect, that Nabokov's description of "an elf-like girl..." is referring to their being by the house of Pisky (i.e. pixie) (212, 410)? Maybe, maybe not. For all their assistance, however, the annotations, do considerably more harm than good if the reader doesn't quell the urge to consult them on every page the first time through, because they contain numerous references to sightings of Clare Quilty (who is Quilty? (323) ) and give-aways of things that occur pages ahead. The annotations are valuable afterwards. Not before.

The annotator's numerous conversations with Nabokov, as well as research of other interviews, does prove useful to know Nabokov better. Humbert's "Latin" outburst (120), for example, is explained as "a parodic stream-of-consciousness affording a brief critical comment on a technique Nabokov found unsatisfactory, even in the novels of Joyce, whom he revered... 'We think not in words but in shadows of words,' Nabokov said. 'James Joyce's mistake in those otherwise marvelous mental soliloquies of his consists in that he gives too much verbal body to thoughts'" (379). That certainly makes sense; perhaps Ulysses was a good idea carried too far.

Other quotes by Nabokov give more insight into his opinions on writing and imagery. Simple colors, even, bring out his opinions on their use (and abuse) as imagery:

There exist novelists and poets, and ecclesiastic writers, who deliberately use color terms, or numbers, in a strictly symbolic sense. The type of writer I am, half-painter, half naturalist, finds the use of symbols hateful because it substitutes a dead general idea for a live specific impression... When the intellect limits itself to the general notion, or primitive notion, of a certain color it deprives the senses of its shades. In different languages different colors were used in a general sense before shades were introduced... For me the shades, or rather colors, of, say, a fox, a ruby, a carrot, a pink rose, a dark cherry, a flushed cheek, are as different as blue is from green or the royal purple of blood (Fr. "Pourpre") from the English sense of violet blue... Only cartoonists, having three colors at their disposal, use red for hair, cheek, and blood (364).

Sometimes Nabokov's puns are almost corny ("We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop. 1001" (220) ) but strangely likeable nonetheless. And while it seems some have lost interest in the novel half-way through, it's toward the end that clever Nabokov's expressive, tongue-in-cheek capability shines through.

"Alone" did I say? Pas tout à fait. I had my little black chum with me, and as soon as I reached a secluded spot, I rehearsed Mr. Richard F. Schiller's violent death. I had found a very old and very dirty gray sweater of min in the back of the car, and this I hung up on a branch, in a speechless glade, which I had reached by a wood road from the now remote highway. The carrying out of the sentence was a little marred by what seemed to me a certain stiffness in the play of the trigger, and I wondered if I should get some oil for the mysterious thing but I decided I had no time to spare. Back in the car went the old dead sweater, now with additional perforations, and having reloaded warm Chum, I continued my journey (267).

The prose is never purely aesthetic. In just a few words, Nabokov makes a rhyme, illustrates his familiarity with French, promotes his cleverness, makes self derogatory statements about said passage...

...I pressed the bell button, it vibrated through my whole system. Personne. Je resonne. Repersonne. From what depth this re-nonsense? Woof, said the dog. A rush, and a shuffle, and whoosh-woof went the door (269).

...and then alludes to this "re-nonsense" later in the book.

It could be difficult to display tragedy in such a way that the reader cannot help but feel in a comedy, but that's exactly what Nabokov does. While Chum parodies the cowboy's pal, Humbert produces the most clever simple little poem that with the help of Quilty (the tragic hero? The villain?), who holds his own with wit, results in a section that holds a humor that must be reread (299).

Perhaps the clever but boring wanderings of Humbert and child across America do become monotonous. Perhaps Nabokov could have picked a less alarming subject to serve as a corpus for his witty words to embrace. Perhaps the middle of the novel could have been as good as the last (which was written first (xxxix)) and the first ("Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta (9)). It almost is. Close enough to make Lolita an excellent work.