Slavic studies professor Malynne Sternstein guides students through the deep game that is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Caught in eternal chase, a mummified cat and rat inhabit a corner of Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral. In the 1850s, according to legend, the cat followed the rat into a pipe organ and both got trapped. Their bodies were preserved by the dry air and today are encased in glass.
The incident, according to Malynne Sternstein, associate professor of Slavic studies, was “a failure of that cat’s haptic sensibility”—of the whiskers that reach into space as guides, sensitive to tiny vibrations in the air. Teaching a class on Lolita to around 60 students in Harper 140, Sternstein, AB’87, AM’90, PhD’96, used the cat to explain what Vladimir Nabokov meant when he urged budding literary critics to rely on their own whiskers, or “the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs.”
In other words, literature is an affair of the nerves, so, as the author further advised, “do not drag in Freud.” On that October afternoon, Sternstein warned her students against searching Lolita for social commentary on pedophilia as a perversion or disease. Nabokov, who vehemently dismissed psychoanalysis, asserted in the same interview: “Remember that mediocrity thrives on ‘ideas.’ Beware of the modish message.” What’s important is attending to the manner in which the novel is crafted, said Sternstein, who always starts the course by telling students that reading Lolita’s prose should induce a tingle in the nervous system. For her, the book turns not on plot but on language—its power to cast spells and play games, its limitations and failures.
Nabokov’s narrator, Humbert Humbert—a man in his late 30s who is raping a 12-year-old girl—seeks to make the reader complicit in his actions, said Sternstein, who called Humbert’s ornamented style a “rhetoric of entrapment.” After students opened their copies of the novel, a 1991 edition annotated by Alfred Appel Jr., she guided the class through close readings of several opening scenes, zeroing in on this attempt to manipulate and the textual layers underneath.
“OK, straight on in,” she said, flipping through her own copy of the novel. “What page are we on? Page 9—we’ve come so far,” she remarked as the class laughed; it was the fourth class meeting. Sternstein and her students spent much of the next hour on the second and third chapters, where Humbert outlines his childhood.
A female student pointed out the oddly familiar tone of Humbert’s reference to his grandfather: “Jerome Dunn, the alpinist.” “I was curious about that,” she said, “because I can’t say I know many alpinists” (according to the dictionary, a climber of high mountains, especially in the Alps).
“Very good question,” answered Sternstein. “Why this assumption that we know?”
“I think it’s an example of a kind of presumed intimacy with the reader,” said a male student in a gray button-down shirt. “Which sort of forces you into a certain kind of relationship.”
“Precisely,” said Sternstein, noting that the reader may “gloss over and say, ‘Oh yes, Jerome Dunn, the alpinist. I don’t know, but I’m supposed to.’” But, she continued, Dunn was Nabokov’s concoction, and there’s something underneath. The word dun refers to a subadult mayfly, often used as fishing bait, and Jerome means “holy name,” harking back to Humbert’s request a few lines earlier to “look at this tangle of thorns.” Nabokov, said Sternstein, is throwing his readers bait—an invitation to follow him through the novel “from the tangle of thorns.” Does he expect the reader to have knowledge of these semiotic details? “No,” said Sternstein. “But he expects us to be curious.”
She then asked the class to consider this line: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set.”
“Why,” asked Sternstein, “is it necessary to talk about how photogenic she is?”
“The way I read it,” replied a male student, “that’s all he knew about her. She died before he knew her.”
“He was not old enough to appreciate her as a mother, to actually have a mother,” said Sternstein. “But don’t fall into the trap. We could easily fall into a Freudian trap here and say, ‘Oh, this is why he does this. He’s motherless; he’s looking for a substitute there’ and so on and so forth because he’s leading us there too, into a sense of ‘Oh, this is so pathetic. This poor man had no mother; he only knew her through photographs.’”
The class ran through Humbert’s other references to photographs and images—picture postcards of the luxurious hotel on the Riviera where he grew up; a romantic yet shallow linguistic portrait of his adolescent love affair with a honey-skinned girl named Annabel; photographs of “pearl and umbra, with infinitely soft partings, in Pichon’s sumptuous La Beauté Humaine.” A female student with a brown bob said, “It’s like trying to entice you into the moment without actually giving you the moment.”
Sternstein agreed: “Humbert Humbert as a narrator keeps you at bay. He has a lot of power over you. He offers just enough to make you feel you are familiar, that he’s giving you a lot, that he’s being very generous.” She noted other examples of Humbert’s manipulative language, including his presentation of an idyllic childhood, with all the drama of that life rendered in mere parentheses—“(picnic, lightning)”—and his apparent self-consciousness and deference to the reader in statements like “if you can still stand my style.”
A red-haired young woman wasn’t buying it: “Humbert Humbert’s Riviera isn’t the Riviera you see—it’s the Riviera you see in postcards, like the advertisements he is constantly flipping through and referring to. It’s a fake memory.”
“It is a fake memory,” nodded Sternstein, who urged students to look at the passages not only as manipulation but also as a parody of photography or of a snapshots-of-life writing style requiring little imagination. Nabokov was suspicious of the lazy memory photographs afford, she said, as were theorists like Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, AB’51, who, Sternstein continued, thought “that the photograph actually serves to allow us to forget rather than to allow our memory to thrive.”
The class ended with chapter 5, where Humbert offers a definition of what he calls a “nymphet”: a girl between the ages of 9 and 14 who possesses “certain mysterious characteristics,” “fey grace,” and “insidious charm.” A student read the lines, “There must be a gap of several years, never less than ten I should say, generally thirty or forty, and as many as ninety in a few known cases, between maiden and man to enable the latter to come under the nymphet’s spell.”
“So there you go again,” Sternstein chimed in, referencing the narrator’s endless endeavor to excuse and persuade. “It’s the nymphet spell that works itself on the man.” Continuing with the same section during the next class, Sternstein read Humbert’s declaration of helplessness in resisting nymphets, ending with the line, “My little cup brims with tiddles.”
“What is a tiddle cup?” she asked the class.
Students pointed out that it evokes nursery rhymes, which often use words like “fiddle” and “diddle,” as well as the game tiddledywinks. Tiddle also means to fondle, noted Sternstein, and tiddle cup is a now-obsolete term for a container into which banquet goers would urinate, allowing for uninterrupted indulgence. So, she said, it speaks to “overindulgence in petting or fondling.”
Sternstein then connected tiddles to the lines following: “A shipwreck. An atoll. Alone with a drowned passenger’s shivering child. Darling, this is only a game!” Who is the darling? “It’s multivalent,” said Sternstein. It could be the drowned passenger, the shivering child—or the author speaking to his readers, prompting them to indulge in fondling textual details. Parody is a game, one that can evoke a childlike curiosity and thrill the spine. For Nabokov, “that’s what novels should do—they should play games through words.”
Sternstein uses the annotated version of Lolita, first published in 1970, because editor Alfred Appel Jr. “dogged” his former professor Nabokov for answers to the elusive 1955 novel. “Sometimes Nabokov’s annoyance shows in the notes,” says Sternstein, “and sometimes there are insights from Nabokov that are nowhere else to be found.” Many of the notes define obscure or foreign words scattered throughout the text (bemazed means bewildered; petit rat is a young ballet student at the Paris Opera). Others are more detailed, offering insight into the work’s literary allusions and Nabokov’s point of view. For example, Appel points to the phrase “a breeze from wonderland” as one of several references to Alice in Wonderland (1865). He then quotes Nabokov as saying, “I always call him Lewis Carroll Carroll because he was the first Humbert Humbert.” Was the novel’s photography theme inspired by Carroll’s hobby of photographing young girls? “Not consciously,” Nabokov told Appel.
Reading Nabokov is hard, but that’s what Sternstein relishes about it. She has a longtime interest in writers who “take an axe to the frozen sea inside us,” in Kafka’s words, and began reading Nabokov at 14, starting with his first novel, Mashen’ka (1926), and then working her way through chronologically. Joining the University faculty in 1996, Sternstein took “a little while to offer a course on him because he intimidated me so.”
After teaching the class five or so times now, she’s “come to understand that the anxiety a writer like Nabokov creates is a very productive and seductive one.”