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Sunday, August 30, 2015

“…which might have tickled my pride, had it not incensed my jealousy”—Nabokov’s ultra-sly wink at Pride & Prejudice in Lolita



Before I conclude my latest round of sleuthing into Nabokov’s covert but extremely significant allusions to Mansfield Park in Lolita, I want to add one more tantalizing wrinkle---which is that in the course of following up on the MP in Lolita, I serendipitously stumbled on an extraordinary bit of textual evidence supporting my already existing belief that Nabokov was not merely focused on Mansfield Park, he was also an admirer of Pride & Prejudice as well.

My claim of course goes against the longstanding dogma of Nabokov studies vis a vis Austen, as most authoritatively voiced by the very influential Nabokov scholar and biographer Brian Boyd:

“[In 1950, regarding potential authors he would teach in his ‘European Fiction’ class] Nabokov reacted with a Russian disdain for lady novelists: ‘I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class. Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice.  He thought he would choose Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde instead. By mid-May, he was halfway through Bleak House (‘great stuff’), taking copious notes, and had decided, after all, to follow Wilson’s advice and teach Mansfield Park.” END QUOTE

In 2010, when I first engaged with the subject of Nabokov’s attitude toward Jane Austen, I first drew the parallel I saw between Nabokov’s apparent disdain for P&P, on the one hand, and Mark Twain’s suspiciously similar apparent disdain for P&P (also expressed in a letter to an earnest Janeite American literary friend of his, William Dean Howells), on the other. I asserted, and still assert today, that Nabokov had deliberately channeled Twain’s tweaking of his earnest Janeite friend’s love of P&P, by expressing exactly the same faux-disdain to his own esteemed literary pal!

But it was only just the other day that I came upon Nabokov’s smoking gun in this regard, in the following passage in which Humbert Humbert describes his paranoid jealous monitoring of Lolita’s every move during stops along their road trip across the United States:

“Oh, I had to keep a very sharp eye on Lo, little limp Lo! Owing perhaps to constant amorous exercise, she radiated, despite her very childish appearance, some special languorous glow which threw garage fellows, hotel pages, vacationists, goons in luxurious cars, maroon morons near blued pools, into fits of concupiscence which might have tickled my pride, had it not incensed my jealousy. For little Lo was aware of that glow of hers, and I would often catch her coulant un regard in the direction of some amiable male, some grease monkey, with a sinewy golden-brown forearm and watch-braceleted wrist, and hardly had I turned my back to go and buy this very Lo a lollipop, than I would hear her and the fair mechanic burst into a perfect love song of wisecracks.”

Surely no Janeite with an acute ear can fail to hear the unmistakable echoing by Nabokov of the following famous passage in P&P, when Charlotte and Eliza discuss Darcy’s apparent disdain for Eliza:

"His pride," said Miss Lucas, "does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud."
"That is very true," replied Elizabeth, "and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine."

It’s not just the rhythm of the phrasing that is so strikingly similar, or that the word “pride” appears in both---it’s that the first part of the phrase refers to the possibility of a positive feeling relating to someone’s pride (HH’s pride might have been tickled, and Eliza might have forgiven Darcy’s pride) which however is, ironically, prevented by a simultaneous adverse effect (HH’s jealousy was incensed by Lolita’s attractiveness, and Eliza’s pride was mortified by Darcy’s pride). This is clearly a sly and intentional allusion by Nabokov.

And that would have been enough to confirm that Nabokov was actually a lover of P&P when he wrote his 1950 letter to Wilson, and remained one as he wrote Lolita thereafter. But Nabokov, the trickster, does not end his winking there, he extends it one more iteration, to allay the doubt of even the most hardened skeptic. He adds the following bit of (seemingly) insignificant background detail, immediately after the above quoted passage, without any gap:

“When, during our longer stops, I would relax after a particularly violent morning in bed, and out of the goodness of my lulled heart allow her--indulgent Hum!--to visit the rose garden or children's library across the street with a motor court neighbor's plain little Mary and Mary's eight-year-old brother, Lo would come back an hour late, with barefoot Mary trailing far behind, and the little boy metamorphosed into two gangling, golden-haired high school uglies, all muscles and gonorrhea…”

Now, is it just a coincidence that Eliza Bennet’s plain sister, Mary, whose favorite place in the world was a library (“Mary petitioned for the use of the library at Netherfield”), just happens to be the very next speaker after Eliza tosses off her above-quoted bon mot?:

"Pride," observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, "is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us."

And we might profitably ask how Mary Bennet’s reflections illuminate the character of Humbert Humbert—is he proud, vain, or both? I say “Both!”.

And I believe that Vladimir Nabokov was also both vain and proud in Mary Bennet’s sense, and also  piqued himself upon the cleverness and erudition of his covert allusions, and on his ability to gull his learned friend Edmund Wilson so completely regarding same. And I suspect he’d have been doubly piqued, had he lived long enough to know that his little trick lasted another 60 years, and took in almost the entire world of Nabokovians, and I pique myself on finally discovering and explaining it all in this post today.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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