Word fun in Nabokov's Lolita

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If you're a fan of word play, you probably already know how much fun Nabokov had penning Lolita. There's hardly a page in the novel that doesn't make good use of a pun, play on words, or other cool lit-device. There are also dozens upon dozens of allusions to Poe, Joyce, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, and on and on. It is, by this writer's way of thinking, one of the busiest novels written in recent history, if you're into reading between the lines. Here are some of my favorite examples.

1. Vivian Darkbloom

Let's start with perhaps the most famous, Vivian Darkbloom, the mistress of antagonist Clare Quilty. Ms. Darkbloom's name is a simple anagram of Vladimir Nabokov.

2. Edgar

There are a lot of references to Edgar Allan Poe throughout the novel. This is partly due to the fact that Poe was the master of word play, and partly to the fact that Poe married his 13-year-old cousin. One of the more obvious references is when H.H. checks into his first motel with Lolita (who, don't forget, is only 12 in the novel), and signs in as Dr. Edgar H. Humbert.

3. Blanche Schwarzmann

In the novel's foreword, penned by the fictitious John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., (to give "˜authenticity' to the confessional style of the novel), a certain psychologist named Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann is quoted (to give even more "˜validity' to that which is already clearly fake). Blanche is, of course, white in French. And schwarz is black in German, so her name is actually Dr. White Blackman. Nabokov believed that Freudian psychologists, like Dr. Schwarzmann, see everything in black and white.

4. Double Ds

Nabokov loves to have fun with phonetics and double consonants throughout the novel. Humbert Humbert is just one in a long succession, including Gaston Godin, Mesmer Mesmer and Harold D. Doublename. This word play applies to the names of the places and towns Lolita and H.H. visit along the road, too. Places like Hazy Hills, Kumfy Kabins, Hobby House, Raspberry Room, Pierre Point, and many more.

5. Pardon my French

Nabokov's mother tongue was Russian, of course, as he was born in Saint Petersburg in 1899. His first books were written in Russian, and, later, French (he eventually wound up in Paris in the late 1930s before moving to the US). These facts make Lolita, and all the word play, all the more amazing, because it was written not in Russian or French, but English. Still, his fluency in Russian and French play a small part in the novel. For instance, there is a man in the novel referred to as the "˜White Russian ex-colonel' who lives and works in Paris. When he speaks, he speaks in French, and says, "J'ai demannde pardonne" If you know your French, you know that the White Russian's grammar is wrong. It should, of course, be Je, not J'ai. And demannde and pardonne both have extra N's. Why? Because this is how a Russian would pronounce French, emphasizing that consonant.

6. PO Box

When Nabokov creates a name or even a thing in Lolita, he always makes sure to have fun with the words. For instance, H.H. has his mail forwarded to a couple different post boxes. The first is called P.O. Wace (that would be POW, of course, or the prison H.H. has created for himself); the second is called P.O. Elphinstone, another reference to old Edgar Allan.

These are just a spit in the bucket, though. Take a fine-tooth comb to Lolita and you could fill an entire book noting the allusions, homages, and word plays. Have a favorite of your own, drop it in the comments below. Let's get a list going.

June 2, 2009 - 3:38am
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