Nabokov’s novella The Enchanter is a precursor of sorts to Lolita, but it really does inhabit an immensely foggier area between literature and soft-core pornography than the latter work. Although the basic idea of marrying the nymphet’s mother to gain access to her stays much the same between both books, by the time Nabokov came to write Lolita (The Enchanter was written years before that in Russian and translated only recently into English by his son) “the thing was new and had grown in secret the claws and wings of a novel” – as he puts it so inimitably in the preface.
Basically, I recommend The Enchanter if you:
(a) are a Nabokov junkie; and/or
(b) are a paedophile
Here are some sample passages. The first one’s from page 4, no less. He certainly wastes no time in getting to the point:
“What if the way to true bliss is indeed through a still delicate membrane, before it has had time to harden, become overgrown, lose the fragrance and the shimmer through which one penetrates to the throbbing star of that bliss? Even within these limitations I proceed with a refined selectivity; I’m not attracted to every schoolgirl that comes along, far from it – how many one sees, on a gray morning street, that are husky, or skinny, or have a necklace of pimples or wear spectacles – those kinds interest me as little, in the amorous sense, as a lumpy female acquaintance might interest someone else. In any case, independently of any special sensations, I feel at home with children in general, in all simplicity; I know that I would be a most loving father in the common sense of the word, and to this day cannot decide whether this is a natural complement or a demonic contradiction.”
The next two are considerably more ewww-worthy. After his wife’s sudden death, the protagonist is on a train to her friend’s house, where her daughter had been staying during her illness. He is now the little girl’s guardian.
“Luxuriating in the concentrated rays of an internal sun, he pondered the delicious alliance between premeditation and pure chance, the Edenic discoveries that awaited her, the way the amusing traits peculiar to bodies of different sex, seen at close range, would appear extraordinary yet natural and homey to her, while the subtle distinctions of intricately refined passion would long remain for her but the alphabet of innocent caresses: she would be entertained only with storybook images (the pet giant, the fairy-tale forest, the sack with its treasure), and with the amusing consequences that would ensue when she inquisitively fingered the toy with the familiar but never tedious trick.
Thus they would live on – laughing, reading books, marveling at gilded fireflies, talking of the flowering walled prison of the world, and he would tell her tales and she would listen, his little Cordelia, and nearby the sea would breathe beneath the moon….And exceedingly slowly, at first with all the sensitivity of his lips, then in earnest, with all their weight, ever deeper, only thus – for the first time – into your inflamed heart, thus, forcing my way, thus, plunging into it, between its melting edges…
The lady who had been sitting across from him for some reason suddenly got up and went into another compartment; he glanced at the blank face of his wristwatch – it wouldn’t be long now – and then he was already ascending next to a white wall crowned with blinding shards of glass as a multitude of swallows flew overhead.”
The thing is, even at his worst, Nabokov’s prose in other parts of this book is still head and shoulders over almost anything else I read. I would like to deny The Enchanter the status of “literature” (yes, I realize that word contains multitudes but let’s just use it in its most narrow-minded traditional sense for these purposes, mmmmkay?), but I can’t. Nabokov junkies should read this, because I’m pretty sure it still has a lot of what you like about him. People who have never read Nabokov should not start with this, but buy Lolita pronto. I’m not qualified to advise the paedophiles.