The Enchanter (Vladimir Nabokov)

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.


  1. In the meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure out the very basic question of whether Humbert loved(conventional meaning) Lolita or not.

    If my father had ever written something like this, I don’t think that I’d particularly like to do the translation.

  2. Whatever the literary merits of The Enchanter, methinks the quoted passages stray too close to the miasmic hinterland of child pornography to be truly enjoyable (and I’m speaking as someone who thinks of Lolita as one of the classics of modern English literature), but for any Nabokovian neophytes (or even acolytes) who may be unfamiliar with (, well, enjoy! Incidentally, when Nabokov’s translation of Alice in Wonderland appeared, he gave her the name Anya (having considered Alice to be too un-Russian), but, in so doing , he spectacularly failed to set a precedent; virtually every Russian edition of the book since (and there have been many) transliterates her name as Alisa!

  3. I suppose the most obvious answer is that love never exists in the conventional sense.

    The spectacular beauty of Nabokov’s prose and the dept of Humbert’s feelings beguile us into a tasit acceptance of the unacceptable. And Humbert’s love is unacceptable, particularly when it is expressed in lying, bribrary and exploitation. The difficulty for the morally zealous reader is that Lolita uses these self same weapons and betters the instruction.

    Referring again to the morally zealous reader, this book can really fuck with your head. Perhaps because we, too easily, accept the trite maxim that all you need is love.

    The passages from The Enchanter are disconcerting. I wonder was Nabokov satisfied with the book, did he intend it to be published or was he happy to let Lolita superceed it? If anyone has read an autobiography of Nabokov I’d be interested to know if these paedophile love stories (and that is what they are) are fruits only of his imagination.

  4. Though, I guess, his son wouldn’t be going around publishing this stuff if there was any question on the matter.

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