"Magic Wand", Arguably, Azar Nafisi, Christopher Hitchens, Essay, Fairy Tale, Federico Infante Tutt'Art, Hurricane Lolita, If you're reading this pat yourself on the back because you can read and that's awesome, Literature, Lolita, Novel, Novella, Nympthetomania, Oxford Dictionary, pedophilia, Penis, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Sexuality, The Enchanter, viviparous, Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov: Hurricane Lolita, Wizard, Writing
Like so many books in my life, I can thank Christopher Hitchens for introducing me The Enchanter.
My regular reader has probably noted that recently I finished the novel Lolita and since then I have been trying to write and read as much as possible about the book, which is another way of saying I won’t shut up about it. Still in my defense Lolita is not just any novel and there’s literally mountains of discourse about the book, and also in my defense I knew that when I was going to write about Lolita it would never be just one essay. It was going to be some kind of series that dug into the meat of the novel as well as the background material, and, in the case of The Enchanter, any and all books which might have laid the groundwork for what eventually became the now iconic and established narrative that is Lolita, but I’m getting away from myself as always by trying to explain my motivations. Back to Hitch.
I was researching Lolita and trying to find any and all online essays that explored the novel when I looked up and remembered that Hitchens’s collection Arguably contains an essay entirely devoted to Lolita entitled Vladimir Nabokov: Hurricane Lolita. It’s an apt title because thus far I’ve observed that opinions and interpretations about Lolita are like a hurricane in the way they are a force that sucks up everything and anything that comes within its path, and anyone trying to get one small take or opinion is doomed to fail hopelessly. The essay was published in The Atlantic in 2005 as a fifty-year-anniversary reflection on the lasting importance of the novel, as well as an interpretive examination of the difficult topic of the narrative.
He observes this after opening with a quick examination of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran by placing the book in some cultural contexts:
Then we must approach the question of how innocent we are in all this. Humbert writes without the smallest intention of titillating his audience. The whole narrative is, after all, his extended jailhouse/madhouse plea to an unseen jury. He has nothing but disgust for the really pornographic debauchee Quilty, for whose murder he has been confined. But he does refer to him as a “brother,” and at one point addresses us, too, as “Reader! Bruder!,” which is presumably designed to make one think of Baudelaire’s address of Les Fleurs du Mal to “Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!” I once read of an interview given by Roman Polanski in which he described listening to a lurid radio account of his offense even as he was fleeing to the airport. He suddenly realized the trouble he was in, he said, when he came to appreciate that he had done something for which a lot of people would furiously envy him. Hamlet refers to Ophelia as a nymph (“Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered”), but she is of marriageable age, whereas a nymphet is another thing altogether.
Actually, it is impossible to think of employing Lolita for immoral or unsavory purposes, and there is now a great general determination to approach the whole book in an unfussed, grown-up, broad-minded spirit. “Do not misunderstand me,” said Amis père when he reviewed the first edition, “if I say that one of the troubles with Lolita is that, so far from being too pornographic, it is not pornographic enough.” (71-2)
This is continued later by another small mention of the book I wish to discuss here:
How complicit, then, is Nabokov himself? The common joking phrase among adult men, when they see nymphets on the street or in the park or, nowadays, on television and in bars, is “Don’t even think about it.” But it is very clear that Nabokov did think about it, and had thought about it a lot. An earlier novella, written in Russian and published only after his death—The Enchanter—centers on a jeweler who hangs around playgrounds and forces himself into gruesome sex and marriage with a vachelike mother, all for the sake of witnessing her death and then possessing and enjoying her twelve-year-old daughter. (73-4).
Hitchens’s essay has a lot to do with Lolita and a lot less to do with The Enchanter, in fact he only employs the novella (god how I despise that term) as a means of showing that Nabokov had reflected of the tendency of grown men to “notice” young girls who are either developing or at a point where they are about to “blossom.” Still this was enough for me to pick up a copy of the book and begin reading, and after reading Lolita the relevance of The Enchanter isn’t lost on me. In fact my impression now is one of concern for the fact that this book is either ignored or else largely untouched by teachers and writers.
The Enchanter is exactly what Hitchens laid out in Hurricane Lolita. A grown man who works as a jeweler has an erotic obsession with little girls and spends time in playgrounds watching them play when he sees a twelve year old girl that he becomes enraptured with. He marries the girl’s mother and endures her illnesses until she dies at which point he takes the girl and attempts to rape her in a hotel room. Unlike Lolita however, the young girl resists at the first encounter by screaming which causes pandemonium and the narrator realizes that he is done for and promptly throws himself in front of a moving truck where he’s struck and then dragged for several feet before dying.
What’s arguably the most shocking element of The Enchanter, at least during the first reading, is that the narrator has no hesitance or caution in describing the girls’ physical body, or else his outright desire for her. Perhaps it’s simply because I read Lolita first, and became wooed by Humbert Humbert’s “fancy prose style,” but I found myself regularly struck by the writing and in all deference for myself, it really takes a lot to shock me. I think what’s most disturbing about The Enchanter is the honesty.
If the reader just observes one scene near the end when the narrator is about to assault the child they might be able to observe the honesty I’m talking about:
Then, starting little by little to cast his spell, he began passing his magic wand above her body, almost touching the skin, torturing himself with her attraction, her visible proximity, the fantastic confrontation permitted by the slumber of this naked girl, whome he was measuring, as it were, with an enchanted yardstick—until she made a faint motion, and turned her face away with a barely audible, somnolent smack of her lips. Everything again froze still, and now, amid her brown locks, he could make out her crimson border of her ear and the palm of her liberated hand, forgotten in its previous position. Onward, onward. (73).
“Magic wand” and “Yardstick” means penis. At least that’s what I thought when I read this scene. I imagined a man holding his dick and performing his “measurements” and doing my best to hold back the vomit that was collecting in my throat while doing so. I still believe that “Magic wand” does mean penis and that this is everything that the reader would at first believe. What holds me back from believing this scene to be nothing but grotesque pedophilia however is Nabokov, because over the course of a career the man was able to prove himself duly capable of achieving and creating magic with his prose. And despite the sexual corruption that’s taking place in this passage, I’ve realized that Nabokov’s ultimate aim with this small book is to begin to tell a fairy tale that would eventually become Lolita.
Before I get to that though I first want to talk about spreading seed. Obviously with the content under discussion this may seem a grotesque locution, but it’s an important idea nonetheless.
Creative writing despite some appearances is not an exercise in which ideas simply follow an arrow, in fact the actual process of writing is a damn clusterfuck that can sometimes make the Gordian Knot look like a ripped shoelace. Ideas can come and go in an instant, and some images that seem sublime inside of the writer’s head can look like whale vomit once they’re on the page. This can diminish the passion of the artist who clung to those inward notions as if they were the one true faith and the reality of their weak prose can kill an idea and lead one to alcoholism or opium addiction, whichever’s sexier this century.
This is all a long way of saying that creative ideas take time in order to gel or establish themselves and so writers often “spread seeds” of ideas over long periods of time. This can usually just be a single sentence written hastily on the back of a receipt, a small picture drawn in a moment in a sketchbook, or in the case of Tolkien one single sentence written on a blank page of an exam book. Writers, the ones that are worth the reader’s time anyway, are always thinking and writing ideas down, spreading seeds out to the wind hoping something will grow.
With this metaphor in hand, I read The Enchanter as a worthwhile book all it’s own, but at the same time I believe the reader would find great value in this book as a seed that was spread hoping for something greater. And looking at just one passage this is most certainly the case. The narrator is describing how he will keep the young girl all his own:
Yet, precisely because during the first two years or so the captive would be ignorant of the temporarily noxious nexus between the puppet in her hands and the puppet-master’s panting, between the plum in her mouth the rapture of the distant tree, he would have to be particularly cautious, not to let her go anywhere alone, make frequent changes of domicile (the ideal would be vanilla in a blind garden), keep a sharp eye out lest she make friends with other children or have occasion to start chatting with the woman from the greengrocer’s or the char, […]. (55).
This passage is almost word for word of the conspiracies of Humbert Humbert and his “beloved” Lolita and as such demonstrates that much of The Enchanter was an early idea for the later novel which would come to define Nabokov’s artistic legacy.
But despite I feel like there is a much more important idea to be discovered through The Enchanter because if the reader thinks of the short book as nothing but an early pre-Lolita sketch, they miss something really powerful which is the argument that the entire story is a fairy-tale.
The “Magic Wand” may just be Nabokov having a little fun with words and trying to play around with language as his usual habit. But the text of The Enchanter works often like a fairy tale for the nameless narrator at times becomes a kind of “big-bad-wolf” or else a master illusionist much like the wicked sorcerers and witches that would haunt fairy tales. The man is working constantly to hide his true self beneath the appearance of a father and husband so that he can get closer and closer to achieving his ultimate goal. Much like the evil enchanters of fairy tales, the jeweler weaves an illusion throughout the text leaving the little girl and the mother open and susceptible to his eventual predation.
His ability as an illusionist is expressed clearly in one later passage:
Against the light of that happiness, no matter what age she attained—seventeen, twenty—her present image would always transpire through her metamorphoses, nourishing their translucent strata from its internal fountainhead. And this very process would allow him, with no loss or diminishment, to savor each unblemished stage of her transformations. Besides she herself, delineated and elongated into womanhood, would never again be free to dissociate, in her consciousness and her memory, her own development from that of their love, her childhood recollections from her recollections of male tenderness. Consequently, past, present, and future would appear to her as a single radiance whose source had emanated, as she had herself, from him, from her viviparous lover. (56-7).
There is a great deal taking place in this small passage, but in fact this quote provides absolutely everything that is taking place in The Enchanter. What’s most important I suppose is the question: what in the sam-hill-fuck does viviparous mean? Curious I googled it and stumbled upon the following definition care of the Oxford English Dictionary:
(of an animal) bringing forth live young which have developed inside the body of the parent.
(of a plant) reproducing from buds which form plantlets while still attached to the parent plant, or from seeds which germinate within the fruit.
Putting aside the atrociousness that is the concept of a man actually contemplating fucking his own offspring, what’s important in the language of this passage is the fact that the narrator is contemplating and constructing the illusion for his victim. The young girl, who fortunately never falls victim to this odious man, would live in a dream, or at least a reality in which there was no real sense of time. The man would be the sole-locus of her entire world, and by implication her existence would serve only to pleasure him sexually and perhaps later her children sired by this perverted cretin. This is shocking enough, and I know the reader will almost certainly be reviled by the sexual nature of this manipulation, but it’s in this plan that Nabokov succeeds in making a kind of fairy tale.
The narrator of The Enchanter might just be a jeweler who wants to rape a twelve year old girl, but the complexity of his vision is almost one of a fairy-tale sorcerer who wants to suck the life out a child. In this way, even if Nabokov is creating the early sketch of a later novel, he’s establishing a modern fairy tale and reminding his reader that while the surface world has altered, the core idea of the story is one that is all too familiar.
There will always be individuals who hate themselves, or revile their bodies, and rather than try to overcome that petty emotion they prey upon the weak. Pedophiles are the monsters that were hiding behind trees in old tales, and it’s foolish to think that, just because the world is paved in concrete and steel and glass towers, that such monsters would simply disappear.
In fact the opposite is true, the wicked wizards and witches who would use what magic they had to hurt children are still around, and like those old illusionists, they’re willing to caste visions that enchant those who fall prey to it.
All quotes taken from The Enchanter were from the paperback Vintage edition. All Quotes from Vladimir Nabkov: Hurrican Lolita were taken from the First Edition 12 Books Hardback of Arguably, however I have provided a link to the article below if the reader can’t find a copy of the book.
The definition for Viviparous was provided by the online Oxford English Dictionary which the reader can read for themselves by following the link below: