My rating: 3 of 5 stars
VN’s first pass at the Lolita subject matter, The Enchanter was written in 1939—making it one of the author’s last works composed in Russian—but not published until 1986, in this translation by Dmitri Nabokov, who details the novella’s origin and complex textual history in a long afterword to this book.
The novella is written in third person but from the close POV of its nameless protagonist (all the characters are nameless, in fact, except for one domestic servant called Maria who appears only briefly); the protagonist is a well-to-do pedophile approaching middle age who spends a great deal of time attempting to rationalize his desires—his tortuous ruminations take up the first three pages, to no persuasive effect, lacking even the faux scholarship or mythical veneer of Humbert’s later nymphology. But when the protagonist meets a 12-year-old girl in the company of her temporary guardian, a woman caring for the child due to her mother’s ill health, he spies his chance to realize his dream of enacting his evil desire. In due time—the novella spans 11 months of an unspecified two years, from July to June—he marries the girl’s ailing widowed mother and, after the mother’s death, becomes the girl’s legal guardian and takes her to the south of France. There, in a hotel room, he masturbates over her while she sleeps; but when she awakens and screams loudly enough to summon everyone in the vicinity, he flees and throws himself under a passing truck.
The Enchanter is beautifully written and translated, and Nabokov’s delicate patterning of motifs is evident, from the references, titular and otherwise, to fairy tales, suggesting that European civilization has long posed a danger to adolescent girls, to the image of the anti-hero’s clock-without-hands, its blank face an index of his own emptiness, its timekeeping evocative of the force he rebels against (by literally fetishizing youth) and which, as the conveyance of fate, will crush him in the end. The Enchanter is also surprisingly sexually explicit, perhaps overly so in its long descriptions of the girl’s body, a pattern that comes to a head, as it were, with the description of the protagonist’s ejaculation (“senselessly discharging molten wax”) in the final pages. The novella’s several forays into surrealism also work well, most notably when the protagonist recalls a young girl who had shown him “some black salad devouring a green rabbit,” as well as at the conclusion, when the delirious anti-hero, on the point of guiltily consummating his desire, experiences the hotel as a labyrinth or warren, a kind of nightmare space. Manipulating sensationalist material into a more ambitious subjective disarrangement of the real, Nabokov is at the point where Poe meets Kafka.
Yet The Enchanter obviously lacks the weight of Lolita. While the novella suggests, with Nabokov’s characteristic social, political, and ethical indirection, the disposability of children that allows them to become prey, and pursues Nabokov’s theme of art as both danger (because illusion and obsession may colonize the real) and redemption (because art is the proper vehicle for illusion and obsession), its social ambit is much smaller than its successor’s, which encompasses not only Europe’s history of violence but also America’s 1950s culture of coarse modernity. Combine that with its lack of the later novel’s tact—sometimes the novella seems to indulge the pornographic interest it otherwise seems to want to contest—and we have a minor work, distinguished on its own merit, but mostly renowned as a sketch for a masterpiece.