by Vladimir Nabokov
Paperback, 109 pages
Vintage International, 1991
Vladimir Nabokov believed that "There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three--storyteller, teacher, enchanter--but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer."1
It's somewhat ironic, then, that a brilliant writer like Nabokov fails to work his usual magic with The Enchanter.
The Enchanter tells the story of a middle-aged pedophile who, after meeting a beautiful twelve-year-old girl, plans to marry and dispatch her mother in order to possess her. Sound familiar? That is, in a tiny nutshell, also the plot of Nabokov's later novel, Lolita, and it is nearly impossible to discuss The Enchanter without the presence of her younger and more successful sister. And unfortunately, the comparison is not flattering for The Enchanter.
The narrative structure of the novella, divided between a narrator and the perspective of the unnamed man, seems unwieldy. The opening paragraphs detailing the thoughts of the protagonist, for example, are an overwrought rationalization of pedophilia, lacking the persuasive suaveness of Lolita's protagonist-cum-narrator Humbert Humbert.
The Enchanter is sorely lacking characterization. This is highly unusual for a Nabokov book, and the worst failing of this novella. The protagonist's love for young girls is barely explained and hardly motivated; there is no Annabel Lee to his Humbert Humbert. The ailing mother is barely more than a sharp physical description.
And the girl in The Enchanter, who should be the heart of the book, is not even given a name. Humbert Humbert gives his nymphet her infamous nickname, which becomes an integral part of the novel. Lolita's first paragraph strikes this point home:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.2
Dolores Haze leaps off the pages of Lolita as a real, living girl. The unnamed girl of The Enchanter could be a cat, for all it mattered. She is the passive and naive object of the protagonist's affections, a mere plot device.
It is a little unfair to compare The Enchanter to Lolita, though. It's too easy in hindsight to see that The Enchanter could have been far better.
Some of The Enchanter's stylistic deficiencies are the result of a rather literal translation. Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir's son, abided by the philosophy that his father developed while working on his criticism and translation of Eugene Onegin. That is, any translation is inferior to the original, but a literal translation, ungainly as it may be, is superior to any interpretation.
The elder Nabokov bent his rule when translating his own Russian-language novels to English, taking an author's prerogative to revise and rewrite during translation. The Enchanter was translated faithfully by Dmitri, but Vladimir had passed away and unable to revise his nearly forgotten work.
But there are glimpses of brilliance in The Enchanter, despite the shortcomings. Nabokov's attention to detail has not flagged, displayed in some sparkling descriptions. The description of the girl nearly overcomes her lack of character, forcing the reader to feel some of the protagonist's forbidden desire. Some of Nabokov's clever wordplay survives in the translation, such as "some black salad devouring a green rabbit"3 describing the protagonist's loss of perspective when ogling girls. And the twists of fate that thwart and assist the protagonist foreshadow some of Lolita's complexity.
The Vintage International edition of The Enchanter also features a postscript written by Dmitri Nabokov that sheds some light on the circumstances behind novella and his father's process. The postscript does gloss over many of The Enchanter's failings, but is interesting nonetheless.
Ultimately, The Enchanter is a failure. It proves to be only a pale shadow of its sister novel. However, The Enchanter is a diamond in the rough and should be read for its own merits along with its role as a companion to Lolita. But read Lolita first.
1. Vladimir Nabokov. Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Bruccoli Clark, 1980), 5.
2. Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita. (New York: Vintage International, 1997), 1.
3. Vladimir Nabokov. The Enchanter. (New York: Vintage Interational, 1991), 7.
This review was written for The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.