The Lolita Question

Courtesy Everett Collection

Lolita is 50. Much ink has been poured to toast the anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, once banned as pornography but now considered a 20th-century classic. Many writers have revisited its heroine, the wayward adolescent from a New England suburb, and her seducer and stepfather Humbert Humbert.

But Stanford’s hold on the racy masterpiece has been overlooked.

One house remembers: a Spanish-style bungalow on Sequoia Avenue in Palo Alto. It has been in the same family for generations, and the current occupant recalls his grandmother’s story that Lolita, or at least the first draft of it, was written under their roof.

That’s unlikely, even though the author lived there during a Stanford teaching appointment in 1941 and the idea for the book had been gestating in his mind for some time. He spent only a few months on campus, and they were busy ones. But it does seem likely that Nabokov’s Lolita fever began in earnest on Sequoia Avenue. Biographers argue that Lolita’s infamous narrator, the self-deluding Humbert, was inspired in part by the man who started Stanford’s Slavic department, Professor Henry Lanz. While the portrait is hardly flattering, it should be remembered that Lolita is a work of fiction that reflects many influences (See Sidebar).

Whatever inspiration Nabokov drew from the cosmopolitan man who became his chess companion that summer, he owed Lanz an enormous debt: the professor paid for Nabokov’s appointment out of his own pocket, forfeiting his summer salary to back the Russian novelist, a complete unknown in America. Nabokov told his biographer Andrew Field that he considered this job his “first success.”

Nabokov needed the break desperately. Russia had banned his writings as “anti-Soviet.” Living in Berlin with his Jewish wife, Véra, from 1922 to 1937, he wrote in Russian under the name Vladimir Sirin. (The Hoover Institution archives preserve a sampling of Sirin’s numerous rejection slips for English editions of his books.) After Berlin, they lived in poverty if not near-starvation in Paris, the more conventional haunt of Russian émigrés. They left for New York a few weeks before the Nazi tanks rolled in and moved into a seedy little flat with their 6-year-old son, Dmitri.

So the Stanford appointment was manna and the westward journey a portal into another world. Nabokov initially described the United States as “a cultured country of endless variety,” and came to embrace it wholeheartedly. “America is my home now,” he later said. “It is my country. The intellectual life suits me better than any other country in the world. I have more friends .  .  . more kindred souls than anywhere.”

The Nabokovs traveled westward by car, through the open expanses of the Appalachians, the small towns of Tennessee and Arkansas, the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona—always accompanied by Nabokov’s butterfly nets; he was a noted, if self-taught, lepidopterist. (He captured moths at a Texas gas station and an undescribed species of butterfly in the Grand Canyon.) It must have been an eye-opener for the weary exiles after urban, war-torn Europe.

Staying in motels along the way, the family also got a taste of American rootlessness at Hotel General Shelby, Maple Shade Cottage, Wonderland Motor Courts, El Rey Courts, Bright Angel Lodge, Mission Court. Nabokov recounted that when someone at a garage would ask Dmitri, “Sonny, where do you live?” the boy would reply, “In little houses by the road.” “It was very exact,” Nabokov remarked.

He conceded that his first American trek was the inspiration for Humbert’s frenzied cross-country odyssey with his unhappy captive, Lolita. The motels they stayed at became depressing landmarks for kitschy America, a setup for Humbert’s pretentious world-weariness: “We came to know—nous connûmes, to use a Flaubertian intonation—the stone cottages under enormous Chateaubriandesque trees, the brick unit, the adobe unit, the stucco court, on what the Tour Book of the Automobile Association describes as ‘shaded’ or ‘spacious’ or ‘landscaped’ grounds,” Humbert recalls.

Although one contemporary reviewer called the book “hundred-proof intellectual farce,” some of the sting must be lost on today’s readers. The “modern” gum-chewing teen addicted to movie magazines and listening to Elvis on the radio is as much a quaint period piece now as the Gibson Girl was then—“.  .  .  the Lolita of the strident voice and rich brown hair—of bangs and the swirls at the sides and the curls at the back, and the sticky hot neck, and the vulgar vocabulary—‘revolting,’ ‘super,’ ‘luscious,’ ‘goon,’ ‘drip’.  .  .  .”

Nabokov’s wit caused as much outrage as the raciness of the story. Was it smut or a work of genius? Author Elizabeth Janeway, in her 1958 New York Times review, challenged Nabokov’s claim that Lolita is a story without a moral, calling it “classically tragic, a most perfectly realized expression of the moral truth” of lust: “Possessed, insatiable, he can never stop wanting Lolita because he never really has her, he has only her body. . . . Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh—which is the eternal and universal nature of passion.”

Nearly 50 years later, an Iranian woman has interpreted the story through a different lens. From Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003): “This is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed her. The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.”

So Lolita, although possibly the funniest serious novel ever written, is mined with anguish. In prison the depraved Humbert writes, “I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.”

Like the infamous Humbert, Henry Lanz was a good-looking, charming, dislocated European intellectual. His father was an American working in Moscow, where Lanz was born in 1886. According to a 1934 Stanford News account, Lanz was a “tall, narrow man with rounded shoulders, gently penetrating black eyes.” He spent two years at the University of Moscow (where he took part in student political disturbances, his American citizenship shielding him from a Siberian sentence) and two years teaching at Beethoven’s School of Music in Moscow then migrated to Germany to study. After his landlord intervened to get him German identification in lieu of a passport, Lanz was listed by the Russian authorities as a German citizen.

At the outbreak of World War I, he tried to enlist in the American, Russian and English armies, and was rejected by all three: his only legal place of residence was a prison. While marking time in London, however—where he needed a passport either to leave or remain—he married the 14-year-old daughter of a friend.

America, embracing the passport-challenged, was a natural destination, and Lanz found a wartime role at last, teaching English to American soldiers of Slavic descent at Camp Fremont in Menlo Park. He began teaching Russian privately to Stanford students in 1918, gradually establishing a department and becoming a professor. In that less multicultural era, Lanz dazzled Stanford. His 17-year-old faculty wife and year-old child caused a frisson in the small campus community.

Lanz was interested in everything—music to mathematics, logic to aesthetics, international affairs to community problems. And yet, a colleague later recalled, “Although not, in any conventional or merely external sense, a religious man, Professor Lanz was something of a mystic. Frequently, when one met him in the Quad, the warm and friendly smile that would light up his face seemed to break through an otherworldly look which signified more than professorial absentmindedness or (what his colleagues in philosophy liked, jokingly, to chide him about) his ‘disorientation to the space-time world’—a look which seemed to mean that to him the affairs of this life, even academic ones, were not worthy of too much concern.  .  .  .”

Over the chessboard, Lanz confided a dark secret that Nabokov told biographer Field: the memorably dapper professor led a double life. On weekends, he drove to the country to participate in orgies with “nymphets.” He forced his wife to dress as a child. Another prominent Nabokov scholar and biographer, Brian Boyd, also concluded that Lanz was a “nympholept” after reviewing Nabokov’s extensive correspondence in the New York Public Library.

Lanz was best known for his 1941 book, In Quest of Morals.

Was Lanz Humbert? Nabokov both denied and affirmed it to Field: “No, no, no. I may have had him in the back of my mind. He himself was what is called a fountainist, like Bloom in Ulysses. First of all, this is the commonest thing. In Swiss papers they always call them un triste individuel. And I was always interested in psychology. I knew my Havelock Ellis rather well.  .  .  .”

Lanz died unexpectedly on November 1, 1945, at 59. “The tragedy of his death was intensified, for his many friends, by the sudden and unexpected way his illness developed, since the very day before it started he appeared perfectly well,” Stanford’s memorial resolution states. The Stanford Alumni Review, however, attributed his death to a liver ailment aggravated by a long infection and peritonitis. Nabokov hinted darkly that Lanz attempted suicide twice, and succeeded on the second try.

To return to certainty, then, Lanz and Nabokov played 214 chess matches that summer of 1941. The image of the two at chess hour after hour almost every evening is compelling, a case of one strange man meeting another. Or was it two men, meeting a third?

For there is another possible reflection of Lanz in Lolita: Gaston Godin—a “flabby dough-faced, melancholy bachelor,” a French pedophile professor who is not the friendly scholar he seems. He helps create a home for Humbert and his “daughter,” but, says the ungrateful Humbert, his chess game was not up to snuff: “Wheezing he would meditate for ten minutes—then make a losing move.”

Was this Lanz? According to Field, “When they played chess, every time that Nabokov offered Lanz a sacrifice, he would madly leap at it, then hold it and lower it back to the board horribly slowly, but the temptation would always prove overwhelming, and he would slip it away again just as it touched the board. Then he would invariably find himself in checkmate within several moves.”

Memories differ, however. Nabokov gloated that he won 205 matches; the late professor Cyril Bryner recalled, “Nabokov lost as many as he won, and was not a happy loser.”

Nabokov dismissed the implication that his matches with Lanz are echoed in Gaston Godin, but others have made the connection. As the late Nabokov scholar Carl Proffer wrote, “the real Nabokov has a perfect right to create a fictitious Nabokov if he wants to  .  .  .  one should always be suspicious, because casual and credulous readers will share the fate of Nabokov’s butterflies.”

If the link, however deliberate or subliminal, held true, it would provide a characteristic Nabokovian hall of mirrors. In Lolita, we read of a curious chess game in which Gaston, who may have been modeled on Lanz, engages in a battle of wits with Humbert, who may also have been modeled on Lanz.

We may never know whether Nabokov began to scribble his first notes for Lolita in Palo Alto. But he did write his first English poem in 20 years here (he was at home in Russian, French and English and conversant in German). “The Softest of Tongues” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in December 1941. In it, Nabokov bids farewell to his true love, the Russian language, and clumsily confronts his new amour, the English tongue, in his quest “for heart and art.” (“What agony it was, in the early ’forties, to switch from Russian to English,” he wrote in a letter in 1954, the year he finished Lolita.) Putting his pseudonymous career as a Russian writer behind him, he continued to cite Vladimir Sirin’s wit and wisdom nostalgically in his classroom lectures.

Nabokov taught two courses at Stanford: Modern Russian Literature, Tuesday to Friday at 9 a.m., and, in conjunction with the department of speech and drama, The Art of Writing, Tuesday to Thursday at 11 a.m. Two of his Stanford public lectures on drama, translated by his son Dmitri, were published in 1984. While only a few students enrolled (two in the first, four in the other, according to the Stanford register), a number of interested faculty and community members attended, spreading Nabokov’s local fame.

A few might have been deceived into believing the performances were effortless. They weren’t. “My husband is working much and gets rather tired, not so much from the lectures (7 a week) as from preparing for each one,” Véra is quoted saying in Stacy Schiff’s biography, Véra. “Not finding any decent translations of the Russian classics, he translates them for himself for his students.  .  .  . And so teaching Russian literature is, of course, very exhausting.” Nabokov said he’d never worked so hard in his life.

Arriving 15 minutes late for his first class, wearing sneakers with holes and no socks, he quickly embodied the cliché of the bohemian professor. According to Field, students could not work up the nerve to ask him how to pronounce his name. One student remembered him this way:

“I don’t recall taking any notes in that class. It would have been rather like scribbling notes when Michelangelo talked about how he had designed and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In any event, I don’t recall that he lectured in any conventional sense of the term. He shared with us his creative activity and experience. Never was there richer fare in any course taught on a college campus, but it was as impossible to reduce to notes as to convert a Rolls-Royce into tin cans with a tack hammer."

CYNTHIA HAVEN frequently writes on arts and letters for Stanford.