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“Nymphets do not occur in polar regions.”

March 27, 2011

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. pp. 33-34.

Early in the novel, Humbert Humbert makes a journey to the Canadian arctic that is rarely remarked upon by either Nobokov or arctic scholars. Amidst all the “blankness and boredom” HH regains his health while remaining sardonically aloof to what he purports to be misguided scientific energy to study “glacial drifts, drumlins, and gremlins, and kremlins.” Glacial drifts and drumlins are arctic phenomena; gremlins are mischievous gnomes found in fairy tales and their inclusion alludes to HH’s disdain for the obtuse specialization of the scientists; and kremlins would be a reference to Soviet interests in the Arctic during the cold war (Lolita was first published in 1955; Nabokov’s family also had to flee into exile during the Russian Revolution).

Another, somewhat tenuous, reference could be attached to John Ray, Jr., the “writer” of the Introduction. Alfred Appel, Jr., the annotator of the Vintage edition, connects John Ray, Jr. to John Ray the 17th century naturalist that first proposed a definition for what constitutes a species. Given that Nabokov was a taxonomist of lepidoptera, this makes sense. However, especially with the rich allusive power of Nabokovian diction, why stop there? I suggest an alternate candidate for the allusion. John Rae was a 19th century Scottish explorer of the Arctic who first brought word to England of the fate of the lost Franklin expedition. He later died in ignominy for his troubles after proposing that Englishmen might, in fact, have eaten Englishmen. I prefer this interpretation of the name given that John Rae was a beloved companion of the Netsilik Inuit around Boothia Peninsula and they gave him the name “Aglooka”: he who takes long strides. Instead of taking deep draft war ships into the arctic ice, Rae traveled overland by dog sled, traveled with Inuit guides, and wore and ate appropriate arctic clothing and food. This reading of the introduction to the novel somewhat ameliorates HH’s own virulent racism in his descriptions of encounters with Inuit and is another indicator of how untrustworthy HH is as a narrator.

One Comment
  1. As a Nabokovian aside, I counter HH’s assertion that “nymphets do not occur in polar regions,” with the observation that if nymphets do not, nymphalidae certainly do.

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