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ArribaAbajo «Cruel and Crude»: Nabokov Reading Cervantes

Catherine Kunce

University oF Denver

En sus Conferencias sobre 'Don Quijote', publicadas póstumamente, Vladimir Nabokov tacha el magnum opus de Cervantes de «cruel y tosco». Nabokov señala una multitud de defectos en la obra. En particular, critica su violencia, su tratamiento de la cuestión «muerta» de los libros de caballerías, su falta de oportunismo artístico, y su conclusión. Una gran parte de esta calumnia parece estar derivada de la inhabilidad de Nabokov por captar la ironía, muchas veces sutil, de Cervantes. Mientras Nabokov descubre innumerables discrepancias en la obra, es incapaz de ver que esas mismas «discrepancias» evidencian la ironía cervantina. Irónicamente, la Lolita del propio Nabokov imita muchos aspectos del Quijote. Entre otras cosas, remeda la técnica metaficticia, la conclusión, la parodia del amor cortés, los tres niveles narrativos, y, más significativamente, la ironía del Quijote. Es interesante que, además de señalar estas semejanzas estructurales, los críticos han alabado y censurado Lolita y Don Quijote por las mismas razones.

Many cervantistas will recall that Vladimir Nabokov famously objected to Don Quixote because of its «hideous cruelty -with or without the author's intent- which riddles the whole book and befouls its humor» (52). A more contemporary look at «hideous cruelty», intentional or otherwise, may be in order here. While Don Quixote's inability to see the «real» Dulcinea does no harm to Aldonza Lorenzo, Humbert's disregard of the «real» Dolores enslaves a vulnerable and lonely pre-pubescent child and befouls the humor of Nabokov's Lolita. That Humbert's actions destroy Lolita psychologically is evidenced by his parenthetical recollection of her «sobs in the night -every night- the moment I feigned sleep» (168). Lolita sobs for good reason: Humbert himself admits that, to Lolita, he is «not a boy friend, not a glamour man, not a pal, not even a person at all, but just two eyes and a foot of engorged brawn» (285). Lolita's attempts to escape from those eyes and brawn only increase Humbert's rapacity: «thrusting my fatherly fingers into Lo's hair from behind, and then gently but firmly clasping them around the nape of her neck, I would then lead my reluctant pet to our small home for a quick connection before dinner» (166). Nabokov fans have tended to regard this rape of a resistant child as cavalierly   —94→   as does his hero. The time has come to rethink the label of «hideous cruelty», which is radically qualified by Nabokov's use, and abuse, of Cervantes.

In a series of lectures during the 1952 Spring semester at Harvard, Vladimir Nabokov reviled Don Quixote and proclaimed Cervantes' work «crude and cruel» (Nabokov xiii). Just as Sansón Carrasco hopes to disclose an unadorned reality to Don Quixote, Nabokov intends to reveal the «unvarnished» value of an icon. And like Sansón Carrasco, Nabokov eventually utilizes the very same tricks of his traduced, «deluded» elder. Nabokov's posthumously published Lectures on Don Quixote divulges Nabokov's disregard of Cervantes' irony -the same trope Nabokov employs in Lolita. This essay will explore Nabokov's idiosyncratic apprehension of Cervantes' style and, in passing, will show the many ways in which Lolita is a direct descendant of Don Quixote. While Nabokov criticizes Don Quixote, he simultaneously imitates Cervantes.

Nabokov begins by accusing Cervantes of being ingenuous in castigating chivalric romances, in particular, for «their lack of truth» (40). Following the lead of Madariaga, Nabokov reproaches Cervantes for confusing

the issue by committing the very mistakes -mistakes against taste and truth- that he, Cervantes the critic, laughs at when discussing books of chivalry; for just as the people in those books, so his own madmen and maidens, sundry shepherds, et cetera, run wild in the Sierra Morena and compose poems in a most artificial and ornate style that makes the reader's gorge rise.


The late Stephen Gilman, however, caustically protests that Nabokov, «the author of that most painfully méchant of novels, Bend Sinister,... professed to be shocked both by the cruelty of Cervantes' treatment of his hero and by the gales of laughter that that cruelty supposedly provoked» (43). But Gilman reminds us that Cervantes' «two supremely naive protagonists are used in order to illuminate ironically a society, swollen with self-importance, that refused to make a place for him despite his past heroism» (44). Gilman places Cervantes in the larger tradition of the novel, concluding that «it was Fielding's conscious adaptation of Cervantine irony that opened the way to the future of the novel» (45). To the degree, then, that Nabokov refuses Cervantes his irony, he impugns the tenor of his own novels.


Beyond Nabokov's insensitivity to Cervantine irony lies the problem of his use of Cervantes' parodic «courtly love» theme in his own Lolita. Lionel Trilling observes that Lolita engages chivalric romance motifs, and he iterates its theme compulsively: «Lolita is about love... Lolita is not about sex, but about love... It is about love» (15). In so arguing, Trilling points to Nabokov's incorporation of «a love which European literature has dealt with since time immemorial but with especial intensity since the Arthurian romances and the code of courtly love» (15). Trilling hammers out the amazing argument that a middle-aged «intellectual's» abduction and sexual abuse of a virtual child are predicated upon «courtly love» motifs:

the essential condition of this kind of [courtly] love was that it had nothing to do with marriage and could not possibly exist in marriage. Alanus Capellanus in his manual on courtly love set it down as perfectly obvious doctrine that a husband and wife cannot be lovers. The reason was that theirs was a practical and contractual relationship, having reference to estates and progeny.


Arguing that Nabokov had to select a tabooed passion in order to put the lovers «beyond the pale of society», Trilling will not acknowledge that, even if Lolita does resemble «the cruel mistress» by «withholding the favor of her feeling», Humbert Humbert's repeated rapes of Lolita put the «lovers» well «beyond the pale» of courtly love conventions. I believe Trilling goes completely astray when he claims that Humbert's actions towards Lolita «do not constitute a mode of behavior very different from that of any American father to his adolescent daughter» (13140). By reading Lolita's story from the point of view that Humbert intends, Trilling ironically has fallen into the «emotional trap» that Trilling himself suspects Nabokov has set for his readers (Trilling 19). Just as Nabokov failed to understand that Cervantes parodies courtly love, Trilling neglects to realize that Nabokov's «courtly love conventions» themselves are darkly parodic.

The connection that persists between the parodic courtly love conventions in Don Quixote and Lolita is a displacement of   —96→   the connection between the two imaginatively created women of both stories. Dulcinea does not exist, except, of course, as a fictionalization of Aldonza Lorenzo, recycled into Dulcinea del Toboso because, to Don Quixote's mind, «the name was musical, uncommon, and significant» (29). Strikingly reminiscent of Don Quixote's fabrication of the «Lady of his Thoughts» is Humbert's creation of the girl who possesses his mind. As a youth, Humbert had been in love with a young girl named Annabel. His love for her, like Don Quixote's love for Aldonza, remains unconsummated, and Humbert becomes obsessed with young girls who are the same age as Annabel when Humbert was infatuated with her. He finally breaks Annabel's «spell by incarnating her in another» (17). Humbert, by his own admission, becomes the creator of Lolita. He creates Lolita's very name as well. As Guy Davenport notes, «Lolita» is a «diminutive of a Spanish name, Dolores» (xvii), which, in its Latin sound and alliteration, presents the same assonance as «Dulcinea del Toboso». Furthermore, like Don Quixote, Humbert's Pygmalion-like appreciation of his own creation or the name of his own creation corresponds to Don Quixote's fondness for Dulcinea's name. Both «creators» become enamored of the very sound of their erotic onomastics. Lolita begins with Humbert's consideration of his cruel mistress' name:

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.


Lolita actually exists, but Humbert's disregard of her personhood is as conspicuous as Don Quixote's disregard for the «actual» Aldonza.

There is a further irony to consider, this time, in Nabokov's disdain for the «violence» in Don Quixote. The word requires some scrutiny. Nabokov's complaints of the innumerable beatings and the duchess and duke's «playful» inhumanity towards Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are well taken, but this «violence» is not for the mindless amusement of cloddish readers, as Nabokov suggests: rather, it carries a psychological message. Ruth El Saffar observes that «violence is a characteristic of the pastoral that has frequently been commented upon» (23) and cites the story of Marcela and Grisóstomo (Chapter 11) as «evidence of the violence and confusion simmering just beneath the placid surface of song and love that the literary pastoral promotes»   —97→   (60). Even though Cervantes' parody of pastoral necessitates the use of violence, Don Quixote himself never kills anyone (even accidentally) throughout the entire two books. Humbert, on the other hand, is guilty of murder: he kills Clare Quilty, Lolita's «liberator», and the novel is an extended rationalization of this «indecent» act. It seems that Nabokov abhors physical abuse, but accepts it when described with what he deems finesse. In this case, Humbert's defense of his «love» for Lolita aims to blind readers: by the end of the novel, the reader has all but forgotten that Humbert writes his defense «in legal captivity» while he awaits his trial for the murder to which he has confessed (5). Furthermore, the reader has long since forgotten that Humbert married and then had plans to kill Lolita's mother, in order to get the girl. An automobile, however, saves him the bother. For all of the broken bones, bloodied noses, and bruises Don Quixote sustains and administers, Cervantes judiciously refrains from making the violence of either his knight errant or his adversaries fatal. In an almost cartoon-like fashion, characters recover and continue their exploits. But in Lolita, the «hero» commits first degree murder and feels no remorse about it. In the scene where Humbert kills Quilty (this takes several well-written, descriptive pages), Humbert shoots Quilty several times, and still the wounded man lives: «I took aim at his head, and he retired to the master bedroom with a burst of royal purple where his ear had been... and in a nightmare of wonder I saw this blood-spattered but still buoyant person get into his bed and wrap himself up in the chaotic bedclothes» (306). In light of Lolita's frequent and sometimes graphic brutality, Nabokov's sanctimonious denunciation of violence in Don Quixote seems, at the very least, remarkable.

Nabokov's concentration on Don Quixote in his 1951-1952 lectures influenced the writing of Lolita, published in 1955. Davenport speculates that «as [Nabokov] delivered these... lectures, part of his mind... must have been on a project concerning Courtly Love, its madness and follies, which would mature three years hence as Lolita» (xvii). Yet the resistance to the idea of imitation persists. Although Davenport finds a number of parallels between the two novels -the «picaresque journey as the 'harmonizing intuition' of the two works» (xvii), the madness of both «heroes»- he dismisses any notion of direct influence: «Lolita is too logically a progression of Nabokovian themes (the other as self, the generative power of delusions, the interplay of   —98→   sense and obsession) to have been influenced by a close and tedious reading of the Quixote» (xvii). Davenport's conclusion is complex, yet he seems to deny any immediate impact of Don Quixote on Lolita because he fails to perceive the implications of Nabokov's criticism of Cervantes. Moreover, one might ask, are not «the other as self», «the generative power of delusions», and «the interplay of sense and obsession», visibly Cervantine themes, too?

Critics might fail to apprehend the writers' common thematic interests, but Nabokov himself does not rebuke Cervantes exclusively for larger, preeminent issues. Nabokov detects an array of smaller «blemishes». In particular, he faults the ending of Don Quixote, because «when Don Quixote recants at the end of the book,... it is neither from gratitude to his Christian God, nor is it under divine compulsion -but because it conforms to the moral utilities of his dark day» (18). Nabokov seems not to notice that Cervantes is doing more than appealing to convention as an easy artistic solution to end his tale141. But Don Quixote's recantation exposes rather than «conforms to» the «moral utilities» of Cervantes' time. Nabokov misses the fine irony that Don Quixote is «confessing» to a compoundedly «mad» mission that sustains some of Christianity's loftiest, presumably antiquated, ideals. Don Quixote undertakes his quest, after all, because «many were the wrongs that had to be righted, grievances redressed, injustices made good, abuses removed, and duties discharged» (Cervantes 29). Don Quixote's final retraction represents more than his confessing to madness -it reflects his abandoning of an innocently noble and substantially Christian «mission». By having Don Quixote «confess», Cervantes unmasks both a virtue behind insanity, and an insanity behind a «virtuous» society's exacting of such «confessions».

Once again, Nabokov, in his own novel, represents the very thing against which he rails. Just as the «mad» Don Quixote abjures   —99→   his illusions on his deathbed in a way which approximates recantation, Humbert abandons or at least dispels his illusions concerning Lolita just before he dies. As Tamir-Ghez reminds us,

only at the end does [Humbert]... understand that he actually loves Lolita, not the nymphet in her... after confronting the grown-up, pregnant Lolita,... he understands himself and his love: '[...] I looked and looked at her, and I knew as clearly as I know that I am going to die, that I loved her...'

(279) (174)                

The closing paradigms are comparable. Humbert, like Don Quixote, discovers that his illusions, in this case the illusion of his false infatuation with «Lolita the nymphet», were grounded in an actual love of the «real» woman Lolita.

Just as Nabokov discredits the ending of Don Quixote, he deprecates Cervantes' attack upon the ruinous influence of the books of chivalry. Nabokov suspects, probably correctly, that «by 1605, the time of Don Quixote, the chivalry [sic] romances fad had almost faded away, and their decline had been noticeable for the last twenty or thirty years» (40). But Nabokov complains that Cervantes, perhaps like Don Quixote himself, kicks an almost dead horse. Nabokov appears to believe Cervantes' main purpose was to warn the Spanish against the dangers of reading too many books of chivalry. The marvelous irony of the advice of Cervantes' «friend» in the prologue to Don Quixote is lost on Nabokov. Cervantes is not playing anachronistic censor. The «friend» tells Cervantes to use a ready-made reference list, and «if it answers no other purpose, this long catalogue of authors will serve to give instant authority to your book» (13). More to the point,

no one will trouble himself to verify whether you have followed them or whether you have not, since it cannot possibly matter to him, especially as, if I understand you correctly, this book of yours has no need of any of the things you say it lacks, for it is, from beginning to end, an attack upon the books of chivalry, of which Aristotle never dreamed or St. Basil said a word or Cicero had any knowledge.


If we miss the humor of the «friend's» advice, we then run into Cervantes' mischievous claim that he listened, «in profound silence,... to what [his] friend said» (13). What Cervantes promises the relieved reader is «the story of Don Quixote of La Mancha... straightforward and free of extraneous matter» (14).


Over a century and a half later, Laurence Sterne, the prince of dilatory tactics, runs out of digressions -out of «extraneous matter»- in shorter time than Cervantes. But for all of Cervantes' convolutions, the novel's openly avowed purpose remains to show how the reading of too many chivalric romances perverts reason.

Nabokov follows Cervantes on this point, too. Even as the «real» Cervantes insists that the high moral purpose of Don Quixote is to destroy «that ill founded edifice of the books of chivalry» (13), the «real» Nabokov -that is, John Ray- ludicrously insists that «Lolita should make all of us -parents, social workers, educators- apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world» (8). Nabokov mimics, in his own preface, Cervantes' ironic moral postures. The lessons of the master would seem to have taken hold. Curiously analogous to the way in which Cervantes faults chivalric romance, Humbert in part justifies his own sexual obsession with young girls through allusions to literary figures. Humbert's lost childhood love, Annabel, ties his youthful and innocent lust with Poe's love for his child-bride, Virginia. Humbert, like Don Quixote, proceeds to draw precedents from other literary figures: «Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was nine»; «Hugh Broughton... has proved that Rahab was a harlot at ten years of age»; and «when Petrarch fell madly in love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve» (21). While Don Quixote hopes to emulate the knights about whom he reads, Humbert uses as a defense for child abuse those writers of fiction who have loved young girls. More significantly, Lolita itself is crammed with so many elusive literary allusions that, as Carl R. Proffer notes, «anyone who is going to read a somewhat sadistic author like Nabokov must keep encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks handy if he wants to understand even half of what is going on» (5). Likewise, Don Quixote can be seen as an encyclopedic parody of pastoral and chivalric romance, a work that also requires considerable «background», if one is to read it well.

At times Nabokov betrays a genuine appreciation for Don Quixote. He obliquely praises Cervantes, for example, by pointing to Avellaneda's spurious Don Quixote, «a cheap, cardboard Don Quixote, lacking completely the dreamy charm and the pathos   —101→   of the original gentleman» (79). Nabokov also laments Cervantes' failure to take advantage of this counterfeit Don Quixote: «How splendid it would have been if instead of that hasty and vague last encounter with the disguised Carrasco, who tumbles our knight in a jiffy, the real Don Quixote had fought his crucial battle with the false Don Quixote!» (81). Nabokov forgets that the «real» Don Quixote meets a character (Don Alvaro Tarfe) from the false novel and makes him visit a notary public to swear to his creator's ineptness. This metafictional encounter is far superior to a mere brawl. But even if Nabokov believes Cervantes misses an opportunity, Nabokov himself does not, for in the final encounter with death in Lolita, Humbert battles his own double, Clare «Quilty» (too close to «Guilty» for words, at least Nabokov's words). Humbert accuses the degenerate playwright of kidnaping Lolita and pronounces Quilty «a very sick man» (306). Douglas Fowler refers to Quilty as «Humbert's perverted and vicious Doppelgänger» (19). Nabokov thus takes advantage of the «missed opportunity» and has counterfeit Humberts confront one another in the final scene of his own work. His excitement over rewriting a part of Don Quixote manifests itself in writing Lolita. In further developing Cervantes' ingenious metafictional device of a «wrong Quixote» as the springboard for Humbert and Quilty's «showdown», Nabokov reveals where he went to school. He pays an oblique homage to his predecessor, even as he complains of his lack of opportunism.

Nabokov's imitations of Cervantes' prologue reveal a more ostensibly backhanded compliment. Marilyn Joan Edelstein, who discusses the self-consciously rhetorical devices Cervantes employs in the prologues to both parts of Don Quixote, observes a functional similarity in Nabokov's fictional preface to Lolita and in Nabokov's own afterword, «On a Book Entitled Lolita». While Cervantes' ire about Avellaneda sparked the amusing but pointed «Prologue to the Reader» in Book II, Nabokov's irritation about charges of pornography in relation to Lolita instigated his own defense of his work. Nabokov's brilliantly ironic idea of a «defense» is as Cervantine as Cervantes' defense:

Certain techniques in the beginning of Lolita (Humbert's journal for example) misled some of my first readers into assuming that this was going to be a lewd book. They expected the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped, too, and felt bored and let down.



Compare this with the delightfully ironic tone of Cervantes' «defense»:

God bless me, gentle or even plebeian reader, how eagerly you must be looking forward to this preface, expecting to find there retaliation, scolding, and abuse against the father of the second Don Quixote -I mean him who was, they say begotten at Tordesillas and born at Tarragona! Well, the truth is, I am not going to give you the satisfaction, for though injuries stir up anger in humbler breasts, in mine the rule must grant an exception.


The two passages turn irony inside out and back again, and both evidence the «fun» the writers have forged out of injury. Because of censorship, Lolita had difficulty being published in the United States. Even in relation to publication and censorship, we find links between Cervantes and Nabokov: Cervantes' 1605 Canon of Toledo might have had an equivalent in the 1950s. Nabokov's observation that Cervantes had to masquerade «a righteous attitude... which in his pious, utilitarian... day a writer had better take» uncannily resembles advice that might have been given to Nabokov himself» (31).

The narrative structures of the two works also share a decided affinity. Nabokov discusses the distancing effect of the «discovered manuscript»; he notes that «Cervantes invents from toe to turban, Cid Hamete Benengeli, Arab Historian... Through this silk mask Cervantes will speak. A Spanish-speaking Moor, he says, translated the whole manuscript for him into Castilian in little more than a month and a half» (77). Nabokov suggests that this narrative device of using a discovered and then translated manuscript supposedly «protects» Cervantes: «If any objection can be raised as to [the manuscript's] truth, it can only be because its author was an Arab, since lying is very common among those of that nation... it is the business and duty of historians to be exact, truthful, and wholly free from passion» (68). Perhaps Nabokov considered this point immediately prior to writing the «Foreword» to Lolita, supposedly written by «John Ray, Jr., Ph.D». The «author» of the foreword credits the custody of the «manuscript» to his cousin and Humbert's lawyer, «Clarence Choate Clark, Esq». Ironically, «John Ray» claims his cousin has asked him to edit Humbert's manuscript, probably because he (John Ray) has «just been awarded the Poling Prize for a modest work ('Do the Senses Make Sense?') wherein certain morbid states and perversions had been   —103→   discussed» (5). Out of Nabokov's legendary hatred of psychoanalysis and of Freud, Humbert becomes the Nabokovian counterpart to Cervantes' Cid Hamete Benengeli (all madmen are «liars», like Arabs); «Psychologist» Clarence Choate Clark, Esq. becomes the «hasty» translator of Humbert's text; and John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., custodian of the text, becomes the «real» author, Nabokov himself. In these triune folds of narration, matching in Don Quixote and Lolita, we see Nabokov's transparent imitation of Cervantes.

Nabokov's ironic condemnation of Cervantes ultimately extends beyond the framework of fiction and into the purview of criticism. Nabokov's scathing indictment of Don Quixote is echoed in critics' analyses of Lolita shortly after publication. In 1958, Orville Prescott claimed that «there are two equally serious reasons why [Lolita] isn't worth any adult reader's attention: The first is that it is dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive» (Roth 9). Did Prescott think Lolita «crude and cruel» as well? Conversely, the final words in Alfred Appel, Jr'.s comments on The Annotated Lolita could, with surprisingly little revision, apply to Don Quixote: «[This 're-nonsense'] sounds from the depths of Vladimir Nabokov's profoundly human comic vision, and the gusto of Humbert's narration, his punning language, his abundant delight in digressions, parodies, and games all attest to a comic vision that overrides the circumscribing sadness, absurdity, and terror of everyday life» (441).

The very nature of this essay is quixotic. Surely Nabokov's reputation will not be diminished by pointing to the character of his ironic criticism of Cervantes. Nor can the reputation of the inimitable Cervantes be elevated one whit by revealing that Nabokov is really an imitator. The most we can hope for is that an index will rightfully link the servant with the master. One can, indeed, speculate about the implications of such a linkage. We can put on Sancho's mask and offer proverbial explanations. «Criticism is the back door to devotion», we might say, or «What you complain about holds your attention, and therefore, your love».

Or perhaps the capping irony might be that Nabokov's criticism of Cervantes was meant to be ironic.

Works Cited

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote: The Ormsby Translation, Revised Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. Joseph R. Jones and Kenneth Douglas, eds. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1981.

Edelstein, Marilyn Joan. At the Threshold of the Text: The Rhetoric of Prefaces to Novels. Dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1984.

El Saffar, Ruth. Beyond Fiction: The Recovery of the Feminine in the Novels of Cervantes. Berkeley: U. California Press, 1984.

Fowler, Douglas. Reading Nabokov. Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1974.

Gilman, Stephen. The Novel According to Cervantes. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1989.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Putnam's, 1955.

_____. The Annotated Lolita. Alfred Appel, Jr., ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1970.

_____. Lectures on Don Quixote. San Diego: Harcourt, 1983.

Proffer, Carl R. Keys to Lolita. Bloomington: Ind. U. Press, 1968.

Roth, Phyllis A. Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Tamir-Ghez, Nomi. «The Art of Persuasion in Nabokov's Lolita». Poetics Today, 1 (1979), 65-83. (Reprinted in Roth's Critical Essays.)

Trilling, Lionel. «The Last Lover: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita». Encounter, XI, 4 (1958) 9-19.