Nabokov and America




The Murder of Quilty



The enthralled and stricken reader of Lolita reaches chapter 35 of the book, the penultimate chapter, in a tragic state of mind, weeping hot tears. This is the chapter in which Clare Quilty is brutally murdered by a drunk and deranged Humbert Humbert. Yet the chapter unfolds as farce, played for laughs, and featuring a pair of clownish combatants—jet-black farce, to be sure, but farce nonetheless. What is going on here? Why does Nabokov engineer such an abrupt and startling change of mood and style? We know that Humbert is a murderer from the first chapter (“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”), but we are not prepared for the revelation that he murders comically. This is the only chapter of Lolita that veers into farcical territory, though the book is hilarious throughout, and it cries out for explanation, or at least puzzled attention.

We get a hint that the rules will be different early on: “A thunderstorm accompanied me most of the way back to Grimm Road, but when I reached Pavor Manor, the sun was visible again, burning like a man, and the birds screamed in the drenched and steaming trees.” We are told explicitly that the door “swung open as in a medieval fairy tale”, placing our hero at the center of a tale by Grimm. As if to emphasize the fictitious world we have entered, Humbert describes himself as “a familiar and innocuous hallucination” and a “raincoated phantasm”—at least in the eyes of the purple-robed Quilty, himself characterized as a “sleepwalker”. These are two literary men, men of fiction, and this is to be a fairy tale murder, though of the grotesque and fantastical kind. But it also takes place in a real place with a real gun and real blood. That gun has been bathed in oil by Humbert and is “black and awfully messy” (he thinks he got the “wrong product”): it is a filthy and vile object, not gleaming and ideal. This duality runs through the entire chapter: fiction and fact, the ideal and the real. As Humbert’s “heart pounded with tiger joy” at the prospect of killing his rival he accidentally “crunched a cocktail glass underfoot”—not the stuff of fairy tale but of dull irksome fact.

Confronting Quilty (“Master met me in the Oriental parlor”) Humbert is interrogated “in a high hoarse voice” about who he is: “Are you by any chance Brewster?” That is not the reception Humbert was expecting as an avenging angel. But he rouses himself with the thought of the imminent execution: “foreglimpsing the punctures, and mess, and music of pain”—“oh, my darling, this was intolerable bliss!” Quilty, for his part, “cocked his head, looking more pleased than ever”. Humbert’s revenge narrative is being subverted by Quilty, who is refusing to play the cornered victim, denying Humbert the authorial power he craves. There then follows some tedious rigmarole from Quilty about long-distance telephone calls and who is to pay for them, again not very fairy-tale-like. Humbert interrupts him to force the story back to his punitive purposes, mentioning “a little girl called Dolores Haze”. He declares himself to be her father, to which Quilty responds that he is not her father but rather “some foreign literary agent” (not a very powerful one apparently). The preamble to the crowning act is not going as Humbert had hoped and envisaged, because Quilty is refusing to play his assigned part. Even when Humbert solemnly warns him that he is about to die he declines to take his would-be murderer seriously, pulling a cigarette apart and munching on bits of it, then bizarrely suggesting that Humbert is “either Australian, or a German refugee”. When he finally fires at Quilty’s foot the gun goes off “with a ridiculously feeble and juvenile sound”, the bullet entering the rug not the foot. He gloomily confides to us that “the rich joy was waning” and that “the weapon felt limp and clumsy in my hand”. This is not how the story was supposed to unfold.

Quilty remarks pari passu that he had “no fun with your Dolly”, being “practically impotent, to tell the melancholy truth”. Again, this is not part of Humbert’s preferred narrative, just a miserable medical fact about an ailing middle-aged man. When they commence to fighting, or at least sloppily tussling, Humbert addresses the reader directly: “Elderly readers will surely recall at this point the obligatory scene in the Westerns of their childhood. Our tussle, however, lacked the ox-stunning fisticuffs, the flying furniture. He and I were two large dummies, stuffed with dirty cotton and rags. It was a silent, soft, formless tussle on the part of two literati, one of whom was utterly disorganized by a drug while the other was handicapped by a heart condition and too much gin.” This is not a grand revenge epic but a suburban front-room farce, inspiring amusement not awe. Quilty himself describes the proceedings as a “pistol-packing farce” and then proceeds to deliver a meandering and bizarre monologue, offering Humbert “a house pet, a rather exciting little freak, a young lady with three breasts, one a dandy”, calling him Brewster again, promising him the royalties from his next play, drawing his attention to an upstairs collection of rare erotica, and promising that he can arrange for him to attend executions. Humbert interrupts this rambling litany with a gunshot; and now things turn nasty—shifting from the farcical to the murderous—though not before Quilty hunkers down at an obliging piano and plays “several atrociously vigorous, fundamentally hysterical, plangent chords, his jowls quivering”. The comedy will not stop just because bullets are flying and puncturing. Death will not put an end to farce.

As Quilty walks up the stairs, already shot twice, Humbert shoots him three or four times (who’s counting?), “and every time I did it to him, that horrible thing to him, his face would twitch in an absurd clowning manner, as if he were exaggerating the pain”, all the while speaking in a phony British accent and “smirking”. It was as if “the bullets had been capsules wherein a heady elixir danced”. Still, the man is mortally wounded, multiply punctured, and not long for this earth. Humbert coolly informs us that he “reloaded the thing with hands that were black and bloody”. He finds Quilty wrapped up in bed: “I hit him at very close range through the blankets”. He then watches a pink bubble of blood with “juvenile connotations” form on his victim’s lips. But with the deed done Humbert’s feelings are not those of jubilation but of disappointment: “The whole sad business had taken more than an hour. He was quiet at last. Far from feeling any relief, a burden even weightier than the one I had hoped to get rid of was with me, upon me, over me. I could not bring myself to touch him in order to make sure he was really dead. He looked it: a quarter of his face gone, and two flies beside themselves with a dawning sense of unbelievable luck.” This is a grisly image (the phrase “dawning sense” is particularly nasty), reminding the reader that for all the farce and fun this was a true-life honest-to-God murder—not a fictitious murder, not a fairy tale murder.

But the pitch-black humor has not quite come to an end: downstairs a few of Quilty’s friends have arrived and are busy drinking in the kitchen. Humbert tells them that he has just killed Quilty, which triggers much jocularity about how it was about time, should have been done long ago, etc. So Humbert can’t even bask in the reality of his murderous act—his narrative is still being subverted. At this point Quilty himself crawls out onto the balcony, “flapping and heaving, and then subsiding, forever this time, in a purple heap”. Even then the visitors still don’t believe he is dead, just exceptionally hung over. Humbert glumly concludes that this was “the end of the ingenious play staged for me by Quilty”, adding: “With a heavy heart I left the house and walked through the spotted blaze of the sun to my car.” He has some trouble squeezing out between two other cars. Reality has resumed its leaden hold after the farcical fairy tale, with its real-life accompaniments.

Two general themes stand out for me in this challenging material, aside from the interweaving of fiction and fact. Both strike me as specifically American, and the novel certainly takes America as one of its central topics. The first is the romantic idea of the singular cleansing act of violence, especially gun violence. Terrible things are done in this novel, both by Quilty and Humbert, and it is natural to desire some rectification, some justice, some payback. Humbert decides he will execute Quilty for his crimes, thus restoring the moral order, cleansing the world of sin and sordidness. He will also feel good about annihilating his rival (male competition being another American theme). It is to be expected then that American popular culture will come into play—the gunslinger, the gangster, the armed cop. But once the deed is done—and it was a bloody and clumsy deed—Humbert feels only languor and disappointment, a heavy sense of bathos. Quilty is dead, the world has been cleansed of him, but nothing has fundamentally changed—Lolita, in particular, remains as damaged and ravaged as ever. The cleansing act of violence was gory, chaotic and messy, and ultimately ineffective. Quilty’s death does nothing to expiate Lolita’s suffering, or Humbert’s. The violence was essentially pointless (and does Quilty really deserve to be executed for his sins, real as they were?). The fantasy of violent justice is exposed as precisely that, a fantasy. Humbert is a European, but in this chapter he takes on an American persona—the holy killer. The result is ugly and absurd, formless and pointless. This is capital punishment at its direst. The gun (“Chum”) is not romanticized; it is denigrated, with its coating of black filth. The “bliss” of righteous murder turns to dull and dismal banality (those happy flies!). Humbert is no glamorous avenging angel, just a pathetic drunk madman carrying a foul weapon. In this chapter the myth of cleansing violence (celebrated in much American fiction) is revealed as a kind of self-deception, a dark moral illusion.

The second theme I detect has to do with the influence of fiction on reality. Humbert cannot carry out his act of violence without placing it in a fictional context: he sees himself as a character in fiction—of the hardboiled variety. Quilty too cannot help seeing himself as a character in fiction; this is why he keeps playing fictional characters. They are both involved in a scene they have witnessed many times before—the murder scene. They cannot help adopting the roles they have observed so often; they have been penetrated by these fictional roles. There is real violence and there is the fictional representation of violence, and the two interact. But they are not the same, so Humbert’s fantasy of violence is not matched by the reality of it. In this theatrical chapter he and Quilty cannot help but act out a fiction—a dominant fiction of American culture. Is it not true that any American murderer must see himself through the lens of fictional murderers? He will have these before his mind as he murders: the gangster has seen himself on the cinema screen; the serial killer has seen his fictional likeness; the gun-wielding policeman has seen his TV image. The American imagination is accordingly alive with gunfire, fictional and other. In America violence is bound up with the representation of violence; there is no escaping it. So Humbert is not really himself in this chapter; or rather, he is refracted through the lens of his adopted country. He is Americanized for the duration. He becomes a stock American character: the man with a gun bent on justice and not too fussy about how he achieves it. He sometimes refers to his movie-star good looks; here he appears in a murder movie (a “thriller”).[1] Quilty is American all along and in every way, but Humbert becomes temporarily American in his capacity as killer, though not completely so. Hence the switch of tone in this chapter: for a while the novel becomes a different kind of book (“American farce-gothic”). Nabokov decided to play the murder of Quilty as a kind of parody of America, which accounts for its stylistic discontinuity. Thus the chapter is a mishmash of forms and a cacophony of voices. Nabokov has staged an American murder in the psychological precincts of Europe. The result is a mixture of fact and fiction, genre and case study. In the end Quilty is indisputably and literally a dead man, but he has been fictionalized in the process.


Colin McGinn


[1] It will be recalled that in Stanley Kubrick’s film of Lolita the murder of Quilty is the first scene of the film not placed somewhere toward the end. It is indeed a strongly cinematic scene with much spectacle and bravura performances by the actors. It alludes to other movie genres; it contains action sequences and loud noises, as well as broad comedy. It is conscious of itself as fiction. We think we know what we are watching, but really we don’t. James Mason plays Humbert straight with nary a wink or nudge, but Peter Sellers gives Quilty the full thespian treatment—the wild accents, the physical comedy, the twitches and grimaces, the actorly brilliance. This Quilty is a quilt of roles, a patchwork of fictional characters—just as he is in the rest of the film. While no one could describe Humbert as just an empty shell of a man that description seems apt for Quilty—the playwright composed of a cast of characters. In the murder scene he cycles through a series of roles, never finding the authentic individual; he ends as an empty bubble about to burst.

2 replies
  1. Colin McGinn
    Colin McGinn says:

    I just discovered that Nabokov used to give tennis lessons (as well as language and boxing lessons) to make ends meet. That is also one of my more enjoyable activities (not for money though). I wish I could hit some balls with the great man!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.