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The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov; translated by Dmitri Navokov (Putnam's: $16.95; 128 pp.)

September 28, 1986| Reviewed by Peter Heinegg | Heinegg, a critic and teacher of comparative literature, has translated and written an introduction to Tolstoy's "A Confession."

"The Enchanter" is a dark, agonized, involuted novella (55 typewritten pages in the original) that Vladimir Nabokov wrote in 1939, the final work of Russian fiction he would produce. The next year, he emigrated to America, and some time after that, he felt so dissatisfied with this "first little throb of 'Lolita' " that he destroyed the manuscript. But another copy turned up in 1956, and what had seemed to him "a dead scrap" during the composition of "Lolita" was, by 1959, delighting its enamored author as "a beautiful piece of Russian prose, precise and lucid." The beauty of the as-yet-unpublished text remains to be seen, but there's little precision or lucidity here. This grim tale has flashes of "Lolita's" ingenuity but hardly any of its humor, wicked zest or tragicomic joy. Nabokov was closer to the truth in his first appraisal.

One significant problem with "The Enchanter" is that nobody in it, except for "red-handed Maria," a maid, has a name. The protagonist is a "central European," slightly over 40 (like Nabokov at the time), caught up in crazed pursuit of a hypnotically attractive, but vaguely described 12-year-old nymphet, "the girl." The action apparently opens in Paris and closes in Provence, but local color, ethnic flavor, social furniture, etc. have all been scrupulously blotted out, evoking a nebulous, cerebral landscape (even the girl's eyes are "light gray"). The "enchanter" ( volshebnik could also be translated as "magician," "sorcerer" or "wizard") is a jeweler, although Nabokov, with his unquenchable love of indirection, says rather that he practices a "refined, precise and rather lucrative profession, one that refreshed his mind, sated his sense of touch, nourished his eyesight with a vivid point of black velvet." Like his far more witty and amiable counterpart in "Lolita," Humbert Humbert, this lyrical, tortured pedophile (whose voice rings through the feverish third person narrative--Nabokov wisely let H. H. tell his own story) gets control of his beloved by cynically marrying her mother. This "person," as he calls her, has none of the absurdly pretentious and corny bourgeois features of Lolita's mother, Charlotte Haze--in fact, she's practically faceless. She is a half-hearted sketch given to such desiccated remarks as, "I may feel young spiritually, and I may not yet be a total monstrosity to look at, but won't you get bored constantly fussing with a fastidious person, never, never contradicting her, respecting her habits and eccentricities, her fasting, and the other rules she lives by?"

Like Charlotte, who is killed by a blatant deus ex machina (a runaway Packard), this unlovely obstacle to the hero's lust gets conveniently swept aside, expiring of what sounds like stomach cancer and leaving her luscious daughter in the enchanter's clutches. He carries her off in a chauffeured car, but their very first night on the road, disaster strikes.

The innocent girl (who has neither Lolita's fey charm nor her superficial corruption) awakens in a hotel bed to find her stepfather gratifying his passion on her defenseless nudity. Her horrified screams abruptly shatter the enchantment and rouse the hotel guests. An angry crowd, including a policeman, gathers; and the protagonist, his criminal perversion now exposed, flees in desperation to hurl himself beneath the wheels of an oncoming truck. Translator Dmitri Nabokov, who fills out this slender volume with footnotes to "Father's" achievement, celebrates the "cinematic imagery of the surreal conclusion and the frenzied pace, a kind of stretta finale , that accelerates toward the crashing climax."

Well, perhaps, but the explosive ending also reads like a purple patch slapped on to get rid of an impossible character in a hopelessly painful situation.

"The Enchanter" positively quivers with intellectual-erotic energy, but it needs more of "Lolita's" elegant playfulness and bittersweet poetry. The only "enchantment" we see is the catastrophic phallic ritual in the hotel room, where "starting little by little to cast his spell, he began passing his magic wand" (later called his "enchanted yardstick") "above her body." Here and elsewhere we are trapped in the airless, hallucinatory chambers of the hero's brain, just as he is trapped within his overmastering predatory desire. Inevitably, one wants out.

For a story so urgent with the "gnawing itch" of libido, "The Enchanter" has surprisingly many stretches of dullish, abstract diction, where Nabokov, seeking to elevate the tone only flattens it, with phrases like the "faceted transparency of his deductions," and sentences like, "Her present image would always transpire through her metamorphoses, nourishing their translucent strata from its internal fountainhead."

Finally, the translation itself, though generally convincing, does limp from time to time ("A car materialized behind the foliage. In we get"). In 1959, Nabokov observed, somewhat offhandedly, that "with a little care ("The Enchanter") could be done into English by the Nabokovs." It has taken a generation for this casual wish to be fulfilled, but only uncritical partisans of Nabokov will lament the delay or hail the results.

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