- Balzacorama: Panoramic Vision in Nabokov’s Lolita
Nabokov is known for his difficult relationship with Dostoevsky; his relationship with Balzac was troubled in exactly the same way. Both show up in Nabokov’s lists of Bad Writers, for example, in his angry response to Edmund Wilson in “Reply to My Critics”:
Finally—Mr. Wilson is horrified by my “instinct to take digs at great reputations.” . . . What right has he to prevent me from finding mediocre and overrated people like Balzac, Dostoevski, Sainte-Beuve, or Stendhal . . .? . . . Has he ever studied Balzac’s absurdities and Stendhal’s clichés? Has he examined the melodramatic muddle and phony mysticism of Dostoevski?1
The two are also attacked separately in strikingly similar terms. In his notes to his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Nabokov famously glosses Dostoevsky as “a much overrated, sentimental and Gothic novelist of the time.”2 In the notes to his translation of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, his criticism of Balzac is much the same: “The allusion is to La Femme de Trente Ans in Scènes de la Vie Privée, 1828–44, a vulgar novelette, ending in ridiculous melodrama, by the overrated French writer, Balzac.”3 With regard to Dostoevsky, scholars have increasingly argued that Nabokov’s loudly expressed disdain for “old Dusty” imperfectly masks a significant debt to his Russian precursor, above all in Lolita.4 The same is also true for Balzac, again above all in Lolita.
If in the case of Balzac the debt is not as immediately evident as the dislike, it is perhaps because Balzac, so prominently featured in Nabokov’s critical works, appears so rarely in his fiction. Dostoevsky is everywhere, [End Page 486] often by name and often also by obvious allusion, including “old Dusty” in Despair and Luzhin in The Defense. Balzac, on the other hand, is largely absent. Leona Toker detects his traces in Mary when she notes that “Mary is set in a Russian pension in Berlin in the mid-twenties. Nabokov breathes new life into the conventional pension setting (as of Balzac’s Père Goriot) by exploring the significance of the proximity imposed on the characters.”5 As Julian Connolly adds, “Is it mere chance that Ganin worked at a restaurant named ‘Pir Goroy’?”6 Balzac is also mentioned by name just once in Lolita. In Beardsley Humbert Humbert tries to pump Lolita’s friend Mona Dahl for information about what he calls Lo’s “general behavior.” Unfortunately Mona, Humbert explains, “was burdened with a 150 IQ,” and she proves too much for him: “‘Oh, she’s a doll,’ concluded Mona, and sighed abruptly, and picked up a book that happened to lie at hand, and with a change of expression, falsely furrowing her brow, inquired: ‘Do tell me about Ball Zack, sir. Is he really that good?’”7
That Nabokov would take care to provide his hero with Balzacian reading material might seem a little unnecessary. After all, a certain amount of Balzac is already implied in Humbert’s reading of Dostoevsky. As Katherine Tiernan O’Connor has argued, child rape is Dostoevsky’s “iconic transgression,” and Humbert often explicitly frames his crime in terms we recognize from the great Dostoevskiian hero-villains: Svidrigailov, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov.8 At the same time, as Dostoevsky scholars have long recognized, the Dostoevskiian proposition that certain extraordinary people might stand above and beyond the law was lifted in turn from Balzac, and indeed precisely from Connolly’s “Pir Goroy,” or Père Goriot. In his classic study Leonid Grossman points to a key passage in Père Goriot where Rastignac wonders what a man might do “au cas où il pourrait s’enrichir en tuant à la Chine par sa seule volonté un vieux mandarin, sans bouger de Paris” (“if he could become rich by killing some old mandarin in China without stirring from Paris, simply by willing it so”).9 As Grossman explains, it is exactly this Balzacian notion of “l’homme supérieur” that drives Raskolnikov to crime in Crime and Punishment, so much so that Dostoevsky at one point echoes Rastignac’s musings “almost word for word.”10 Mona’s...