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A story about Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, and Valery Larbaud, London Review of Books, July 1997


In Vladimir Nabokov’s witty and disarming ‘Ballad of Longwood Glen’, published in the New Yorker in 1957, shy, dreamy Art Longwood climbs a tree on a family picnic to retrieve his son’s ball – and carries on climbing:


Up and up Art Longwood swarmed and shinned,

And the leaves said yes to the questioning wind.

What tiaras of gardens! What torrents of light!

How accessible ether! How easy flight!

His family circled the tree all day,

Pauline concluded: ‘Dad climbed away.’

None saw the delirious celestial crowds

Greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds.

Mrs Longwood was getting a little concerned.

He never came down. He never returned.


Something in Art – an artful mystery, an unnameable quality, a quirk of character, something – divides his fate from that of his picnicking, small-town loved ones and ‘removes him’, in his biographer Brian Boyd’s words, ‘from life into a special and triumphant kind of death’. Never as transparent as he seems, Nabokov does not elucidate Art’s ‘something’: it stays as unvouchsafed as the secret that V. is waiting for from his dying brother at the end of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the word that is supposed to explain everything. So we’re left with journey and question – Art’s climb, V.’s quest – unanswered. Anything can happen: all we’re allowed to do is to partake joyfully of both, of their actuality, their delightful particularity and unconstrained timescape.

Nabokov’s poem came to mind after a train journey to Vichy in central France a month ago. The occasion was a small literary festival, a sort of annual celebratory Mass for the town’s only literary son. One can’t help noticing that his name has a made-up Nabokovian ring – as if, in a small explosion of municipal creativity, the town hit on the idea of dreaming up a great writer to mitigate embarrassing historical facts.

Valery Larbaud (1881-1957) sounds as fictitious as a Vivian Darkbloom or a V. Cantaboff; but Larbaud existed, as poet, novelist, critic, translator, born in Vichy, son of an excessive mother and a quiet pharmacist father, who made a pile from discovering and bottling the mineral springs of Saint-Yorre, then died. Valery was enviably endowed, both in wealth and natural advantages. He made it his business from his teenage years onwards to journey obsessively (first-class), to dominate other literatures by means of a fantastic receptivity to their languages, and to turn the countries he wandered through into a poetry that was half-Baudelaire, half-Baedeker. Larbaud’s best-known work is probably the novel Fermina Marquez, a vivacious sketch of simmering adolescence about the sentimental-erotic havoc sown by a Colombian beauty among the students of a boys’ boarding school – the missing link, one might say, between The Red and the Black and Catcher in the Rye. But his most interesting creation, introduced in 1908 with the publication of Poèmes par un riche amateur, was the multimillionaire A. O. Barnabooth, his fictive alter ego. His Barnabooth was a precocious entrant in the impersonation games of modernist authorship (invented on his first trip to London after a visit to the Barnes branch of Boots the Chemist). Poems by a rich amateur was a provocation and manifesto, and his revenge on a stupid, authoritarian mother:

Je veux faire tout ce qui est justement défendu

Je veux me plonger dans l’infâmie

Comme dans un lit très doux

Ah, je suis amoureux du mal!

‘L’Eterna Voluttà’

Barnabooth’s subjects have no prejudice: he must be the only poet, French or English, to have written lines on ‘A November morning near Abingdon’, ‘Madame Tussaud’s’, and ‘Weston-super-Mare’. His world offered itself in verse-ready state: a disused railway station at Cahors, a woman in Kharkov offering a small boy a drink, the sound of maids’ voices calling through the morning, ‘one of those moments swollen with health, one of those cruel moments when one is truly oneself’. His urban alexandrines are his alone:

Après avoir aimé des yeux dans Burlington Arcade

Je redescends Piccadilly à pied, doucement.

O bouffées de printemps mêlées a des odeurs d’urine,

Entre la grille du Green Park et la station des cabs,

Combien vous êtes émouvantes!

At Vichy there was talk of Larbaud’s other activities: essayist, fictional miniaturist (Proust called his short stories, Enfantines, ‘my favourite book’), spinner of fancies. This wealthy schoolboy who never grew up was a major reader of major writers, an intelligent prefacer and unflagging literary collaborator: he translated Arnold Bennett, Butler, Coleridge, Landor and Whitman, championed Faulkner and Unamuno, supervised Auguste Morel’s translation of Ulysses. His correspondence with Gide, Proust, Joyce and Claudel among others runs to many volumes.

In 1934 for Christmas Larbaud sent all his friends a poem entitled ‘La Neige’.

Un año mas und iam eccoti mit uns again

Pauvre et petit on the graves dos nossos amados édredon

E pure piously tapàudolos in their sleep

Dal pallio glorios das virgens und infants….

And so on across the breadth of Europe, to the Carpathians and back again: the poem’s refinement becomes by degrees all interesting shades and hushed musical patterns. ‘La Neige’ was Larbaud’s last work. Shortly afterwards, walking in his garden in Paris, disaster struck. He suffered a thundering stroke and for the next twenty-two years this cultivated, restless nomad sat in an armchair in silence.

Larbaud’s story conflicts with Nabokov’s proposition in ‘The Ballad of Longwood Glen’. His bodily journey, posthumous in a way, is not one we can partake of joyfully, his state of existence represents something tragically suspended. But there is another episode parallel to that situation of Larbaud’s in his armchair, and one that has not been clarified. It is to do with Larbaud and Nabokov himself.

Nabokov’s brush with French modernism when he first read Proust developed into a full-blown phase with his move to France in 1937. Two years later, in Paris, ‘the first little throb’ of his Lolita went through him when he was laid up with neuralgia. He and Larbaud did not meet: among any number of reasons, Larbaud was already immobile. Their circles however intersected, in the shape of Joyce and Paris figures like Jean Paulhan, the poet Jules Supervielle and Sylvia Beach.

I had once read a story of Larbaud’s that seemed Nabokovian in texture, but did not think twice. If you tap Larbaud, he chimes with many other writers. In Vichy, I mentioned this similarity in a conversation with the novelist Michel Déon. He suggested I read Larbaud’s essays Jaune bleu blanc.

In Paris, I found the essays. In London, the single reference to Larbaud I was able to find in any text on Nabokov was a letter to a Professor John Kenneth Simon at the University of Illinois, sent from Montreux in February 1971, in which Nabokov says he does not remember ‘having ever read anything by Valery Larbaud – even in my youth when I absorbed a lot of contemporaneous French stuff’.

Why was Professor Simon asking? Because in Jaune bleu blanc, the collection of Larbaud’s essays published in 1927, there is a series of sketches in which the traveller wanders through his passion for girls’ names. Spain, he writes, has the most varied and beautiful: names embellished by their diminutives capable of expressing every degree of age and intimacy. And then this –

Lolita est une petite fille; Lola est en âge de se marier; Dolores a trente ans; Doña Dolores a soixante ans….

Compare these cadences with the second paragraph of Humbert’s confession:

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

‘Pour tout le monde: Doña Dolores; pour moi seul: Lolita.’ If only Professor Simon had pursued the matter. Nabokov’s reply is a masterpiece of amused evasion: what does he mean by saying that ‘from my Pushkin studies I know that the most spectacular parallel readings do not always meet at the points where we find them’? The more he says, the more he gives away. He quotes page references from Larbaud’s complete works, as though they are to hand, then, admitting to an eerie resemblance, indulges in a quickfire interrogation of his own. ‘But who, au fond, is your “aficionado”? Humbert? My reader?’ This is not serious. It is a typically cheerful, obscuring malarkey. Decoded, it reads: Okay, pal, you’ve got me.

At Vichy a scrap of hearsay came to light: a French or German journalist who went to Montreux in the Seventies had discovered a copy of Larbaud’s Oeuvres complètes (Pléïade edition), well thumbed, on Nabokov’s shelves. I drew a blank on this. But there is another textual question. If Nabokov came across Larbaud when confined to bed in 1939, or some time between settling in France and 1949, when he wrote the first chapter of Lolita, did he also read the short story called ‘Beauté, mon beau souci…’? Set in Chelsea, ‘ivy and glass and everywhere the pale, delicate colour of bricks beneath the soot’, this story of the wealthy Frenchman Marc Fournier who, calmly conducting an affair with his housekeeper, falls in love with her fourteen-year-old daughter, Queenie, also meditates on the significance of names.

There was a marvellous new name in the world: Queenie. Why are certain names so beautiful? Who can explain the charm there is in them that makes one never tire of saying them out loud when one is alone, and repeating them in one’s head in company, and which sometimes makes us even write them down in the margins of a notebook or the pages of a diary, with great care, one letter at a time, just to be able to look at them?

Queenie is lost to Marc by his negligence. Larbaud’s story, both a homage to the secret transition from girlhood to womanhood and a self-examination of male vanity, is structurally different from Humbert Humbert’s autobiography, but there is more than a flavour of the ‘subliminal co-ordinate’ in that passage, and in the domestic situation and the personal. Edith, Queenie’s mother, is also a widow, also dies, also possesses Charlotte Haze’s irritating appetite for tepid ideas; and then there is the decreed time-gap between older man and nymphet.

Marc thinks ‘an ocean of blue thoughts’, ‘a blue-sea wave’ swells under Humbert’s heart. Humbert has a ‘dark romantic European way’ in big Haze’s eyes, Marc is ‘Continental… mysterious, disconcerting’’. Lolita possesses a procuress called Edith. Humbert’s great-grandfather, like Marc, deals in silk; in both there is a mask-motif, and gastric gurglings that Nabokov calls a ‘voice’, Larbaud ‘the only human voice that doesn’t lie’. ‘Parallel readings’, of course. Nabokov invented America, Nabokov invented ‘my Lolita’. But to re-put his own question: did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did.

What might Larbaud have thought? The rich amateur was in his last year when, up to its neck in the mire of Suez, the French government agreed to show solidarity with the British Home Office by banning the Olympia Press edition of Lolita. By January 1957 l’affaire Lolita was in full swing. Charming, sweet-tempered, gracious, easily amused, above envy, had he been able to speak Larbaud would very likely have reaffirmed his belief that writing was a process of quotation, adaptation, appropriation – and plagiarism – and nodded the questioner towards another essay from his collection Sous l’invocation de Saint-Jérôme:

‘Where did you get that from?’ ‘Where did he get that from?’ These are the questions I always want to ask when I hear or read a literary work worthy of the name, by which I mean one whose attraction makes me want to hear it or read it a second time. And ‘where did I get that from?’ is a question I ask myself too, each time – that is to say, pretty rarely – I don’t know where I ‘got that’.

‘I offer myself to each of you,’ he wrote in Barnabooth’s poems. Possibly this was not merely generosity, but aesthetic conviction. Still, it’s impossible not to like the spirit of a man who said throughout a tragically curtailed career that literature is never one person’s effort alone, but a ‘collective work, like the cathedrals’.


© Julian Evans 1997

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