ASSOCIATION : Manifestations – Colloque 2013 – COATES

Colloque International : « Vladimir Nabokov et la France »

Les Chercheurs enchantés : Société Française Vladimir Nabokov

Paris, 30 mai-1er juin 2013

COATES, Jenefer – London, United Kingdom
The original of Lolita: Nabokov’s Suite (and Poursuite) du Merlin

    Humbert is a littérateur, author of « Histoire abrégée de la poésie anglaise » and a « history of French literature for English-speaking students ». This historical perspective – which reflects Nabokov’s own study of Medieval French at Cambridge – shapes the narration of Lolita itself, for Humbert, this paper suggests, casts the account of his own sordid life through a fairytale that originated in twelfth century France: an early verse romance by Robert de Boron, it tells of Merlin the Enchanter’s doomed love for a « pucele » known later as Viviane. This paper will explore Nabokov’s debt to this tale and the long tradition to which it gave rise, examining his prodigious treatment of its themes of magic and madness, trickery and entrapment. Focus on the early Merlin texts reveals the extent and ingenuity of his transformations: his exuberant but acute interpretations of key medieval French tropes such as « enchantement », « gieus » (jeux) and « fols » (fou) infuse every aspect of Lolita, shaping design and detail and subtly inspiring the set pieces and tours de force. Humbert’s expertise in French literary history allows for a plausible, if crazily encoded, recapitulation of the story’s long trajectory from Celtic myth via the influential Suite du Merlin to Malory and beyond, spawning variants and genres as it spread far and wide. Nabokov draws threads from them all to enrich and complicate his own re-telling. He contentiously called Lolita a fairytale yet its New World setting, its flamboyant language and style and above all its genre-bending form conspire to disguise its true origins: yet another trick, another feat of shapeshifting, worthy of Merlin himself, perhaps?


Jenefer Coates has taught comparative literature and translation studies at the universities of Middlesex and Essex, UK. She has published papers on Nabokov and is currently completing a study of his use of medieval texts.