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Nabokov also toys with the notion of the beginning of a text being, ‘the first idea about a story or poem’. This is mainly seen in Nabokov’s afterword to the novel, ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’ (pp. 311-317). Bennett and Royle propose that it would be extremely difficult ‘to discover the origins of the thought which impels the text’, and then ask: ‘Does an author know where these thoughts come from?’ Almost as if a direct response to their question, Nabokov tells us:
As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.
If we are to look at this inspiration for Lolita as providing a central metaphor for the novel, then it can be argued that the ‘poor creature’ trapped inside a cage is Humbert locked in by social conventions surrounding paedophilia and that his ‘drawing’ is the text of Lolita itself, depicting his innate urges. What could be suggested, then, is that the ‘beginning’ of the text was sympathy of Nabokov’s with constrained innateness, and that the authorial intention was not to show Humbert as a sexual monster but rather to arouse sympathy for one deemed immoral. In this regard, the text of Lolita does not displace its beginning.
However, the validity that we attribute on to Nabokov’s own account of his inspiration must be questioned. As Bennett and Royle state, even if we were to ‘ask what the [author] by a particular text, all we would get would be another text’. Nabokov knew that the success he achieved through Lolita would make him a world-known author when writing his afterword. He states, when talking about his butterfly collection, ‘the locality labels pinned under these butterflies will be a boon to some twenty-first-century scholar with a taste for recondite biography’ (p. 312), thus illustrating that he understood that there would be those who would look into his life and words as direction for his novels. Whilst one could argue this gives his ‘inspiration’ more clout when trying to derive meaning from Lolita, it is more likely that Nabokov was playing, too, with this notion of a ‘beginning’ and authorial intention. He states, ‘every great writer is a great deceiver’. Thus, it can be argued that Nabokov’s deceit went beyond just that within his novels; it extended throughout even his notes on his own texts. Therefore, the image of a caged up animal drawing the picture of that which imprisons it must not be taken as a straight ‘answer’ to Lolita, rather, it should be seen as a parody on Nabokov’s part of inspiration forming part of the ‘beginning’ to a text.
Image Credits: newbeginning.org.uk