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In Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, right at the end of the 10th chapter, there is the following line that managed to perplex me:

[T]he vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride. A little later, of course, she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype. All I want to stress is that my discovery of her was a fatal consequence of that ''princedom by the sea'' in my tortured past. Everything between the two events was but a series of gropings and blunders, and false rudiments of joy. Everything they shared made one of them.

Now, it's the last sentence in this fragment that bewilders me. What did Nabokov (or Humbert, for that matter) want to say with this construction? That everything the two events (the encountering of a young girl in a princedom by the sea in his youth, and the stumbling upon Lolita now) shared brought them together and merged them into one? Or that everything that sprawled between these two extremes contributed to the making of one of them? I confess, this phrase confuses me, and this book frustrates me. What does it actually mean?

  • The only possible antecedents of 'them' that I can see in what you've given us is 'the two events' / 'a series of ... joy'. It looks unclear. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 13 '17 at 15:20
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    Unfortunately the experts on this site are experts on the nuts and bolts of English, such as syntax and language development – not literature interpretation. When it comes to interpreting Nabokov you want an expert on Nabokov. You might try the beta site Literature. – MetaEd Sep 13 '17 at 15:30
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    Since Nabokov originally wrote this in Russian, perhaps someone could use the original text to shed light. But it's not really about English so much as literary/logical interpretation. – FumbleFingers Sep 13 '17 at 15:31
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    I'm afraid this is not correct. Nabokov wrote Lolita originally in English, while in the USA. Only subsequently he translated it himself into Russian. – Antonio Nanu Sep 13 '17 at 15:41
  • I'd venture to suggest that you can replace one of them with (e.g.) a blunder to form the phrase made a blunder. Generalising then, the sentence asserts that everything they shared made a 'groping', a blunder, or a false rudiment of joy. Sounds rather sad. – Lawrence Sep 13 '17 at 16:20
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This sentence is already awkward, regardless of what meaning we might ascribe to it. The correct contemporary English phrase would have been "made them one." This awkwardness suggests to me that the sentence was simply a mistranslation. English was not Nabokov's native language, so it's not unlikely.

The Russian version reads:

Все, что было общего между этими двумя существами, делало их единым для меня.

Which literally means:

Everything that was in common between these two creatures made them one to me.

I think this resolves the ambiguity. Nabokov is referring to the two people Humbert is thinking about. Humbert is conflating the two of them in his mind.

  • But Nabokov originally wrote Lolita in English, finishing it somewhere in 1953, after he had worked on it for several years. The translation into Russian was made by Nabokov later on. However, it's a good indicator this translation, as Nabokov perhaps rendered some things better in Russian. But still, the original is in English. – Antonio Nanu Sep 13 '17 at 19:11
  • @AntonioNanu thanks so much for the correction. I edited the answer to no longer say that the Russian version is the original. – filistinist Sep 13 '17 at 20:12
  • From the excerpt in the question (which is, by definition, incomplete), I can see only two people being referenced: the narrator (“I”), who apparently is Humbert, and this female (Lolita?).  Why would the narrator use a third-person pronoun (“them”) to refer to himself and the woman, rather than “us”? – Scott Sep 19 '17 at 3:31
  • @Scott "them" here is referring to Lolita and the girl Humbert was in love with when he was young. He's comparing the two girls. To expand the excerpts quoted in the question: "...the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride. A little later, of course, she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype. All I want to stress is that my discovery of her...[etc.]" – filistinist Sep 20 '17 at 4:54
  • @filistinist: Thanks for responding.   That’s interesting information.   I believe that you should submit it as an edit to the question, because the fact that Humbert is talking about two people is critical to any attempt to understand his use of “they”, and comments sometimes disappear. – Scott Sep 20 '17 at 5:14
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My interpretation is that the 'Everything' at the start of the last sentence echoes the 'Everything' at the start of the preceding sentence and applies to everything contained therein. In essence, all of those events became as one experience, a sum of the parts.

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