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Metamorphosis

Vladimir Nabokov's novella Volshebnik (The Enchanter), written in 1939, was the first attempt at the Lolita story. Here, in a new translation by Dmitri Nabokov, the central character travels by train to meet again the daughter of the woman whom he has married and who has just died. He imagines a future with the girl. (In the King Lear allusion below, Shakespeare's "gilded butterflies" become "gilded fireflies.")

AGAINST the light of that happiness, no matter what age she attained -- seventeen, twenty -- her present image would always transpire through her metamorphoses, nourishing their translucent strata from its internal fountainhead. And this very process would allow him, with no loss or diminishment, to savor each unblemished stage of her transformations. Besides, she herself, delineated and elongated into womanhood, would never again be free to dissociate, in her consciousness and her memory, her own development from that of their love, her childhood recollections from her recollections of male tenderness. Consequently, past, present, and future would appear to her as a single radiance whose source had emanated, as she had herself, from him, from her viviparous lover.

Thus they would live on -- laughing, reading books, marveling at gilded fireflies, talking of the flowering walled prison of the world, and he would tell her tales and she would listen, his little Cordelia, and nearby the sea would breathe beneath the moon.... And exceedingly slowly, at first with all the sensitivity of his lips, then in earnest, with all their weight, ever deeper, only thus -- for the first time -- into your inflamed heart, thus, forcing my way, thus, plunging into it, between its melting edges ...

The lady who had been sitting across from him for some reason suddenly got up and went into another compartment; he glanced at the blank face of his wristwatch -- it wouldn't be long now -- and then he was already ascending next to a white wall crowned with blinding shards of glass as a multitude of swallows flew overhead.

[Enchanter 74-75]

[He takes her away by car for a holiday during which he plans to possess her.]

On we go. He looked at the forest that kept approaching in undulating hops from hillside to hillside until it slid down an incline and tripped over the road, where it was counted and stored away. "Shall we take a break here?" he wondered. "We could have a short walk, sit for a while on the moss among the mushrooms and the butterflies...." But he could not bring himself to stop the chauffeur: there was something unbearable about the idea of a suspicious car standing idle on the highway.

[Enchanter 79]

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Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Nabokov's Butterflies, Metamorphosis - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 52.