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How Old is Humbert Humbert?

October 10, 2007
New York, N.Y.

The music magazine Blender recently cited Sting as the worst lyricist ever (MSNBC story here), in part for the atrocious lyric quoted above. At the time the song first came out, much was made of Sting's ridiculous pronunciation of Vladimir Nabokov's last name, which should properly be accented on the second syllable.

"That book" is obviously Nabokov's classic 1955 novel Lolita but few people have noticed another gross error in Sting's lyrics: The "old man" — the narrator of the novel who adopts the pseudonym Humbert Humbert — is hardly old! In May 1947, when Humbert Humbert first meets Dolores Haze, he is 36 or 37 and she is 12. He dies at the age of 42, and she dies at the age of 17. This is not a matter of "inside knowledge" or reading between the lines. Nabokov is extremely precise in the chronology of the novel, and only the most superficial reading (or, more likely in this case, none at all) could avoid all the signposts.

In the famous opening paragraphs of the first chapter, Humbert writes

It's a little math problem: Assuming that Humbert's age when he met Annabel Lee is about the same as Dolores Haze's age when Humbert first meets her, that makes Humbert three times as old as Dolores when they first meet.

Humbert soon writes "I was born in 1910, in Paris" (Pt. 1, Ch. 2) and two pages later, "The only definite sexual events that I can remember as having occurred before my thirteenth birthday (that is before I saw my little Annabel)..." (Pt. 1, Ch. 2) Later in that paragraph, he says that he met Annabel in the summer of 1923. She is "a lovely child a few months my junior" (Pt. 1, Ch. 3), which would make her 12 or 13.

Adrian Lyne's film of Lolita (with a script by Stephen Schiff) takes some liberties with these dates and ages. Humbert when he meets Annabel (and Dolores when Humbert meets her) are both supposed to be 14.

The main action of the novel begins in 1947, when Humbert is 36 or 37 (depending on when his birthday falls in the year). We first know that Humbert meets Dolores in 1947 when he writes about Annabel "until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another" (Pt. 1, Ch. 4). The year 1923 plus 24 is 1947.

He writes in a notebook that is imprinted "with a golden year, 1947, en escalier, in its upper left-hand corner" (Pt 1, Ch. 11). He reports that he moved into the Haze household a "few days before" May 30, 1947 (Pt. 1, Ch. 11) and the diary entries cover "most of June."

Dolores Haze, he notes, was "Born 1935" (Pt. 1, Ch. 8). We learn later that she was born on January 1, 1935. "She would be thirteen on January 1" (Pt. 1, Ch. 15). That's January 1, 1948. Sometime later: "On Lo's twelfth, January 1, 1947..." (Pt. 1, Ch. 19).

It is the summer of 1947 when Dolores goes to Camp Q. Humbert's "mad year" is very explicitly "August 1947 to August 1948" (Pt. 2, Ch. 1). She leaves him in the summer of 1949; he spends the time "between July 5 and November 18" (Pt. 2, Ch. 23) searching for her, up "to the end of 1949" (Pt. 2, Ch. 25).

Humbert meets Rita in the summer of 1950 when she "was twice Lolita's age and three quarters of mine" (Pt. 2, Ch. 26). It's another math problem but a simple one: In 1950 Humbert is 40; Rita is 30; Dolores is 15. Humbert and Rita "cruised together for two dim years, from summer 1950 to summer 1952" (Pt. 2, Ch. 26). The letter he receives from Dolores is "dated September 18, 1952" (Pt. 2, Ch. 28).

We know from the indispensable satirical Forward by "Dr. John Ray" that Humbert Humbert "died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952, a few days before his trial was to start," and "Mrs. 'Richard F. Schiller' died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day, 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest," that is, a week before her 18th birthday.

Interestingly, the two film versions of Lolita raised the ages of both protagonists. James Mason was born in 1909 and was thus in his early 50s when Stanley Kubrick shot his film of Lolita (released 1962). Sue Lyon was born in 1947, and was probably 15 or 16 when the film was being shot.

Jeremy Irons (born 1948) was in his late 40s when Adrian Lyne's film of Lolita (released 1997) was shot. Dominique Swain was born in 1980 and was apparently 15 at the time of shooting. (The release was delayed somewhat.)

By making both protagonists older, the films blunt the shocking nature of the relationship. Humbert is made less virile and Dolores more "legal." Presumably, movie audiences would find the statutory rape of a 12 year old girl by a 36 year old man to be much too disturbing. Well, isn't that the point?

Of course, neither film version manages to achieve the subtle balance of transcendent beauty and outrageous humor that characterizes Nabokov's novel. Nor can they mimic Nabokov's unreliable narrator, who presents himself in the pages of his prison confessional as a charming and witty man who wants only to be understood, yet who is actually a vile sociopath caught up in a romantic obsession.

The lesson is this: If you're going to name-drop, make sure you know how to pronounce the name. And always read the book, read the book, read the book. (This one is particuarly marvelous.)


The full story is here:

— Bob, Wed, 10 Oct 2007 08:35:56 -0400 (EDT)

Thanks! I was looking around for it yesterday but couldn't find it. — Charles

Actually, looking at the mortality tables, the average life expectancy for someone born in 1910 was 48.5 years, so 36-37 could indeed be construed an "old man" particularly by a tween or teen ager.

— Mike, Wed, 10 Oct 2007 10:37:44 -0400 (EDT)

Statistics of average lifespans can be somewhat distorted by high rates of infant mortality. Once someone makes it past adolescence, the life expectancy generally gets higher. Keep in mind that the United States Constitution sets age requirements of 25 for a member of Congress, 30 for Senator, and 35 for President, and those ages still seem reasonable over 200 years later. — Charles

I do agree that Humbert is not old. However when compared to Dolores he could be called old. Often times, even young men will be called "dirty old men" when they pay inappropriate attention to much younger women or girls.

— Robby, Wed, 10 Oct 2007 11:25:08 -0400 (EDT)

To a teenager, anybody above the age of 25 seems like an old person! But in the lyrics, Sting isn't characterizing the protagonist of Lolita from the girl's perspective. (In other words, it's not the girl who's thinking "Gosh, my teacher is shaking and coughing just like what's-his-name in that book we were supposed to read in Mrs. McMillan's English class.") It's Sting himself who's making this characterization. — Charles

I think he sings "that famous book".

— Brad Williams, Wed, 10 Oct 2007 12:10:33 -0400 (EDT)

You're thinking of the 1986 remake of the song. Somehow he stuck in an extra word (but I can't hear that version of the lyric in my head). By that time, Sting was nearly 36 himself — he was, of course, "born in the 50's" (but just barely) — and he could also have removed the word "old" but he didn't. — Charles

The British/English usually go awry when it comes to "foreign" pronunciation. There is an video somewhere on the internet of Martin Amis interviewing Ian McEwan (or vice versa) circa 1970s. Amis, who should know better, uses the Sting pronunciation.

— John Malone, Wed, 10 Oct 2007 18:43:34 -0400 (EDT)

>read the book, read the book...

I overheard a child begging her mother for a DVD the other day. The mother replied "We always read the book before we watch the movie."

An excellent policy, I thought, and especially good training.

Dennis Williamson, Wed, 10 Oct 2007 20:51:30 -0400 (EDT)

I have long been bothered by the meter of that line (made all the worse for its being the very last of the song). In fact, when I sing that song, I change the lyric to "just like the old man in that book by Vladimir." This fixes the meter perfectly, but of course fouls the rhyme. Not that Sting's rhyme was right to begin with; the great writer's name is correctly pronounced "Na-BOH-kov," with the final letter being a basic "v" sound, perhaps slightly closer to an "f" than the classic English "v" but in any event a very poor rhyme with the simple "f" sound in "cough." And the "o" before the "v" isn't really a straight "ah" sound as in "cough," but a bit closer to an "oh" sound.

— Dana Albert, Thu, 11 Oct 2007 13:58:38 -0400 (EDT)

I suppose Sting could try to defend himself on the age thing. He could argue that he meant "old man" as in "father," as Humbert was in fact Lolita's legal stepfather for most of the book. Or, he could deny that he was talking about the book "Lolita" at all--after all, there are plenty of shaking and coughing old men in Nabokov's books, such as Pnin. This would be a weak defense given the subject matter of the song, but there's still hope: Sting could claim that he was alluding to "The Enchanter," an earlier Nabokov novel about a pedophile. I can't recall the age of that awful fellow, but at least he is described as "balding." I don't expect that Sting has any idea this novel exists, of course. And from the perspective of that hypothetical defense, he dug himself in deeper when he recorded a new version of the song in 1986 and changed it from "that book by Nabokov" to "that famous book by Nabokov." I doubt anybody would call "The Enchanter" a famous book.

— Dana Albert, Thu, 11 Oct 2007 14:18:33 -0400 (EDT)

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