Charles Petzold

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.)