The following essay is an excerpt from Delia Ungureanu’s From Paris to Tlön: Surrealism as World Literature, out this week from Bloomsbury Press.
VLADIMIR NABOKOV’S RUNAWAY best seller Lolita, first published in 1955, established him as a major force in American literature, even as it provoked lasting moral debates over its poetic treatment of a taboo subject — pedophilia. Critics and readers have long wondered what might have inspired Nabokov’s perverse plot, the seduction of a 12-year-old Lolita by the middle-aged Humbert Humbert, who marries the girl’s widowed mother as a means of gaining access to the object of his desire. In 2004, the search for Lolita’s antecedents led the critic Michael Maar to a 1916 tale called “Lolita” by the long-forgotten German writer Heinz von Lichberg. But as Maar himself allowed, Lichberg’s slender, sentimental narrative offered Nabokov little beyond his nymphet’s name.
Could there be a more resonant source? How about the tale of a painter who plots to sodomize a pubescent girl, with the help of her mother, a widow who is madly in love with him? What if I told you the girl’s name was Dulita? First published in 1931, the story was called “Rêverie,” and its author was Salvador Dalí.
Nabokov denied any debt to surrealism, but, as Jorge Luis Borges noted, no author likes to owe anything to his contemporaries. Still, it takes a bit of detective work to uncover Nabokov’s oblique engagement with surrealist ideas. Newly converted to surrealism, Dalí published “Rêverie” in the magazine Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. There he only roughly sketched Dulita, but she returns, in a much more poetic and elaborate form, as a key character in his confessional memoir The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.
Published in December 1942, Dalí’s memoir became a best seller overnight, despite — or because of — reviews such as Orville Prescott’s in The New York Times, which deemed it “one of the most shameless examples of indecent and posturing exhibitionism ever put into print.” As Nabokov’s correspondence with his friend Edmund Wilson shows, the author was always on the lookout for such shameless examples, ranging from David W. Maurer’s promisingly titled 1940 book The Big Con — “For one instant I had the wild hope that the big Con was French” [con means cunt in French] — to Jean Genet’s fiction: “Do send me the homosexual burglar’s book!! I love indecent literature!”
The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí was reviewed twice in The New Yorker, first by Clifton Fadiman in January 1943, and then by James Thurber under the title “The Secret Life of James Thurber” (February 27, 1943). Thurber’s ironic title implied that Dalí had plagiarized Thurber’s own 1939 story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Yet Dalí’s vivid imagination is enticing even for a skeptic like Thurber: “Let me be the first to admit that the naked truth about me is to the naked truth about Salvador Dalí as an old ukulele in the attic is to a piano in a tree, and I mean a piano with breasts.” Thurber tells us that Dalí “knew, or imagined he knew, little girls named Galuchka and Dullita,” and he plays on Dalí’s account of perversely embracing Dullita’s waist from behind with a crutch: “on two occasions I have swung my crutch at a little neighbor girl on my way to the post office.” Nabokov had started publishing poems in The New Yorker in 1942 and soon became a regular contributor; he began gathering materials for Lolita while working on his own memoir, Speak, Memory, which would first appear in serial form in the magazine.
Dalí’s 1931 “Rêverie” featured what would become the plot of Lolita — a middle-aged man seducing a 12-year-old girl with the help of her widowed mother. This story line disappears in The Secret Life, where Dullita (as Dalí now spells her name) truly comes into her own as a poetic character. Nabokov’s Lolita had both the erotic power of the complex Dullita and the perversity of the earlier Dulita, which suggests that Nabokov knew both versions. In The Secret Life, Dalí gives a footnote directing readers to the original story, and it is possible that Nabokov first discovered the 1931 Dulita through this reference. More likely it piqued his memory of having read the story when he was in Paris in 1937–1939. At that time, he was involved with the literary magazine Mesures, where he published his story “Mademoiselle O” in French, a few months before the magazine published selections from André Breton’s novel L’Amour Fou and erotic poetry by Breton’s fellow surrealist Paul Éluard. Mesures was distributed by Adrienne Monnier, a key figure in Parisian cosmopolitan circles renowned for her bookstore La Maison des Amis des Livres, which served as a gathering place and library for avant-garde writers and artists. Among her extensive magazine collections, one could readily find Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution.
In 1939, while still in Paris, Nabokov wrote The Enchanter, a novella that echoes the plot of Dalí’s “Rêverie”: a middle-aged European man falls in love with a French nymphet and marries her widowed mother in order to get closer to her daughter. In Nabokov’s version, when the man’s wife dies, he tries to rape his stepdaughter; filled with remorse, he throws himself in front of a truck. Both “Rêverie” and The Enchanter present the skeletons of the pedophilic plot — a middle-aged man, a 12-year old girl, and the seduction of her mother — while The Secret Life and Lolita flesh out Dullita and Lolita as complex, poetic characters. They grow organically from their sketchy antecedents of a decade earlier.
Both Dalí and Nabokov spent time in Paris before moving to New York. Having already learned, in all likelihood, more than he’d care to admit from Dalí and Breton in Paris, Nabokov again found Dalí in the center of things once he moved to New York. If we look at the symmetrical evolution of Dulita and Lolita, we see how the once nameless nymphet of The Enchanter took fresh inspiration from Dalí’s 1942 Dullita. The substantial changes Nabokov made to the plot in his novel were pretty much the same changes Dalí made when he retold his tale in The Secret Life. According to Dalí’s later account, behind the fictional Dulita of “Rêverie” stood a real-life Dullita, met in early childhood, and behind her lay the first dreamed image of Gala, his future wife, whom he calls Galuchka in the early years of their parallel childhoods — his in Spain and hers in Russia. Similarly, The Enchanter features no vanished predecessor to the tale’s nymphet, but a decade later, the dead Annabel Leigh becomes the secret inception of Humbert’s perverse love for Lolita.
In the chapter “True Childhood Memories,” Dalí explains at length who Dullita was and discusses the role she played in his childhood, proclaiming that the little Spanish girl was only the chrysalis of his Russian wife Gala. No sodomizing plot survives in his memoir, though. It remained hidden in the pages of the surrealist magazine:
I want to realize the dream act of sodomy in the stable that I have just identified with the one in the dream. But this time the woman I love is replaced by a young girl of eleven, named Dulita, whom I met five years ago […] with a body exceptionally developed for her age, very well shaped; her gait and lazy gestures are extremely voluptuous to me.
As he develops his fantasy, he reports that “Dulita’s mother, a rather beautiful woman, about forty, a widow and always dressed in black, falls madly in love with me and accepts, out of masochism, my fantasy of sodomizing her daughter, even consenting to help me with all her strength, all her devotion.”
Dalí’s two chapters on Dullita in The Secret Life become an entire novella, in which the girl emerges as only a link in the chain that leads to the apparition of the real object of desire, Gala. He tells the story of how he first had a surrealist vision of Gala as Galuchka in his early childhood, as he stands next to a fountain where he finds a surrealist object that would become a fetish associated first with Galuchka and then with Dullita: a plane ball, the round fruit of the platane, filled with seeds. Always seen from behind and shaped like a keyhole, Galuchka precedes her sodomized follower, nine-year-old Dullita. In her turn, this Dullita will be replaced by a third and final 12-year-old Dullita. Little Dalí engages in symbolic games with the girl, which mix the sex drive with the death drive:
The same sentiment of never-extinguished love that I had had for Galuchka was born anew; her name was Dullita, for that is what her two fervent and adoring friends called her ceaselessly and in every tone of tenderness and passion, I returned home without having seen her face and without its having occurred to me to look at it. It was indeed she — Dullita, Dullita! Galuchka “Rediviva!”
Dalí sums up his obsessional encounter: “With my crutch I imperceptibly touched the girl’s back. She quickly turned around, and I then said to her, with a sureness and a force of conviction that came close to rage: ‘You shall be Dullita!’” Like Dalí in The Secret Life, in Lolita Nabokov explores the multiple layers that go into the making of his 1939 nymphet. The object of Humbert’s desire is yoked with a previous beloved who died in early adolescence.
Nabokov’s redoubled rewriting of Dalí’s Dulita was part and parcel of a deeper engagement with surrealist ideas, including those of the mastermind of surrealism, André Breton. Humbert’s uncontrollable love for Lolita is an American version of Breton’s “Mad Love”/“Amour fou,” in a tale that mixes poetry and perversity in equal measure. Together, Breton and Dalí gave Nabokov the key to shaping his breakthrough novel, in which he infused the postwar American landscape with a surrealist sensibility.
Nabokov even gives us a small hint of his connection with Dalí in the pages of Lolita itself. One Sunday morning, while Lolita’s mother is at church, the girl, perched on Humbert’s lap, insists on showing him a photo from a popular American magazine. As Humbert reports:
I was slow in reacting to it, and her bare knees rubbed and knocked impatiently against each other. Dimly there came into view: a surrealist painter relaxing, supine, on a beach, and near him, likewise supine, a plaster replica of the Venus de Milo, half-buried in sand. Picture of the Week, said the legend. I whisked the whole obscene thing away.
Life was the magazine that ran a “Picture of the Week” feature. Leafing through the issue dated April 7, 1941, you will find a photo showing Salvador Dalí — who, in 1936, had famously created his Venus de Milo with drawers for breasts — planting a bare-busted mannequin in a pond on the grounds of Hampton Manor, the Virginia estate of the socialite and art patron Caresse Crosby. The mannequin is the dead bride who will be resurrected in spring from the same pond, much as Humbert’s deceased beloved Annabel will be resurrected as Lolita from a lake, or “princedom by the sea.” The caption reads as follows: “‘Enchanting’ the grounds at Hampton Manor, Dalí plants a bare-busted manikin waist-deep in a frog pond. When spring comes he intends to ‘enchant’ the whole place.”
Dr. Delia Ungureanu is assistant director of Harvard’s Institute for World Literature and assistant professor of literary theory in the Department of Literary Studies at the University of Bucharest. She is the author of From Paris to Tlön: Surrealism as World Literature (Bloomsbury, November 2, 2017).