Speculating on the table manners of dictators, Nige quotes Lolita. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” Humbert Humbert says.
But what does he mean? (Humbert, that is.) Nige quotes him to humorous effect, because it is pretty obvious that Humbert is not offering up a universally acknowledged truth. Here, for example, is Jack Henry Abbott, who stabbed a waiter to death just six weeks after Norman Mailer had got him freed from prison:
Humbert is not a sociopath. Just two sentences after calling attention to his prose style, he asks his readers—addressed as “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” because Lolita takes the form of a speech for the defense—to consider the purpose for which he is writing: “Look at this tangle of thorns.” Alfred Appel’s note is of little use: “[A]nother H.H., the penitent, confessor, and martyr to love, calls attention to his thorns, the immodest reference to so sacred an image suggesting that the reader would do well to judge H.H.’s tone rather than his deeds.” Why Appel was unwilling to spell out the reference is unclear. Here is the account in the Gospel according to Matthew, as translated by Ronald Knox:
But in this passage Humbert is not a murderer. The killing of Quilty might even be an act of rough justice. Here he is, at last, an admitted pedophile—no longer “an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy,” who seeks to fancy up his crime by calling it nympholepsy instead. The adjective fancy, used as the antonym of “plain,” dates from the mid-eighteenth century and derives from cookery and fashion. Over the course of his novel Humbert gradually sheds his verbal ornamentation, his fine writing, as he comes to atone plainly for the evil he has done, not to a fancy of his imagination, but to this Lolita, his Lolita. You can always count upon a murderer for a fancy prose style when he wishes to dissemble his true monstrosity. You can count upon an honest man, who makes repentance, for a plain style.