Thursday, March 05, 2009

His necessary and sufficient realism

Toward the end of his novel, after Lolita has been stolen from him by Clare Quilty, Humbert Humbert returns briefly to Ramsdale. His object is to visit Quilty’s uncle, a dentist in town, hoping to learn the nephew’s whereabouts. He takes a room in the same downtown hotel where he had arrived with a bag more than five years before. Walking through the lobby on his way to the appointment with Dr. Quilty, he encounters Mrs. Chatfield, who pounces on him with a “harsh cry of recognition,” smiling fakely, her face “all aglow with evil curiosity.” Humbert imagines her asking whether he had “done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank LaSalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?”

My student Courtney Reed, on a hunch, researched the case. What she found, in her words, was that the “story itself is eerily similar to the big idea of Lolita.” Here is the story. One day in June 1948, Florence Horner, also known as Sally, came home from school and asked her mother, Mrs. Ella Horner, an unemployed seamstress in Camden, N.J., if she could go to the Jersey Shore with two classmates and their father, a man named “Warner.” Sally was eleven. After talking to “Warner” on the phone, Mrs. Horner agreed to let her daughter go. On June 14, she walked Sally to the bus station where they met “Warner.” The man and the girl boarded the bus together and departed for the shore. Some time later, Mrs. Horner received a letter from Sally, saying that they were going to stay at the shore longer than originally planned. Then she wrote that “Warner” was moving to Baltimore and taking her along. Mrs. Horner finally became suspicious and contacted the local police. No trace of Sally or “Warner” could be found.

What Sally had not told her mother was that LaSalle had witnessed her stealing a five-cent copybook from a five-and-dime. Posing as an FBI agent, he threatened to send her to a juvenile detention center unless she agreed to go away with him. Accompanied by a young woman about twenty-five whom LaSalle called “Miss Robinson,” they fled immediately to Baltimore. Miss Robinson disappeared, and Sally posed as LaSalle’s daughter, enrolling in a Catholic school. “He told me that if I went back home, or they sent for me, of if I ran away I’d go to prison,” Sally later told authorities. From Baltimore they relocated to Dallas, where LaSalle worked as an auto mechanic and Sally once again enrolled in a local Catholic school, passing herself off as LaSalle’s daughter. After a stretch in Dallas, they drove to San Jose.

Finally, in March 1950, three weeks after arriving in San Jose, while staying in a motor court, Sally seized the opportunity of LaSalle’s having gone shopping to phone her older sister in Beverly, N.J., asking her to “send the FBI right away.” Santa Clara sheriff’s deputies arrived and arrested LaSalle when he returned from his shopping trip. Described by crime reporters as “thin-faced and gray-haired,” he protested that he was the girl’s legal guardian; he claimed to have married Mrs. Ella Horner back in New Jersey. Upon investigation, he turned out to have a long criminal record, including a conviction for rape and arrests for bigamy, indecent assault, and enticing minors. LaSalle initially denied Sally’s accusations of sexual intimacy or that she had held the girl against her will. Extradited to New Jersey, he unexpectedly confessed and plead guilty two weeks later, and was sentenced to thirty to thirty-five years for violating the state’s “Lindbergh law.”

Two and a half years later, Sally Horner died in an automobile accident. She was fifteen.

Nabokov liked to say that reality is the only word that should also be squeezed between the tongs of quotation marks. As I observed below, the colors that he assigned to Quilty’s cars were actual paint codes in American-made cars in the early fifties. And then this case, which bears such an uncanny similarity to the plot of Lolita that I almost suspect Nabokov of discovering in it the germ of his novel, and then concealing the source in a parenthetical sentence in an unimportant scene in a late chapter. Nabokov was a master illusionist—to conceal his necessary and sufficient realism.

2 comments:

R. T. Davis said...

Bravo to your student who did the innovative research. You must be gratified to have such a student in your class. Every now and then (but not often enough) I have the thrill of being pleasantly surprised by students. Then it makes a life in the classroom worthwhile.

Chrees said...

Wasn't for Lolita that Nabokov said his inspiration was an article about a zoo ape that, given drawing utensils, drew the bars on his cage? (I don't have my book available here at work) Given that he had worked on the book or had at least written a story with a germ of a Lolita-like story before 1948, I don't disbelieve him. But the LaSalle case must have crystallized how to approach writing Lolita.