Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026034, Mon, 23 Feb 2015 13:40:24 -0500

sighting ~ Vladimir Nabokov The 100 best novels The 100 best novels: No 75– Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955) Nabokov’s tragicomic tour de force crosses the boundaries of good taste with glee Robert McCrum introduces the series

[image: 100 best novels lolita]
James Mason and Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Lolita.
Photograph: Allstar/MGM
Vladimir Nabokov <http://www.theguardian.com/books/vladimirnabokov>
The 100 best novels
The 100 best novels: No 75 – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
Nabokov’s tragicomic tour de force crosses the boundaries of good taste
with glee

Robert McCrum introduces the series
[image: Robert McCrum]

Robert McCrum <http://www.theguardian.com/profile/robertmccrum>

Monday 23 February 2015 00.45 EST


In 1962, almost a decade after its first appearance, Nabokov told the BBC
that “*Lolita* is a special favourite of mine. It was my most difficult
book – the book that treated a theme which was so distant, so remote, from
my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my
combinational talent to make it real.”

The author’s passion for this erotic tragicomedy is part of its charm and
its appeal. Nabokov knows he is crossing boundaries of good taste but he
exults in his truancy from convention anyway. Everything, and everyone, is
up for grabs. From the famous opening line, *Lolita* is the work of a
writer in love with the potentiality of the English language: “Lolita,
light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of
the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three,
on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Nabokov’s novel is both a comic tour de force
and a transgressive romp. As Martin Amis
<https://www.randomhouse.com/features/nabokov/amis.html>, a devoted
advocate, has written, Lolita is “both irresistible and unforgivable”.

Subtitled “the confessions of a white widowed male”, the novel is an
intoxicating mix of apologia, prison diary and urgent appeal to the members
of a jury by a 38-year old defendant, Dr Humbert Humbert, a professor of
literature. Humbert, who is obsessed with “nymphets” (Nabokov’s coinage),
girls on the edge of puberty, has been charged with the murder of Clare
Quilty, a playwright. As Humbert’s confession unfolds, in two unequal parts
– the latter a travelogue that prompted Christopher Isherwood
<http://www.theguardian.com/books/christopher-isherwood> to joke that it
was “the best travel book ever written about America” – the reader
discovers that his defence is “crime of passion”: he slaughtered Quilty out
of love for Dolores Haze, his “Lolita”.

Although we see him drugging the love object of his dreams, Humbert is
hardly debauching an innocent. In a twist that makes for uncomfortable
reading in the context of contemporary anxieties about child abuse, Nabokov
establishes that Lolita <http://www.theguardian.com/film/lolita> is
sexually precocious already. When it comes to the moment when she and
Humbert are “technically lovers”, it was, in Nabokov’s brilliant and
clinical reversal, “she who seduced me”.
*A note on the text*

Nabokov’s mother tongue was Russian, just as Joseph Conrad
was Polish. But, like Conrad, he takes his place here as a master of the
English (and American) language. Nabokov’s own retrospective account, dated
12 November 1956, “On a book entitled *Lolita*”, provides the essential
narrative of his novel’s gestation.


He writes that “the first little throb of *Lolita* went through me late in
1939, or early in 1940, in Paris.” At the time, he says, he was “laid up
with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia”. The upshot of this “little
throb” was “a short story some 30 pages long”, written in Russian. But
Nabokov was displeased with this preliminary sketch and says he “destroyed
it some time after moving to America in 1940”.

But the fever-germ of his masterpiece was lodged in his imagination. In
1949, he continues, “the throbbing, which had never quite ceased, began to
plague me again”. Now writing in English as a would-be American, he began a
new version. Progress was painfully slow. “Other books intervened,” he
writes, but still he could not reconcile himself to consigning his
unfinished draft to the incinerator.

Meanwhile, the exiled Nabokov, a distinguished lepidopterist, could never
resist the lure of errant butterflies. “Literature and butterflies,” he
once said, “are the two sweetest passions known to man.” Every summer he
and his wife would head out west to Colorado, Arizona or Wyoming in pursuit
of Variegated Fritillaries and Polyommatus blues. It was there, out in
Telluride, that he resumed writing *Lolita* “in the evenings, or on cloudy
days”. By the spring of 1954 he had completed a longhand draft and “began
casting around for a publisher”.

It was now that the fun started. The immediate response of the four
American publishers to whom it was submitted (Farrar Straus, Viking, Simon
& Schuster and New Directions) was that they would not touch it with a
bargepole. One editor, a timid soul, exclaimed “Do you think I’m crazy?”
Others expressed fears about prosecution, and hinted darkly at the risk of
prison. In despair, Nabokov turned to publication in France with Maurice
Girodias’s Olympia Press, an imprint specialising in what has been
described as a list of “pornographic trash”. Nabokov duly signed a contract
with the Olympia Press for publication of the book, which would not appear
anonymously (as had been mooted in America) but came out in volume form
(two volumes, actually) under his own name.

*Lolita* was published in September 1955, as a pair of green paperbacks
<http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Lolita_1955.JPG> littered
with typographical errors. Nevertheless, the first printing of 5,000 copies
sold out, though virtually no one had reviewed it. Then, towards the end of
1955, Graham Greene, choosing his books of the year for the *Sunday Times*,
described it as one of the best books of the year. This statement provoked
a reaction from the *Sunday Express*, whose editor called it “the filthiest
book I have ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography”. The novel
became a banned book, in a manner unthinkable today. For two years, copies
of *Lolita*were proscribed by the authorities and hunted down by British
customs. Eventually, the young publisher George Weidenfeld saw his chance.
In 1959 he brought out a British edition, challenging the law. After a
tense standoff, the attorney general decided not to prosecute. Weidenfeld
made his first fortune, and *Lolita* entered British literary mythology. In
America, the first US edition was issued by Putnam’s in August 1958. The
book went into several printings and it is said that the novel became the
first since Margaret Mitchell’s *Gone With the Wind*to sell more than
100,000 copies in its first three weeks.

One of *Lolita*’s first supporters, the great critic Lionel Trilling,
addressed what is perhaps a central issue at the heart of this
controversial novel, when he warned of the moral difficulty in interpreting
a book with such an eloquent narrator: “We find ourselves the more shocked
when we realise that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come
virtually to condone the violation it presents… We have been seduced into
conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to
accept what we know to be revolting.” Time and format do not permit this
entry to explore the many fascinating literary critical reactions to this
book. It will never cease to horrify some readers and delight others. *De
gustibus non est disputandum.*

Looking back, Nabokov declared *Lolita* to be a record of his “love affair
with the English language”. His private tragedy, he declared, tongue in
cheek, was that “I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich,
and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English,
devoid of any of those apparatuses – the baffling mirror, the black velvet
backdrop, the implied associations and traditions – which the native
illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage
his own way.”

Second-rate ? We should be so lucky.
*Three more from Vladimir Nabokov*

*The Real Life of Sebastian Knight* (1941); *Pnin* (1957); *Pale Fire*

*Lolita is published by Penguin (£8.99). Click here to order it for £7.19*

- Vladimir Nabokov <http://www.theguardian.com/books/vladimirnabokov>
- Fiction <http://www.theguardian.com/books/fiction>
- Martin Amis <http://www.theguardian.com/books/martinamis>
- Christopher Isherwood
- Lolita <http://www.theguardian.com/film/lolita>

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