Lolita: how a lawyer's cunning plan paid off ...
November 5, 2009
Lolita: how a lawyer's cunning plan paid off for Vladimir Nabokov
With all the brouhaha over Carter-Ruck allegedly stifling free speech it is intriguing to note that it was the very founder of the firm who struck a blow for freedom of expression 60 years ago. In 1959, almost to the day, Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian émigré novelist, may have been feeling anxious about rather more than the critical reception of his latest novel.
Lolita, first published in France in 1955, had been lauded by Graham Greene as one of that year’s best novels, and three years later the sales figures for its first American edition, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, vindicated Greene’s assessment. Some 100,000 copies of Lolita were sold in three weeks, second only to Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago.
But by 1959 Nabokov had also experienced British antipathy to the book. Customs officials had been instructed to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom and the Sunday Express condemned Lolita as “sheer unrestrained pornography”. George (later Lord) Weidenfeld, Nabokov’s publisher, had a problem: how to publish Lolita in the UK, whose government was debating what would become the Obscene Publications Act 1959?
Amber Melville-Brown, of the media and culture team at Withers LLP, says: “In 1727 Edmund Curll was convicted for the common law offence of disturbing the King’s peace over the publication of the erotic book Venus in the Cloister, also known as The Nun in her Smock. The precedent for obscenity was set.”
Weidenfeld turned to the most famous libel lawyer of his generation, the late Peter Carter-Ruck, whose Memoirs of a Libel Lawyer reveal that while he regarded Lolita as a “beautifully written, poignant and tragic” work, he was astute to its legal risks. “Obscenity was well to the fore in the minds of the authorities at that time,” he writes, and Lolita’s now notorious content was sure to invite censure given that “the story involved intercourse by an older man with a child 12 years old, a criminal offence in this country”.
Nevertheless, Carter-Ruck advised that the book was a fair business risk for publication, subject to the amendment of four sentences. Nabokov categorically rejected this advice. “To him, [Lolita] was a work of art not to be mutilated in any way by the intrusion of legal advice,” Carter-Ruck said. But if so fine a writer as Nabokov’s disinclination to accept a lawyer’s tampering with his prose is understandable, Weidenfeld’s problem seemed intractable. How on earth to secure the UK publication of Lolita?
In the event, Carter-Ruck devised a scheme of remarkable cunning. Guy Martin, a partner at the firm that still bears its founder’s surname, takes up the story: “In the 1950s obscenity was a major issue and when Lord Weidenfeld wished to publish the book in this country there was a serious concern that it might be prosecuted. But Peter’s talent for strategic thinking came into play. He advised that the Government should be informed, by letter, of the intention to distribute the book in this country. A small number of copies of the book were printed, and the letter was sent, but at a critical point — during the period that Parliament was dissolved before the general election.” In other words, Carter-Ruck gambled that in the period of inactivity after Parliament’s dissolution, on September 18, 1959, no action would be taken by the Home Secretary over Lolita. Thus the way would be clear for the book’s widespread distribution.
Parliament reassembled on October 27, and Carter-Ruck was proved right. Lolita was published on November 6, 1959, and neither its author nor publisher stood trial for obscenity. Thereafter, though, the Obscene Publications Act was wielded against a number of books, as Rod Dadak, a partner at Lewis Silkin, explains. “The greatest writers have a knack of provoking the greatest controversy. In 1960 D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was prosecuted, while in 1968 Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was also in the dock. Both books were cleared for publication, with the Court of Appeal in Last Exit establishing that writers can explore depravity and corruption without necessarily encouraging it.”
For Dadak, works of literary merit such as Lolita are not the problem — the internet, “through which truly obscene material is peddled daily”, is. Melville-Brown agrees that societal attitudes have changed immeasurably since 1959.
“Modern men and women are less quick to be offended,” she says, “either because we have become desensitised from what we see in glorious Technicolor 24 hours a day on the television, on the silver screen or on the internet, or perhaps because we have become more liberal and open-minded.”
Both Dadak and Melville-Brown agree with Martin, who says it is unlikely now that any literary work of such outstanding merit would be considered for prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. “Lolita would fall under the defence available to publishers of ‘public good’, which exempts works ‘in the interests of science, literature, art or learning’,” Martin says.
The trouble, perhaps more so today than 60 years ago, is that one man’s literary genius is another’s excuse for hatred:
witness Muslim anger at a Danish newspaper’s cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. One suspects that Nabokov would sympathise with the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, though not with Darryn Walker, the civil servant acquitted this year of obscenity charges after he posted a fictional story recounting the kidnap, rape and murder of the pop group Girls Aloud. For Nabokov, obscenity was banality, devoid of aesthetic enjoyment, and pornography was the mere “copulation of clichés”.
It is one of literary history’s abiding curiosities that Lolita’s publication was thanks to a man who later became the claimant libel lawyer par excellence.
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