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October 23, 2017

Nabokov and Lolita

On this day in 1958, the first American edition of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was published. In the summer of 1950, Nabokov had so despaired of ever finishing his story -- called "Kingdom by the Sea" at this point, the nymphet named "Joanita Darc" -- that he tried to burn the manuscript in his backyard incinerator. His wife caught him and talked him into persevering; two and a half years later the renamed Lolita was ready for the publishers -- had the publishers been ready for it. Some thought the novel brilliant, some thought it porn, and all thought it was outrageous, sure to bring fines or endless litigation to anyone involved. The only interest had come from Olympia, the French company that specialized in scandal books and anonymously-written smut. Nabokov was from aristocratic Russian stock, Cambridge-educated, an international writer with over a dozen respected books; he thought Lolita a "highly moral" book, the best one he'd written, and deserving of better, but Olympia signed him to a cut-rate deal.

Because of its Olympia Press origins, the first edition of Lolita was neither advertised nor reviewed when it came out in the summer of '55. But then, in the London Sunday Times, Graham Greene picked Lolita as one of the three best books of the year. In outraged response, a columnist at the rival Sunday Express called the book "unrestrained pornography," one of the "filthiest" he had ever read. From these first sparks a complicated, international fire of controversy and censorship arose: governments in Britain, France and the U.S. ruled and counter-ruled on the novel's admissibility; reviewers who thought the book smut, and thought the author a degenerate, sparred with those who thought it high art, and thought Nabokov misunderstood, a sheep in wolf's clothing. And with underground copies of the Olympia edition selling briskly in the States at $20 each, the big-name publishers were now lining up.

In his diary, Nabokov derisively dubbed these events "Hurricane Lolita," but for any author it was a perfect storm. Within 4 days of publication the book was into a 3rd printing; by September 13 it had become the first book since Gone With The Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first 3 weeks; by the end of September, Lolita was #1 on the best seller lists, and would stay in the top ten for a year. By the time Nabokov was on the cover of Newsweek in 1962, about the only one who hadn't read the book was Groucho Marx, who quipped, "I plan to put off reading Lolita for six years, until she's eighteen."

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