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December 15, 2017

From Ashes: Nabokov and Lolita

On a summer's day in 1950, Vladimir Nabokov loaded all the notes and drafts of his half-completed novel into a box, and headed for the backyard incinerator. The story -- at this point called Kingdom by the Sea -- seemed plagued by creative problems. His teaching job at Cornell University paid the bills but left him no time to write. Most of all, even if finished, he held little hope of finding a publisher for his lurid tale of a 12 year-old "nymphet"/prisoner --at this point called Joanita Darc -- playing sex and mind-games with her middle-aged debaucher as they crisscrossed America. But Nabokov's wife knew it was more than trash: she caught him on the lawn, persuaded him to reconsider, and his Joan of Arc namesake-heroine was spared her death-by-fire.

Rising from these near-ashes, the renamed Lolita was ready for publishing two and a half years later. As Nabokov had predicted, publishing wasn't ready for it: some thought the novel brilliant, some thought it porn, and all thought it was outrageous, sure to bring jail or fines or endless litigation to its publisher.

The only interest came 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, and he thought Lolita deserved better. His view was that his hero, Humbert Humbert, was "a vain, cruel wretch," but that the book was "highly moral," and the best one he'd written.

The pedophilia is disturbing, but even more so is the mix of philosophy, howling satire, and true love that Nabokov blends with it. When, on the last page, Humbert sits on the hillside, trying to figure the full scope of his violations, there is even, amidst the bathos, a tragic note:
          ...I grew aware of a melodious unity of sounds rising like vapor from a small mining town that lay at my feet...a vapory vibration of accumulated sounds that rose to the lip of granite where I stood wiping my foul mouth. And soon I realized that all these sounds were of one nature...the women at home and the men away, it was the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices...one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon.... I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope...and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.
           This then is my story....
In the end, it was a story that only Olympia was buying, and they signed Nabokov 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 lining up.

In his diary, Nabokov derisively dubbed these events "Hurricane Lolita," but for any author it was a perfect storm. When the first American edition finally came out on August 18, 1958, it sold out. Within 4 days it 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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