In February 1954, the Russian-born American writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote to the publishers New Directions offering them his latest novel: ‘Would you be interested in publishing a time bomb that I have just finished putting together? It is a novel of 459 typewritten pages.’ New Directions declined to publish his novel but it was eventually published the following year in Paris—and soon after was banned in France. The time bomb was Lolita, perhaps the most controversial novel of the 20th century for its story of ‘Humbert Humbert’, the pseudonym of a man who at the age of 37 becomes hopelessly infatuated with a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze, whom he renames Lolita: ‘She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.’
The novel opens with a ‘Foreword’ by John Ray, Jr, PhD, the cousin of Humbert Humbert’s lawyer, into whose care Humbert willed on his death his memoir titled Lolita, or the Confessions of a White Widowed Male so it can be prepared for publication. Dr Ray remarks that the manuscript is ‘a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis’, adding that although the cynic might argue that commercial pornography makes the same claim, the learned would maintain that, unlike the 12 per cent of American men with his erotic tendencies, Humbert is filled with despair by his urges.
The cynic and the learned reader have been arguing ever since over the content of Lolita—is it pornography or art?—a debate that reached new heights in America over Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake of Nabokov’s novel starring Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain, which faced difficulties getting cinema release in the USA. Nabokov saw his novel as a work of art, containing ‘various allusions to the psychological urges of a pervert’, in a long tradition of European writing dating from ancient times to the 18th century that mixed comedy with lewdness.
Humbert’s memoir famously opens with a play on Lolita’s name: ‘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.’ Humbert then recounts his happy childhood on the Mediterranean, surrounded by golden sand and sea vistas, where one summer he falls ‘madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly’ in love with a girl several months younger than he called Annabel. Their passion is so intense that only complete immersion in each other’s flesh and souls could have satisfied it—but Annabel dies for months later of typhoid, leaving her lover with his eternal longing. Humbert, a bookish European intellectual, conducts a remorseless self-analysis in the pages of the novel. He attributes his passion for Lolita to his ruined love for Annabel:
We loved each other with a premature love marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.
Humbert is torn by his illicit desires, which he resists until he moves to America following the Second World War. One day, while looking over a potential lodging, he happens to notice ‘Lo’: ‘from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses …’
Lolita is the story of Humbert’s love affair with Lolita, which hums across suburban America, along its highways and in its motels. It is a tragic and disturbing novel of possession and desire—and the beauty, erudition and irrepressible playfulness of Nabokov’s prose only serve to deepen the tragedy of the story, of which Humbert is only too painfully aware:
I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tyres, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.
The novel was eventually published in America by Putnam in 1958 with a note by Nabokov about its genesis. He traces Lolita to a story he read in Paris in 1939 or 1940 about an ape who, after great encouragement, eventually produced the first ever drawing by an animal—a charcoal sketch of the bars of its cage. This poignant report inspired Nabokov to write a short story in Russian, and he returned to the idea years later in America, in 1949. ‘I was now faced with the task of inventing America,’ he wrote. This he did, inventing his own America in words, writing Lolita during his many trips in search of butterflies through Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming (Nabokov was a highly regarded, self-taught lepidopterist, a butterfly expert). Lolita became a bestseller and its sales enabled Nabokov to retire from teaching and devote himself exclusively to writing.
Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899 in St Petersburg, Russia, to an aristocratic family. His father was the head of the pre-revolutionary liberal Constitutional Democratic Party and went into exile when the Revolution broke out, moving with his family to Berlin. Nabokov received a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied zoology then French and Russian literature, receiving a first-class honours degree in 1923. The previous year his father had been assassinated in Berlin (having rushed to shield the man for whom the bullet was intended), an event that was to haunt Nabokov for the rest of his life. His first novel, Mary, written in Russian, was published in 1926, and his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, was published in 1941. In 1925 Nabokov married Vera Evseyevna Slonim, with whom he had one son, Dimitri. In 1940 he moved with his family to America, where he taught at Wellesley College, and then taught Russian and European literature at Cornell University from 1948 until the publication of Lolita ten years later.
Lolita has had a widespread impact on contemporary culture, from coining the word ‘nymphet’ to the word ‘Lolita’ itself, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a sexually precocious schoolgirl’. The first cinema adaptation of the book, for which Nabokov wrote the screenplay, was Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 hit film Lolita, starring James Mason as Humbert and Sue Lyon as Lolita. In 2003 a book about a group of Muslim women and one man in Iran who find inspiration in Lolita and other literary classics became a bestseller: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. Nafisi writes: ‘no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom …’