Nabokov’s tragicomic tour de force crosses the boundaries of good taste with glee
Robert McCrum introduces the series
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, 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 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 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’s 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 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.