Cover of the first edition (Olympia Press, Paris, 1955)
|Publisher||Olympia Press, G. P. Putnam's Sons, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Fawcett, Transworld (Corgi), Phaedra|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||368 pp (recent paperback edition)|
|ISBN||ISBN 1-85715-133-X (recent paperback edition)|
Lolita (1955) is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, first written in English and published in 1955 in Paris, later translated by the author into Russian and published in 1958 in New York. The book is internationally famous for its innovative style and infamous for its controversial subject: the protagonist and unreliable narrator, middle-aged Humbert Humbert, becomes obsessed and sexually involved with a 12-year-old girl named Dolores Haze.
After its publication, Nabokov's Lolita attained a classic status, becoming one of the best-known and most controversial examples of 20th century literature. The name "Lolita" has entered pop culture to describe a sexually precocious adolescent girl. The novel was adapted to film in 1962 and again in 1997.
Lolita is narrated by Humbert Humbert, a literary scholar born in 1910 in Paris, who is obsessed with what he refers to as "nymphets". Humbert suggests that this obsession results from his failure to consummate an affair with a childhood sweetheart before her premature death. In 1947, Humbert moves to Ramsdale, a small New England town, to write. He rents a room in the house of Charlotte Haze, a widow, mainly for the purpose of being near Charlotte's 12-year-old daughter, Dolores (also known as Dolly, Lolita, Lola, Lo, and L).
While Lolita is away at summer camp, Charlotte, who has fallen in love with Humbert, tells him that he must either marry her or move out. Humbert reluctantly agrees in order to continue living near Lolita. Charlotte is oblivious to Humbert's distaste for her and his lust for Lolita until she reads his diary. Upon learning of Humbert's true feelings, Charlotte is appalled: she makes plans to flee with Lolita and threatens to expose Humbert's perversions. But as she runs across the street in a state of shock, she is struck and killed by a passing car.
Humbert picks Lolita up from camp, pretending that Charlotte is ill and in a hospital. He takes Lolita to a hotel, where he meets a strange man (later revealed to be Clare Quilty), who seems to know who he is. Humbert attempts to use sleeping pills on Lolita so that he may molest her without her knowledge, but they have little effect on her. Instead, she consciously seduces Humbert the next morning. He discovers that he is not her first lover, as she had sex with a boy at summer camp. Humbert reveals to Lolita that Charlotte is actually dead; Lolita has no choice but to accept her stepfather into her life on his terms.
Lolita and Humbert drive around the country, moving from state to state and motel to motel. Humbert initially keeps the girl under control by threatening her with reform school; later he bribes her for sexual favors, though he knows that she does not reciprocate his love and shares none of his interests. After a year touring North America, the two settle down in another New England town. Humbert is very possessive and strict, forbidding Lolita to take part in after-school activities or to associate with boys; the townspeople, however, see this as the action of a loving and concerned, if old fashioned, parent.
Lolita begs to be allowed to take part in the school play; Humbert reluctantly grants his permission in exchange for more sexual favors. The play is written by Clare Quilty. He is said to have attended a rehearsal and been impressed by Lolita's acting. Just before opening night, Lolita and Humbert have a ferocious argument, which culminates in Lolita saying she wants to leave town and resume their travels.
As Lolita and Humbert drive westward again, Humbert gets the feeling that their car is being tailed and he becomes increasingly suspicious. Lolita falls ill and must convalesce in a hospital; Humbert stays in a nearby motel. One night, Lolita disappears from the hospital; the staff tell Humbert that Lolita's "uncle" checked her out. Humbert embarks upon a frantic search to find Lolita and her abductor, but eventually he gives up.
One day in 1952, Humbert receives a letter from Lolita, now 17, who tells him that she is married, pregnant, and in desperate need of money. Humbert goes to see Lolita, giving her money and hoping to kill the man who abducted her. She reveals the truth: Clare Quilty, an acquaintance of Charlotte's and the writer of the school play, checked her out of the hospital and attempted to make her star in one of his pornographic films; when she refused, he threw her out.
Humbert asks Lolita to leave her husband and return to him, but she refuses, breaking Humbert's spirit. He leaves Lolita forever, kills Quilty at his mansion in an act of revenge and is arrested for driving on the wrong side of the road and swerving. The narrative closes with Humbert's final words to Lolita in which he wishes her well.
The novel is a tragicomedy narrated by Humbert, who riddles the narrative with word play and his wry observations of American culture. His humor provides an effective counterpoint to the pathos of the tragic plot. The novel's flamboyant style is characterized by word play, double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages such as nymphet, a word that has since had a life of its own and can be found in most dictionaries, and the lesser used "faunlet". One of the novel's characters, "Vivian Darkbloom," is an anagram for author Vladimir Nabokov.
Several times, Humbert begs the reader to understand that he is not proud of his union with Lolita, but is filled with remorse. At one point, he is listening to the sounds of children playing outdoors, and is stricken with guilt at the realization that he robbed Lolita of her childhood.
Some critics have accepted Humbert's version of events at face value. In 1959, novelist Robertson Davies excused the narrator entirely, writing that the theme of Lolita is "not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child".
Most writers, however, have given less credit to Humbert and more to Nabokov's powers as an ironist. For Richard Rorty, in his famous interpretation of Lolita in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Humbert is a "monster of incuriosity". Nabokov himself described Humbert as "a vain and cruel wretch" and "a hateful person" (quoted in Levine, 1967).
Martin Amis, in his essay on Stalinism, Koba the Dread, proposes that Lolita is an elaborate metaphor for the totalitarianism that destroyed the Russia of Nabokov's childhood (though Nabokov states in his Afterword that he "[detests] symbols and allegories"). Amis interprets it as a story of tyranny told from the point of view of the tyrant. "Nabokov, in all his fiction, writes with incomparable penetration about delusion and coercion, about cruelty and lies", he says. "Even Lolita, especially Lolita, is a study in tyranny".
In 2003, Iranian expatriate Azar Nafisi published the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran about a covert women's reading group. For Nafisi, the essence of the novel is Humbert's solipsism and his erasure of Lolita's independent identity. She writes: "Lolita was given to us as Humbert's creature [...] To reinvent her, Humbert must take from Lolita her own real history and replace it with his own [...] Yet she does have a past. Despite Humbert's attempts to orphan Lolita by robbing her of her history, that past is still given to us in glimpses".
One of the novel's early champions, Lionel Trilling, warned in 1958 of the moral difficulty in interpreting a book with so eloquent and so self-deceived a narrator: "we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize 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".
Due to its subject matter, Nabokov was unable to find an American publisher for Lolita after finishing it in 1953. After four refusals, he finally resorted to Olympia Press in Paris, September 1955. Although the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, there were no substantial reviews. Eventually, at the end of 1955, Graham Greene, in an interview with the (London) Times, called it one of the best novels of 1955. This statement provoked a response from the (London) Sunday Express, whose editor called it "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography." British Customs officers were then instructed by a panicked Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. In December 1956, the French followed suit and the Minister of the Interior banned Lolita. (the ban lasted for two years). Its eventual British publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson caused a scandal that contributed to the end of the political career of one of the publishers, Nigel Nicolson.
By complete contrast, American officials were initially nervous, but the first American edition was issued without problems by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1958, and was a bestseller, the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in the first three weeks of publication. The first official translation of the book was the Danish edition, which was published in 1957.
Today, it is considered by many to be one of the finest novels written in the 20th century. In 1998, it was named the fourth greatest English language novel of the 20th century by the Modern Library. Nabokov rated the book highly himself. In an interview for BBC Television in 1962 he said,
Lolita is a special favourite of mine. It was my most difficult book—the book that treated of 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.
Two years later, in 1964's interview for Playboy, he said,
I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle—its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look. Of course she completely eclipsed my other works—at least those I wrote in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, my short stories, my book of recollections; but I cannot grudge her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet.
At the same year, in the interview for Life, Nabokov was asked, "Which of your writings has pleased you most?" He answered,
I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow—perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.
In 1939, Nabokov wrote a novella Volshebnik (Волшебник) that was published only posthumously in 1986 in English translation as The Enchanter. It can be seen as an early version of Lolita but with significant differences: it takes place in Central Europe, and the protagonist is unable to consummate his passion with his stepdaughter, leading to his suicide. The theme of ephebophilia was already touched on by Nabokov in his short story A Nursery Tale, written in 1926. Also, in the 1932 Laughter in the Dark, Margot Peters is sixteen and already had an affair when middle-aged Albinus is attracted to her.
In chapter three of the novel The Gift (written in Russian in 1935–1937) the similar gist of Lolita's first chapter is outlined to the protagonist Fyodor Cherdyntsev by his obnoxious landlord Shchyogolev as an idea of a novel he would write "if I only had the time": a man marries a widow only to gain access to her young daughter, who however resists all his passes. Shchyogolev says it happened "in reality" to a friend of his; it is made clear to the reader that it concerns himself and his stepdaughter Zina (fifteen at the time of marriage) who becomes the love of Fyodor's life and his child bride.
In April 1947 Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson: "I am writing ... a short novel about a man who liked little girls–and it's going to be called The Kingdom by the Sea...." The work expanded into Lolita during the next eight years. Nabokov used the title A Kingdom by the Sea in his 1974 pseudo-autobiographic novel Look at the Harlequins! for a Lolita-like book written by the narrator who, in addition, travels with his teenage daughter Bel from motel to motel after the death of her mother; later, his fourth wife is Bel's look-alike and shares her birthday.
According to Alexander Dolinin, the prototype of Lolita was 11-year-old Florence Horner, kidnapped in 1948 by a 50-year-old mechanic Frank La Salle, who had caught her stealing a five-cent notebook. La Salle traveled with her over various states for 21 months and is believed to have raped her. He claimed that he was an FBI agent and threatened to “turn her in” for the theft and to send her to "a place for girls like you." The Horner case was not widely reported, but Dolinin adduces various similarities in events and descriptions.
The problem with this suggestion is that Nabokov had already used the same basic idea — that of a child molester and his victim booking into a hotel as man and daughter — in his then-unpublished 1939 work Volshebnik (Волшебник). This is not to say, however, that Nabokov could not have drawn on some details of the case in writing Lolita, and the La Salle case is mentioned explicitly in Chapter 33 of Part II:
Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?
German academic Michael Maar's book The Two Lolitas (ISBN 1-84467-038-4) describes his recent discovery of a 1916 German short story titled "Lolita" about a middle-aged man travelling abroad who takes a room as a lodger and instantly becomes obsessed with the preteen girl (also named Lolita) who lives in the same house. Maar has speculated that Nabokov may have had cryptomnesia (a "hidden memory" of the story that Nabokov was unaware of) while he was composing Lolita during the 1950s. Maar says that until 1937 Nabokov lived in the same section of Berlin as the author, Heinz von Eschwege (pen name: Heinz von Lichberg), and was most likely familiar with his work, which was widely available in Germany during Nabokov's time there. The Philadelphia Inquirer, in the article "Lolita at 50: Did Nabokov take literary liberties?" says that, according to Maar, accusations of plagiarism should not apply and quotes him as saying: "Literature has always been a huge crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast... Nothing of what we admire in Lolita is already to be found in the tale; the former is in no way deducible from the latter." See also Jonathan Lethem in Harper's Magazine on this story.
In 1956, Nabokov penned an afterword to Lolita ("On a Book Entitled Lolita") that was included in every subsequent edition of the book.
In the afterword, Nabokov wrote that "the initial shiver of inspiration" for Lolita "was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage". Neither the article nor the drawing has been recovered.
In response to an American critic who characterized Lolita as the record of Nabokov's "love affair with the romantic novel", Nabokov wrote that "the substitution of 'English language' for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant formula more correct".
Nabokov concluded the afterword with a reference to his beloved first language, which he abandoned as a writer once he moved to the United States in 1940: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian language for a second-rate brand of English".
The translation includes a "Postscriptum" in which Nabokov reconsiders his relationship with his native language. Referring to the afterword to the English edition, Nabokov states that only "the scientific scrupulousness led me to preserve the last paragraph of the American afterword in the Russian text..." He further explains that the "story of this translation is the story of a disappointment. Alas, that 'wonderful Russian language' which, I imagined, still awaits me somewhere, which blooms like a faithful spring behind the locked gate to which I, after so many years, still possess the key, turned out to be non-existent, and there is nothing beyond that gate, except for some burned out stumps and hopeless autumnal emptiness, and the key in my hand looks rather like a lock pick."