Fifty years ago this autumn, the great Vladimir Nabokov held in his hands the first copy of his dangerous, funny, heartbreaking novel, Lolita. Given the book's future status as a masterpiece, it looked ridiculously humble: a paperback in the Traveller's Companion series, issued in Paris by Maurice Girodias, a pornographer. Girodias published some good writers, but made his money from masturbation fantasies for English-speaking tourists, with titles like The Whip Angels or White Thighs.
Nabokov's agent sent Lolita to Girodias because U.S. publishers feared that a story focused on a middle-aged man's sexual relationship with a girl of 12 could get them charged with obscenity. Even Nabokov was nervous. He considered publishing under a pseudonym.
Lolita sold slowly until Graham Greene rescued it. Late in 1955, when it was still unknown, he said in a London Sunday Times feature that it was one of the year's three best books. Publishers were emboldened, and by 1958, Lolita was on sale in several countries, including Canada, without legal hindrance.
Its success created a new life for Nabokov (1899-1977), till then a much-admired author with a modest following. Lolita's sales let him quit his teaching job and spend the rest of his days writing.
Two movies have kept the story in circulation, Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version with James Mason as the evil Humbert Humbert and Adrian Lyne's 1997 update, starring Jeremy Irons. The book itself has remained in print and on many university courses. Two years ago Azar Nafisi wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which she reported that her secret literature class felt liberated when they defied Iran's Islamic theocracy to discuss it. Their transgression was made all the more piquant by the fact that in Iran a man can legally marry a nine-year-old.
Among other things, Nabokov made "Lolita" a word in the language. Twenty years after his book appeared, a magazine referred to Charlie Chaplin's "Lolita-like relationships" and no one had to ask what that meant. In Jim Jarmusch's recent film, Broken Flowers, Bill Murray encounters a sexually provocative girl of about 13 named Lolita, and learns the startling fact that she's unaware of her name's significance.
At the beginning, critics had trouble coming to grips with Nabokov's novel and often found their own reactions unsettling. Lionel Trilling said that while any decent person would consider Humbert's actions intolerable, his language almost wins the reader's affection. Elizabeth Janeway said in The New York Times that on first reading she thought Lolita one of the funniest books she had encountered; on second reading she decided it was one of the saddest.
The story works on at least three levels. As a picture of America it's brilliant satire; as a depiction of Humbert's character it's harsh psychological comedy; and as a narrative it's a tragedy of misplaced love.
Tonally, it's always complicated. Nabokov shifts effortlessly from one genre to another -- detective story, revenge drama, legal brief, road story, confession and fairy tale.
Nabokov always claimed that morality in fiction bored him; he was interested only in artistic qualities; Lolita was the expression of his love affair with the English language. He was only half serious. All stories of human beings are seen partially through a moral lens, and this one more than most.
Morally, Humbert's autobiographical tale of seduction (and later the murder of a rival) contains a wrenching conflict. He depicts his love for Lolita as elevated and poetic. But even as he sets down this self-redeeming fantasy, we realize (as he does) that he's blinding himself to the pain he's caused. He understands that as a result of his actions, "a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac." (Humbert, possessing her, renamed her Lolita.)
Humbert has a moral sense as finely tuned as anyone's; he just doesn't obey its demands. The romantic vision struggling with monstrous hypocrisy keeps the story sharp and alive.
Humbert and Lolita tour the United States while Humbert tries to keep her under his control; Nabokov and his wife Vera made a similar tour, because he was writing about U.S. civilization as well as his drama of perversion. Elizabeth Hardwick once said that Nabokov approached the artifacts of U.S. life in the mood of Marco Polo studying China.
The U.S. was his new subject, and he laboured to get it right. Among his literary relics in the Library of Congress, there's a file card on which he's noted the names of American singers and songs. In his soft-pencil script we can read that he wanted to recall Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Eddy Arnold, the Ink Spots and Red Foley. He wrote down the title of a song, God's Little Candles, which sounds like a detail in Lolita. There's something touching in the image of that brilliant and scholarly Russian intellectual, just a dozen years after his escape from Europe, dutifully transcribing Rosemary Clooney's 1952 expression of lively American sexuality, "Botch-a-me, I'll-botcha you and ev'rything goes crazy."
One corner of Canadian civilization also influenced Lolita. In 1950, Nabokov lectured at the University of Toronto and stayed at what may have been his first big North American hotel, the Royal York. He found it nearly unbearable. "Slamming doors, shunting trains, the violent waterfalls of one's neighbours' toilet. Terrible." Brian Boyd tells us in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years that the Royal York inspired the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, where the sexual affair of Lolita and Humbert begins.
The ugly word "pornography" buzzed through many early reviews. Yet there's nothing in the text likely to arouse sexual feelings toward children or anyone else. A bibliophile might grow excited while tracing Nabokov's use of literary sources from Dante (Humbert cites his love for eight-year-old Beatrice, but of course Dante himself was nine, not quite the same thing) to Coleridge (he mentions the "person from Porlock" who allegedly bothered the poet and kept him from finishing Kublai Khan). A word-intoxicated logophile could be driven to a frenzy by Nabokov's arch and impish vocabulary, demonstrated in the use of pavonine (like a peacock) or nictating (winking) or nacreous (pearly or iridescent).
But someone given to pederosis, Humbert's elegant way of saying pedophilia, would find little pleasure in contemplating his miserable burden of guilt. Many have loved Lolita, for good reason, but it must also have disappointed at least one class of potential readers.