In 1964, Vladimir Nabokov, 64 years old but as lively and mischievous as ever, turned to the Playboy interviewer seated in his hotel room. “Let us skip sex,” he said. Thanks to the tale of ardent sexual love, loss, and violation that had catapulted Nabokov to international fame 10 years earlier, this was not an easy thing to do.
Lolita did not have an easy birth, or a peaceful youth. Finishing the difficult book turned out to be only the beginning. A fictional memoir recounting the explicitly sexual affair of a middle-aged European man of refinement and a lovely and blithe American preteen was not an easy sell to publishers of the ’50s. Nabokov sent his manuscript to his editor at The New Yorker, Katharine White, stipulating that no one but her or her husband was to read it. He was understandably perplexed some months later when he found in that same magazine a story by Dorothy Parker telling of a widow and her daughter competing for the affections of an older man—entitled “Lolita.” White assured him that this was pure coincidence. Despite such early frustrations, Nabokov kept up his efforts to find a home for his wayward daughter. Finding no publisher in America or England ready to run the real risk of prosecution, his thoughts turned to the land of libertinage. His European agent put him in touch with the Paris-based, English-language Olympia Press and its director, Maurice Girodias, who declared himself ready and willing to publish the work. Nabokov knew that it would appear in the Olympia catalog alongside such respected if controversial figures as Laurence Durrell, Henry Miller, and Jean Genet. He did not know that that list would also include such works as The Whip Angels, The Enormous Bed, and I’m for Hire.
Lolita appeared in September 1955 as part of Olympia’s “Traveller’s Companion” series. This was too late—at least to accompany the travelers the publisher had in mind. The press did the bulk of its semi-salacious business in books bought for France’s long summer vacations in July and August. Lolita missed this window of opportunity. As a result, it sold few copies and attracted little attention—until the night before Christmas. In the London Sunday Times‘ winter holiday issue, Graham Greene listed Nabokov’s unknown novel as one of the three best of the year. (Two facts bear noting here: Greene exercised great influence, and some years earlier he had been sued by Shirley Temple’s parents and her studio for a review of Wee Willie Winkie in which he made reference to her “neat and well-developed rump”). A Scottish editor of no small conservatism, and no fan of Greene’s, soon got his indignant hands on Lolita and promptly denounced it as “the filthiest book I have ever read.” (He obviously skipped The Whip Angels.) John Gordon fired his indignation into his foot and the ensuing scandal made Lolita a bestseller.
In the intervening years, Lolita has been read by millions and written about by thousands. Modern-dance pieces, operas, and pop songs have all found inspiration in it. Indie-rock bands have borrowed their names from both its hero and its villain (who are both villains). The Iranian writer Azar Nafisi has credited it with helping her to teach women in her homeland to think more courageously about their world. The Oxford English Dictionary has incorporated its inventions and nearly every university in America offers classes teaching it. And yet, scandal has continued to shadow Lolita’s lovely steps. While Stanley Kubrick’s daring film version of the novel made its way into the theaters in 1962 without incident, Adrian Lyne’s carefully disturbing one from 1997 did not, falling victim to a U.S. public-obscenity law that kept it from U.S. theaters and sending its premiere to Italy. Edward Albee adapted Lolita for the New York stage in 1981. Despite a stellar cast featuring Donald Sutherland, the play was an unconditional flop and closed nine merciful days later.
In the print world, the Italian novelist Pia Pera undertook a radical retelling of the story. The conceit of Lo’s Diary, first published in Italian in 1995, was to tell Nabokov’s story not from the perspective of the refined and rapacious Humbert Humbert, but instead from that of the young girl. Pera’s “Lo” is well aware of what’s going on and enjoys a good deal of it. More upsetting to Nabokov’s literary executor—Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son—than Pera’s ample borrowings from Lolita‘s plot proved her deviations from it, such as a scene where Lolita sodomizes a drugged and sleeping Humbert with a pen. (Reader: symbol!) When Farrar, Straus & Giroux announced an English translation, he filed suit for copyright violation. Threats were fired back and forth until a unique out-of-court settlement was reached: Dmitri, a retired race car driver and opera singer, agreed to the publication of an English translation of the novel on the condition that it be accompanied by a preface—written by himself. He trashes it.
Even today, the school for scandal has not let out. Its general focus has changed, however—from the post-history of Lolita, with its adaptations and appropriations, to its pre-history and precursors. This began in 1985 with the re-publication of the anonymous memoir of a Ukrainian pedophile. Nabokov’s letters testify to his having read in the years before he wrote Lolita the anonymous memoirs of a Ukrainian pedophile published as an appendix to the French edition of Havelock Ellis’s Studies in Psychology of Sex (fearing the English public’s reaction, Ellis had withheld it from the earlier English edition). Several passionate Nabokovians claimed—on scant evidence—that herein lay an important inspiration for Nabokov’s book. More recent, and far more perplexing, is German literary scholar Michael Maar’s uncovering last year a long-forgotten German short story pseudonymously authored by a Hessian aristocrat in 1916 (Nabokov and his family moved to Berlin in 1920). The compact tale brims with doubles, delirium, and pedophilia—and is entitled “Lolita” (for more on this curious matter, see Maar’s The Two Lolitas, out from Verso this month). And in another twist in the search for Lolita’s origins, Australian author Joanne Morgan’s Solving Nabokov’s Lolita Riddle (Cosynch Press, 2005) is, by her own description, “a code-cracking book” that “proves that Nabokov wrote Lolita as a semi-autobiographical account of his own terrible sexual abuse as a boy at the hands of his molesting, pedophilic Uncle Ruka.”
When Nabokov died in 1977, he left behind an unfinished novel entitled The Original of Laura. His express wish was that it be destroyed upon his death. Before him, Virgil and Kafka had left similar instructions; neither was obeyed. Nor was Nabokov. His wife, Véra, found herself unable to carry out her late husband’s wishes, and when she passed away in 1991 she bequeathed the decision to their son. The manuscript’s location is kept secret.
If Nabokov’s wishes are to be respected, The Original of Laura will never be read by any but the few intimates who have already done so. As to the original of Lolita, no such special precautions need be taken. The original of Lolita is not the story of a Hessian aristocrat, just as little as it is the memoir of an anonymous Ukrainian, or the author’s improbable molestation at the fumbling hands of his uncle. To search for the experiences leading to a work of art is as natural as not finding them. But ultimately, the original of Lolita is something we do not know and will never know, and is nothing other than the perfectly private movements of the mind of her creator. That the result should have proved so surprising is of the order of things. As a character in Lolita remarks, “A great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise.”
Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.