NABOKV-L post 0011881, Thu, 15 Sep 2005 18:26:37 -0700

Stacy Schiff on Lolita at 50.

EDNOTE. NABOKV-L thanks Carolyn for this item.
The New York Times September 15, 2005
Forever Young

IN "circular skirt and scanties," Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" flounced into print 50 years ago today. But before she tripped off the tongue and into the literary canon, before she lent her name to inflatable dolls and escort agencies, Lolita was a much-rejected manuscript, huddling in a locked drawer. Her author spoke of her only in secret, on the condition that his identity never be revealed. He kept her out of the hands of the United States Postal Service. She was his "time bomb." The wonder is that - in a confessional culture, in taboo-toppling, hail-Britney times - she still startles and sears.

Humbert Humbert claims to have written the text in 56 days, but Nabokov was less of a madman, and a Cornell professor to boot. He labored over the pages for six years. Only in the summer of 1953 did he first mention his novel "about a man who liked little girls" to an editor. Nabokov was a fairly recent immigrant, but he knew well that no one in America was beating down the door to read the sexually explicit confessions of a European gentleman who several times a day, over the course of two years, rapes his prepubescent stepdaughter.

Nabokov's wife, Véra, had already warned that the novel was not one for children. The first editor to read "Lolita" did not think it even a book for adults, at least not for adults unwilling to serve jail sentences. In 1955, Paris was a city rather than a celebrity; stars of X-rated films did not write how-to books; and "obscene" was a designation for art rather than a denomination of money. Behind Nabokov's back, friends agreed that no one would touch the thing. They were right. "I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years," cringed one editor.

At Doubleday, young Jason Epstein was quick to grasp that the novel was infinitely more than the sum of its plot, that Nabokov had "in effect, written 'Swann's Way' as if he had been James Joyce." The book read like a thriller. Its pacing was quick. It was vastly amusing. And Mr. Epstein could vote against "Lolita" only "on the grounds of its outlandish perverseness."

In the Nabokov household that term translated into "extreme originality." Which is how the work was billed when - after a year of rejections - Véra Nabokov packed off "Lolita" to Paris. The manuscript made its way to the Olympia Press, where Maurice Girodias presided over a list of gamy English-language classics. Girodias took to the novel immediately, although he had no illusions about sales. His only condition was that Nabokov put his name on the book, a condition to which the author agreed. He held in his hands the Olympia edition - two pale-green volumes that would be smuggled back from Paris in American suitcases over the next years - for the first time on Oct. 8, 1955.

Deafening silence followed. Only at the end of the year did Graham Greene, in London, relieve "Lolita" of her obscurity. Greene was not always good to little girls; he had lost a lawsuit for having proferred a few remarks about Shirley Temple and her "dimpled depravity." But asked to name the best books of 1955 he cited among three titles an obscure English-language work available only in Paris. He created an uproar in England, and a moral panic in America.

Legal considerations aside, not everyone took to the book. Edmund Wilson was repulsed; like many, he had trouble untangling author and narrator. Evelyn Waugh thought the novel without merit, except as smut. (On which count it was "highly exciting." To E. M. Forster those same pages were "rather a bore.") Rebecca West found the novel labored and ugly, a diluted blend of Peter de Vries and S. J. Perelman. Worse, she found in "Lolita" a great deal of Dostoyevsky, whom Nabokov abhorred.

All the same, there were plenty of admirers. Where once Nabokov had been meek, he was by the spring of 1956 defiant. He shrugged off those who warned of the danger of American publication. A serious work of art, "Lolita" could not be proved to be "lewd and libertine." It was moreover a tragedy. "The tragic and the obscene exclude one another," lectured Nabokov, who was a brilliant artist, but no lawyer. D. H. Lawrence's reputation as one of the century's greats had done nothing to protect "Lady Chatterley's Lover" from being tried for obscenity - and in 1956 Nabokov was no Lawrence. In truth, good writing had more to answer for in the eyes of the law. It packed a more pernicious punch.

There were a few additional wrinkles, given American copyright law and "Lolita's" foreign birth. Nabokov offered another consideration, possibly only as a negotiating tactic with editors. Warned by Jason Epstein that he could neither avoid an obscenity trial nor expect a fair one, he explained that he had no choice but to publish. He could not survive on his Cornell salary alone. The decision was "not a matter of principle but a matter of money." It is perhaps noteworthy that in the course of a year on the road with Lolita, Humbert spends the equivalent of Nabokov's Cornell salary on food and lodging alone.

Just as it was being considered by American publishers, the novel was banned in Paris, of all places. (It would be unbanned, then rebanned, in France. By 1958 it could be sold but not exhibited.)

On receipt of the French news, Nabokov sat down to commune with Graham Greene. "My poor 'Lolita' is having a rough time," he lamented. The novel fell between two stools. Those who picked it up looking for art were horrified; those in search of sex were bored. Nabokov had a point: The net effect of reading "Lolita" is indeed of going to bed with a pervert and waking up with a professor.

But Nabokov was right too about the locked drawer. The work includes lines that chill on every reading. "This was an orphan," Humbert reminds us, as Lo winces in pain, "This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning."

It was Walter Minton at Putnam's who managed in 1958 to satisfy all parties and publish an American edition of "Lolita" in a strategically brilliant fashion, capitalizing on her squalid past while garlanding her with establishment kudos.

He made expert use of his author. Nabokov had indeed researched "Lolita," but not the way most people thought. He had studied the law regarding orphans, consulted tables on sexual maturation, read "The Subnormal Adolescent Girl," taken notes on acne and Tampax, borrowed faithfully from the tabloids. He acknowledged that Lewis Carroll had long been on his mind. Most reassuringly, he appeared in public with an essential accessory, his 56-year-old wife. In its ads Putnam went so far as to enlist American sophistication. Here was a novel that had been banned and unbanned by those "vacillating French."

THERE was no prosecution, except by the critics. "Lolita" left this paper's daily reviewer apoplectic. The only kind thing Orville Prescott could say for the novel was that it was not cheap pornography. (It was "highbrow pornography.") It was unworthy of a reader's attention on two counts: "The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive." Generally male reviewers sympathized with Humbert and condemned Lolita. The novel may have fared well for the same reason; it was after all Lady Chatterley and Emma Bovary who had stood trial. Humbert may be a pervert, but he is not loose.

There was next to no reaction at Cornell. One of Nabokov's students confessed to being shocked not by "Lolita," but by the idea that the professor who was uncomfortable reading aloud from "Ulysses" had written it. The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor and The Baltimore Sun refused to review the novel. It was "plain pornography" in Boston, never stocked in Cincinnati, a runaway bestseller.

It is difficult to imagine a work of fiction causing as much trouble today, when "obscene" and "unpublished" fairly qualify as antonyms. Blasphemy seems largely to have supplanted immorality. Meanwhile, dewy-skinned and downy-limbed, "Lolita" has not aged. How does she do it?

She travels light, without moral or agenda. Her plot still makes headlines; "outlandish perverseness" is us. But art is meant to transgress, to venture beyond what we permit ourselves. On all counts Nabokov's is a deeply subversive work, a humorous novel about a state of damnation, an enchantment and an ache. Sex was always less the point than sanity. With 50 years' perspective, it is easier as well to pry author from narrator. Humbert violates social convention. Nabokov's only immoral act is to cast so much of the rest of literature in an unflattering light.

Stacy Schiff is the author of "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America" and "Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)," for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in biography.