NABOKV-L post 0011973, Sat, 24 Sep 2005 11:26:11 -0700

LOLOITA at 50. McGrath in NYTimes
50 Years on, 'Lolita' Still Has Power to Unnerve - New York Times
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50 Years on, 'Lolita' Still Has Power to Unnerve

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Published: September 24, 2005
Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," that disquieting story about a suave and silver-tongued European émigré who seduces a 12-year-old American girl, was published 50 years ago this month, and Vintage is celebrating with a special anniversary edition. "Lolita" is unlike most controversial books in that its edge has not dulled over time. Where "Ulysses" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover," say, now seem familiar and inoffensive, almost quaint, Nabokov's masterpiece is, if anything, more disturbing than it used to be.

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Jean Vong
Jean Vong


Scrupulousness might have argued for waiting a few years to memorialize it, since the book did not come out in this country until 1958. Nabokov finished it in December 1953, and according to his biography by Brian Boyd, sent it to five American publishers: Viking; Simon & Schuster; New Directions; Farrar, Straus; and Doubleday. None would touch it, and neither would The New Yorker, with whom Nabokov had a first-reading agreement. Katharine White, Nabokov's editor at the magazine and a friend, told him that "Lolita" made her "thoroughly miserable." Pascal Covici, his editor at Viking, said that anyone who published it risked being fined or jailed.

So the anniversary we are really celebrating is that of the Paris edition, a green-jacketed book that came out under the grimy imprint of the Olympia Press, which had cornered a lucrative niche by publishing books that ran into censorship trouble elsewhere, including titles by Henry Miller and Jean Genet. They gave the press a certain literary cachet, though most of the titles were along the lines of "Until She Screams" and "There's a Whip in My Valise."

Nabokov initially planned to publish "Lolita" pseudonymously, though he left a telltale fingerprint: mention of a character named Vivian Darkbloom, an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. But James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions, argued that the book's style was so distinctive that no one would stay fooled, and when Maurice Girodias, Olympia's publisher, urged the author to use his own name, Nabokov gave in.

Humbert Humbert, the narrator of "Lolita," claimed to have turned out the manuscript in just 56 days, and the book reads that way - the hot, urgent, at times lyrical outpourings of a man blurting out a simultaneous confession and self-justification. The task took Nabokov considerably longer, and in 1950, "beset with technical difficulties and doubts," he even started to burn the manuscript in a backyard incinerator, from which it was saved by his wife, Vera.

The "first little throb" of inspiration for "Lolita," Nabokov later wrote, came in Paris in late 1939 or early 1940, and he wrote a short story, never published, about a man who marries a dying woman to get access to her young daughter, whom he tries to seduce in a hotel room before throwing himself under a train.

The breakthrough idea of turning the story from third person to first occurred in the mid-40's, and it gave the novel its most distinctive feature, Humbert's impassioned voice: "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 wrote much of the book in circumstances not unlike those encountered by Humbert and Lolita during their year of driving more or less aimlessly around all 48 continental states: during summer vacations in the early 50's, that is, when he, Vera and their son, Dmitri, piled into the family's aging Oldsmobile and drove west so that Nabokov could pursue his other great passion: collecting butterflies.

The family stayed, like Hum and Lo, in motor courts and tourist cabins with walls so thin they could hear the flush of the next-door toilet or the exertions of honeymooning couples. For quiet in the evenings Nabokov would often repair to the back seat of the Olds, where he wrote "Lolita" on index cards. The novel is, among other things, an unashamed mash note to America, Nabokov's adoptive country, and as he wrote later, a record of his bittersweet love affair with the American language. While working on the book, he read movie magazines, scribbled jukebox song titles and rode buses to eavesdrop on snatches of teenage conversation.

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