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.