NABOKV-L post 0011840, Mon, 12 Sep 2005 08:17:03 -0700

Fwd: 'Lolita' gets a 50-year check-up ...
EDNOTE. I run this singularly ill-informed item for the sake of its references
to remarks by novelist Jane Smiley.

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Date: Mon, 12 Sep 2005 09:21:06 -0400
From: "Sandy P. Klein" <>
Subject: 'Lolita' gets a 50-year check-up ...


Sunday, September 11, 2005By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

She's not a nymphet anymore. "Lolita" turned 50 this month.

While she's not the cause celebre she once was and perhaps her
literary luster has tarnished over the years, let's not dismiss her
quite yet.

"Lolita" was Russian emigre Vladimir Nabokov's first attempt at
writing in English, a language that gave him the chance to practice
his love of word play.

As he and devoted wife Vera chugged around the American West in the
early 1950s hunting butterflies (he made significant contributions to
their study), Nabokov soaked in the peculiar culture of his adopted
land -- the motels, the pop music, the highway diners and most of
all, Americans.

These travels became the backdrop for the book's best scenes, views
of the New World through the bewildered eyes of someone from the Old.

He finished the book during a butterfly trip and, despite a friend's
reservations, tried to publish "Lolita" under his own name.

As Nabokov related in his wicked, witty afterword, "four American
publishers, W, X, Y, Z who in turn were offered the typescript and
had their readers glance at it were shocked by 'Lolita' to a degree
... not expected."

It was rejected by the four with publisher "Z" telling Nabokov that
if he published the book "he and I would go to jail."

The real reason, he surmised, was that his tale of a pedophile in
love was one of three "taboo" subjects in American publishing. The
two others are (he wrote this in 1958):

"A Negro-White marriage which is a complex and glorious success
resulting in lots of children and grandchildren and the total atheist
who lives a happy and useful life and dies in his sleep at the age of

French publisher Maurice Girodias had no such qualms. He released
the Olympia Press version in September 1955, creating a buzz that
resisted legal threats and led to the American publication in '58.

"Lolita" lifted the obscure Cornell professor and his previous work
into the literary public eye and gave him the money to abandon
Ithaca, N.Y., for Switzerland. There he wrote "Pale Fire," "Ada," his
memoir, "Speak, Memory," and translating his earlier fiction.

"Lolita" would not go away, however. Nabokov wrote a screenplay (not
used) and endured Stanley Kubrick's sanitized 1962 film version with
an actress who could have passed for 25 playing Lolita.

Nabokov's Lolita was 12 when she was molested by the middle-aged
Humbert, a circumstance is as repellent today as it was in 1955.

Yet, take away the crime and "Lolita" is little more than a sad
romance although it's brilliantly written, slyly funny and
occasionally moving. The book's contribution to 20th-century fiction
is its daring to present depravity as a condition of being human.

As Nabokov said, "There are gentle souls who would pronounce
'Lolita' meaningless because it does not teach them anything ...
'Lolita' has no moral in tow.

"For me, a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what
I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being
somehow, somewhere connected with other states of being ... where art
is the norm."

In the broadest sense, call it entertainment.

Jane Smiley, author of such novels as "Good Faith," "Moo" and "A
Thousand Acres," sees the book as "more or less meaningless except as
an expression of [Humbert's] aesthetic." (She's clearly read Nabokov's
afterword, but unwittingly becomes one of his "gentle souls.")

Smiley argues that Humbert's only "higher faculty is a particular
aesthetic response to a certain sort of girl" whom he can use as
"artistic materials."

And, that's what Nabokov does as well, says Smiley, taking deeply
flawed characters and creating "beautiful and interesting" patterns
from them without considering the social or moral issues their
actions raise.

She concludes that the book is "an example of artistic
experimentation," but has little other value. (Her comments can be
found in her new book, "13 Ways of Looking At The Novel," Knopf,

What Smiley doesn't exactly say, but implies, is that fiction should
have a purpose. Nabokov feels otherwise. I would argue that "Lolita"
is a worthy book deserving of a 50th anniversary, but not a
full-blown party with cake.

It is a singular book, thoroughly foreign to American readers (like
Smiley) raised on the American belief that all art must have a
function. To the Russian sensibilities of Nabokov, a good novel can
take you to a place where "art is the norm" and that's enough.

Vintage Books is releasing an anniversary editon of "Lolita"
($12.95) with the author's original afterword to the 1958 edition.

_(Post-Gazette Book Editor Bob Hoover can be reached at[2] or 412-263-1634.)_


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