NABOKV-L post 0011947, Tue, 20 Sep 2005 20:25:35 -0700

Fwd: Nabokov and his wife Vera ...
----- Forwarded message from -----
Date: Tue, 20 Sep 2005 16:16:22 -0400
From: "Sandy P. Klein" <>
Subject: Nabokov and his wife Vera ...

program.----------------- Message requiring your approval (45 lines)
------------------ [1][2]
NATIONAL Entertainment[3]
50 years after Lolita

Robert Fulford
National Post

September 20, 2005

Fifty years ago this autumn, the great Vladimir Nabokov held in his
hands the first copy of his dangerous, funny, heartbreaking novel,
Lolita. Given the book's future status as a masterpiece, it looked
ridiculously humble: a paperback in the Traveller's Companion series,
issued in Paris by Maurice Girodias, a pornographer. Girodias
published some good writers, but made his money from masturbation
fantasies for English-speaking tourists, with titles like The Whip
Angels or White Thighs.

Nabokov's agent sent Lolita to Girodias because U.S. publishers
feared that a story focused on a middle-aged man's sexual
relationship with a girl of 12 could get them charged with obscenity.
Even Nabokov was nervous. He considered publishing under a pseudonym.

Lolita sold slowly until Graham Greene rescued it. Late in 1955,
when it was still unknown, he said in a London Sunday Times feature
that it was one of the year's three best books. Publishers were
emboldened, and by 1958, Lolita was on sale in several countries,
including Canada, without legal hindrance.

Its success created a new life for Nabokov (1899-1977), till then a
much-admired author with a modest following. Lolita's sales let him
quit his teaching job and spend the rest of his days writing.

Two movies have kept the story in circulation, Stanley Kubrick's
1962 version with James Mason as the evil Humbert Humbert and Adrian
Lyne's 1997 update, starring Jeremy Irons. The book itself has
remained in print and on many university courses. Two years ago Azar
Nafisi wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which she reported that her
secret literature class felt liberated when they defied Iran's Islamic
theocracy to discuss it. Their transgression was made all the more
piquant by the fact that in Iran a man can legally marry a

Among other things, Nabokov made "Lolita" a word in the language.
Twenty years after his book appeared, a magazine referred to Charlie
Chaplin's "Lolita-like relationships" and no one had to ask what that
meant. In Jim Jarmusch's recent film, Broken Flowers, Bill Murray
encounters a sexually provocative girl of about 13 named Lolita, and
learns the startling fact that she's unaware of her name's

At the beginning, critics had trouble coming to grips with Nabokov's
novel and often found their own reactions unsettling. Lionel Trilling
said that while any decent person would consider Humbert's actions
intolerable, his language almost wins the reader's affection.
Elizabeth Janeway said in The New York Times that on first reading
she thought Lolita one of the funniest books she had encountered; on
second reading she decided it was one of the saddest.

The story works on at least three levels. As a picture of America
it's brilliant satire; as a depiction of Humbert's character it's
harsh psychological comedy; and as a narrative it's a tragedy of
misplaced love.

Tonally, it's always complicated. Nabokov shifts effortlessly from
one genre to another -- detective story, revenge drama, legal brief,
road story, confession and fairy tale.

Nabokov always claimed that morality in fiction bored him; he was
interested only in artistic qualities; Lolita was the expression of
his love affair with the English language. He was only half serious.
All stories of human beings are seen partially through a moral lens,
and this one more than most.

Morally, Humbert's autobiographical tale of seduction (and later the
murder of a rival) contains a wrenching conflict. He depicts his love
for Lolita as elevated and poetic. But even as he sets down this
self-redeeming fantasy, we realize (as he does) that he's blinding
himself to the pain he's caused. He understands that as a result of
his actions, "a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been
deprived of her childhood by a maniac." (Humbert, possessing her,
renamed her Lolita.)

Humbert has a moral sense as finely tuned as anyone's; he just
doesn't obey its demands. The romantic vision struggling with
monstrous hypocrisy keeps the story sharp and alive.

Humbert and Lolita tour the United States while Humbert tries to
keep her under his control; Nabokov and his wife Vera made a similar
tour, because he was writing about U.S. civilization as well as his
drama of perversion. Elizabeth Hardwick once said that Nabokov
approached the artifacts of U.S. life in the mood of Marco Polo
studying China.

The U.S. was his new subject, and he laboured to get it right. Among
his literary relics in the Library of Congress, there's a file card on
which he's noted the names of American singers and songs. In his
soft-pencil script we can read that he wanted to recall Tony Bennett,
Peggy Lee, Eddy Arnold, the Ink Spots and Red Foley. He wrote down the
title of a song, God's Little Candles, which sounds like a detail in
Lolita. There's something touching in the image of that brilliant and
scholarly Russian intellectual, just a dozen years after his escape
from Europe, dutifully transcribing Rosemary Clooney's 1952
expression of lively American sexuality, "Botch-a-me, I'll-botcha you
and ev'rything goes crazy."

One corner of Canadian civilization also influenced Lolita. In 1950,
Nabokov lectured at the University of Toronto and stayed at what may
have been his first big North American hotel, the Royal York. He
found it nearly unbearable. "Slamming doors, shunting trains, the
violent waterfalls of one's neighbours' toilet. Terrible." Brian Boyd
tells us in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years that the Royal York
inspired the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, where the sexual affair of
Lolita and Humbert begins.

The ugly word "pornography" buzzed through many early reviews. Yet
there's nothing in the text likely to arouse sexual feelings toward
children or anyone else. A bibliophile might grow excited while
tracing Nabokov's use of literary sources from Dante (Humbert cites
his love for eight-year-old Beatrice, but of course Dante himself was
nine, not quite the same thing) to Coleridge (he mentions the "person
from Porlock" who allegedly bothered the poet and kept him from
finishing Kublai Khan). A word-intoxicated logophile could be driven
to a frenzy by Nabokov's arch and impish vocabulary, demonstrated in
the use of pavonine (like a peacock) or nictating (winking) or
nacreous (pearly or iridescent).

But someone given to pederosis, Humbert's elegant way of saying
pedophilia, would find little pleasure in contemplating his miserable
burden of guilt. Many have loved Lolita, for good reason, but it must
also have disappointed at least one class of potential
readers.NATIONAL POST 2005


----- End forwarded message -----