Lolita Vladimir Nabokov Explorations

lolita by nabokov bookblast explorations

Lolita was rejected by four American publishers in 1954; published in Paris by The Olympia Press, September 1955; banned by the French government, December 1956; found “not objectionable” by U. S. Customs, February 1957; back on the market in France after Olympia won their case against the government, January 1958; published in the U. S., August 1958; re-banned in France after the government’s successful appeal against the initial judgment, December 1956; published in French in Paris, April 1959; back on the market in France in English when the government cancelled their own ban after having been sued again by Olympia, September 1959.


So reads the back cover blurb of the April 1959 Olympia Press paperback (3rd printing) edition of Lolita. The novel may have a repugnant, discomfiting aura, but oh! how very beautifully Nabokov writes of warped lust and longing, motel sex and middle-America, as he addresses what could be termed a certain Jungian “shadow” side of male human nature. Lolita is an acknowledged 20th century classic, and rightly so.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning physical but not necessarily coital relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do! We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well-integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years of life for once chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill.

Presented with this manuscript today, would a publisher take it on? I doubt it.

Humbert Humbert, a divorced, middle-aged, manipulative, psychologically-unbalanced, remorseless Professor, marries Lolita’s mother − his landlady who is conveniently run over by a car − in order to be close to the 12 year old with whom he is obsessed: “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.” He takes the orphaned “nymphet” hostage and they move from state to state and motel to motel. He tells her that if he is arrested, she will become a ward of the state and lose all her clothes and belongings to keep her from going to the police. After a year on the road, they settle, despite H-H’s fear that their “secret” could be discovered. “Lo” goes to school and excels at amateur theatre, “By permitting Lolita to study acting I had, fond fool, suffered her to cultivate deceit. It now appeared that it had not been merely a matter of learning the answers to such questions as what is the basic conflict in Hedda Gabler, or where are the climaxes in Love under the Lindens, or analyze the prevailing mood of Cherry Orchard; it was really a matter of learning to betray me.”

Humbert Humbert is fiendishly jealous and repulsively over-protective: “Owing perhaps to constant amorous exercise she radiated despite her very childish appearance, some special languorous glow which threw garage fellows, hotel pages, vacationists, goons in luxurious cars, maroon morons near blued pools, into fits of concupiscence which might have tickled my pride, had it not incensed my jealousy. For little Lo was aware of that glow of hers, and I would often catch her coulant un regard in the direction of some amiable male.” So H-H was not alone in his fantasy.

Child abuse, the grooming of minors, and child trafficking rings using social media to source minors regularly make front-page news. Three years ago, a schoolgirl went on the run to France with her married maths teacher to start a new life. Just recently a former Sunderland footballer was been charged of two counts of sexual activity with an avid 15-year-old fan who idolised him. Now Facebook is under the spotlight for not taking down paedo pages swiftly enough. So much for history repeating itself.

Lesley Blanch says of the “Lolita syndrome” in her posthumous memoirs On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life, published by Virago: “The theme of incest runs through much of history and literature and is not necessarily always the kind in which the Sunday papers revel.

In 1962, William Burroughs spoke about censorship at the writers’ conference arranged by John Calder as a bookish supplement to the atonal music and experimental theatre being introduced to curious audiences, which became the Edinburgh Festival as we know it today. “Censorship, of course, is the presumed right of governmental agencies to decide what words and images the citizen is permitted to see . . . That is precisely thought control . . . If censorship were removed, perhaps books would be judged more on literary merit, and a dull poorly written book on a sexual subject would find few readers. Fewer people would be stimulated by the sight of a four-letter word on the printed page. The anxiety and prurience of which censorship is the overt political phenomenon has so far prevented any serious scientific investigation of sexual phenomena.”[1]

Technology is redefining political commitment and activism − how will it affect literature?

[1] Censorship: A World Encyclopedia ed. Derek Jones p.388. Routledge, 2001.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.