by Vladimir Nabokov
In A Nutshell
In 2008 Lolita turned 50 – Lolita the novel, that is, not Lolita the nymphet. The book still has the power to enflame passions. In Marion County, Florida a few years back, one citizen insisted that the book be shelved in the "adults only" section of the library. That didn't happen (by a vote 3-2 in favor of keeping it available to all), but as one critic has said, "[W]e all know that this novel heads every prude's list and has had to fight for its life from the very beginning" (source: James Kincaid, "Lolita at Middle Age").
Some snippets of contemporary reviews of the novel give you an idea or its reception:
- "Most readers will probably become bored [...] at times downright sickened" (The Providence Journal).
- "[T]his book is "distilled sewage" (The New York World Telegraph).
- Lolita is "pornography" (The Chicago Tribune).
OK, so the book has offended a lot of people. Isn't that reason enough to read how Humbert Humbert's lust for his step-daughter serves as an effort to get over the loss of his childhood girlfriend?
The first American edition appeared in 1958 (after four American publishers rejected it), but in 1955 a version was published by Olympia Press, a French publisher of erotica. Despite all of this rejection and outrage, people love it – over 50 million copies have sold since the book's publication in 1958. It was the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks. The highly reputable Modern Library named Lolita the fourth-greatest English-language book of the twentieth century, right behind The Great Gatsby, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. The book was banned as obscene in France (France!) and England from 1955-1959, as well as Argentina (1959), New Zealand (1960), and South Africa (1974-1982). It has never been banned in the United States, though it puts a lot of knickers in a twist.
During his life, Vladimir Nabokov published eighteen novels, eight books of short stories, seven books of poetry, and nine plays – none nearly so attention getting as Lolita. Amazingly, English was not even his first language – Russian was. Addressing the, well, sensitive material in a 1962 BBC interview, Nabokov said, Lolita "was my most difficult book – the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real" (source). Despite this clear position, critics and readers still like to think Nabokov is a pervert just for writing the book. Who could write a story this real without having those feelings?
Nabokov and his wife, Véra (to whom the book is dedicated) traveled around the United States on butterfly hunting trips quite a bit, which makes his descriptions of 1950s America incredibly vivid. On these trips, Nabokov became very familiar with American mass culture, finding it both mesmerizing and repulsive. He wrote Lolita as he traveled though Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, and Oregon, copying the manuscript in longhand. In a revealing epilogue to the book, included in all versions since 1956, Nabokov addresses his critics. He is attracted to taboo, he tells us, and despite all assumptions to the contrary, there is no "moral of the story" in Lolita. Nabokov just wants you to enjoy Lolita.
Why Should I Care?
We could tell you to care about Lolita because it is a classic of twentieth-century American fiction – or because it has been banned and scorned by so many librarians, literary critics, and judges. But the real reason you should care about Lolita is that the character of 'tween Lolita has become an icon and inspiration in popular culture. Almost disturbingly so.
Lolita isn't just a character in a Nabokov novel or a famous nymphet; Lolita has been claimed by fashionistas and fetishists, transformed into the embodiment of knee-sock and mini-plaid skirt wearing promiscuous school girl. Lolita has inspired everything from the subculture of "Gothic Lolita," a popular Japanese style that embraces Rococo and Victorian clothing types, to "Sweet Lolita," "Classic Lolita," and "Punk Lolita."
The most well known in America is the plain old Lolita-influenced style. The sexy 'tween image of a younger Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus owes a big debt to Lolita, for good or ill. Popular culture seems to love the image of young sexy girls. Skin tight miniskirts for 11-year-olds? A "hottie" t-shirt for a fifth-grader? Are these things empowering or exploitative? A book called The Lolita Effect (2008) by M. Gigi Durham is dedicated to this subject, explaining that the very word "Lolita" is now shorthand for an overly sexualized, provocative adolescent.
What's interesting about this cultural phenomenon is that it makes no mention of Humbert, the middle-aged man whose exploitative urges ruin young Lolita's life.