Read By Mitchell Stuart
Lolita: The Moral Dilemma of Nabakov’s Masterpiece
Vladimir Nabakov’s “Lolita” is the story of Humbert Humbert, an immigrant from Europe and his disturbing obsession with his 12 year old step-daughter Dolores Haze who he affectionately refers to as Lolita. After the planned murder of his wife. He escapes with his ‘prize’ Lolita and embarks on a trip around the United States trying to escape his past and play out the future he lovingly planned for himself and his love. The very premise conjures up many a disturbing thought and would make anyone that has not read the novel question why anything so horrifying would be considered a masterpiece within the World of Literature. Yet nearly 65 years after it was first published, it is widely regarded as just that.
According, to the character Humbert, it takes 56 days for him to outlay his story of Lolita to the reader. In reality, it took a lot longer for Nabakov to create it. His first inspiration came from a short story that he wrote in 1939, of a man that marries a dying woman to get access to her young daughter who he attempts to seduce in a hotel room. After his advances are rejected, he throws himself under a truck. Turning the story from third person to first person inspired Nabakov and it became the novel’s most distinctive feature. Readers who favour the book explain that the nature of the plot comes secondary to them when faced with the true beauty of Nabakov’s prose. Humbert, tells the reader the story of being driven to murder in order to love and control this young girl. The seduction in the author’s words sucks you into his outrageous point of view to the point that you begin to feel empathy for this otherwise violent criminal.
Humbert and Lolita’s year of driving aimlessly around the United States was something that Nabakov himself did not too dissimilarly with his wife, Vera and his son, Dmitri to pursue his great passion of collecting butterflies. It was on his travels in the early 50’s that he wrote much of Lolita on index cards whilst sitting in the back of his aging Oldsmobile. Whilst he worked on the book, he would read movie magazines, copied song titles from nearby jukeboxes and rode on buses to capture snippets of teenage conversations as inspiration for Lolita. In interviews, Nabakov acknowledges Lolita as his finest work and expresses deep affection for it, despite the difficulties he faced whilst going through the revision process which almost led to him throwing the drafts into his garden incinerator. An act that was stopped by his wife! (Well done Vera!)
Nabakov finished writing the book in 1953. He approached five American publishers: Viking, Simon & Schusters, New Directions, Farrar, Straus and Doubleday. None of which agreed to publish it. The New Yorker, also dismissed the novel. Pascal Covici, Nabakov’s editior at Viking added that anyone who published it risked being fined or jailed. It was finally accepted in 1955 by Olympia Press, a Paris based publisher who were common publishers of books that found themselves faced with censorship issues. Originally, Nabakov had planned on publishing the book under his pseudonym, Sirin but after some persuading by the company’s publisher, Maurice Girodias, he gave in.
The pair of little green paperbacks sold out quickly and were given a boost of popularity by the Sunday Times writer, Graham Greene who described it as one of his favourite books of 1955. Another newspaper editor further commented on the book saying, “Without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read. Sheer unrestrained pornography.”
All of a sudden everyone was talking about Lolita; however, it had been banned in the UK in 1955 along with France in 1956 and Argentina and South Africa in the years following. Although there wasn’t a political stance held by America, it wasn’t actually published in the US until 1958 by Walter Minton, an editor at G.P Putnam’s Sons. The novel topped the best seller lists where it stayed for 6 months alongside Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago.” It was believed that sales were spurred by readers looking to read something ‘dirty.’
Lolita is far more than a ‘dirty’ book the premise of it is disturbing. As time progresses it continues to outrage understandably more so as we begin to learn more of the horrors of the past. Paedophilia isn’t something that’s hidden from the public anymore. As we learn more about what has happened to certain individuals and more people are coming forward with their childhood stories of being sexually abused, we realise that this is a reality for far more people than we’d like to think about. Gone are the days when we’d hear someone defending “Lolita” like Robertson Davies in 1959 when he said that the book is “not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.” We are much clearer now about how even consensual sex with a minor is a criminal act and for that reason many refute the claim that Nabakov’s work is a masterpiece.
Considering this all, Lolita clearly isn’t for the faint hearted but disregarding a novel for the sake of its premise seems such a waste. Particularly this novel. Sure, it isn’t for the faint hearted. Readers don’t read a book like Lolita and expect a fairy story filled with happy endings but they shouldn’t look to take a moral high ground on this either. Humbert’s character takes you on a journey that you are whisked along with him (whether you agree with him or not). You are left spellbound by him and his obsession of Lolita. Despite his filthy mind he expresses real feelings of love for her and such devastating sadness at the end that even the coldest hearts will feel also. You unbelievably go through the same feelings as Humbert does as he explains his tragedy, however much your moral compass is pointing the other way! This really is a testament to Nabakov’s writing and should be celebrated in the Literary World. Whether readers can admit that to themselves is another matter.