Birth of “Lolita”

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carries an interesting review of Robert Roper’s Nabokov in America. (Subtitle: On the Road to Lolita.) The review, by Ben Downing, appeared in the paper under the heading “The naturalization papers.” I’m generally familiar with Nabokov’s career, but I had missed the humorous details behind the success of Lolita, a tale told by a classically unreliable narrator:

When, in 1947, Nabokov began contemplating what he described to Edmund Wilson as a novel about “a man who liked little girls,” he guessed he would have trouble publishing it and, in Brian Boyd’s words, “expected little but his own artistic satisfaction.” It cost him five years of intermittent labor and sometimes seemed to him so hopeless that [his wife] Véra repeatedly had to restrain him from burning the manuscript. Passed over by numerous American houses, the novel was published in 1955 by the Olympia Press in Paris, known mainly for erotica. Presumably it would have remained an obscure curiosity had lightning of an aptly comical kind not struck. After Graham Greene listed “Lolita” as one of the best books of the year in the Sunday Times, a priggish Sunday Express columnist named John Gordon countered by declaring it “the filthiest book I have ever read.” The mischief-loving Greene promptly founded the John Gordon Society, whose declared purpose was to quash “all offensive books, plays, paintings, sculptures and ceramics.” As Mr. Roper writes, “A perfect Rube Goldberg machine of promotion had been jiggered into action.” With both the British and French governments trying to suppress the novel, it became a cause célèbre in the tradition of “Ulysses” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” By the time G.P. Putnam brought it out in the U.S., instant best-sellerdom was guaranteed. But if many of its first readers came for the smut, they wound up staying for the art, and a classic was born.

Whole thing accessible via Google here.


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