Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Today in Literary History - Vladimir Nabokov Publishes Lolita

On August 18, 1958, Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel, Lolita was published in the US. Rejected by four publishers, Lolita finally found a home at G.P. Putnam’s Sons. It became a bestseller and an almost instant classic. In fact, Lolita was the book that allowed Nabokov to retire from teaching and write fulltime.

Lolita, as most of us know, revolves around Humbert Humbert, an erudite (and sometimes charming) European of uncertain origins, who is adrift in the US and mourning the loss of his adolescent love. When he takes a room in the home of Charlotte Haze, he becomes obsessed with Charlotte’s twelve-year-old daughter, Delores Haze, a girl Humbert calls “Lolita.” Much black comedy ensues as Humbert schemes to rid himself of the cumbersome Charlotte and make Lolita his own. Lolita, however, has plans that don’t necessarily include Humbert – at least not in the way Humbert wants to be included.

Although Lolita still retains some of its controversial reputation today, the book is, by no means, another Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Filled with amazing, incandescent prose (Nabokov coined the word “nymphet”), Lolita is a book for those who truly appreciate the very best that literature has to offer. Yes, it’s erotic, but Lolita’s eroticism stems more from the quality of its prose than anything explicit. The following passage is just one example:

She was musical and apple-sweet…. Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice…and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty – between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.

Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia. His family was a wealthy one, and they split their time between a house in St. Petersburg and a country estate, where Nabokov learned boxing, tennis, and chess. He grew up speaking both English and Russian, went off to college at Cambridge, and eventually inherited two million dollars from one of his uncles. Then came the Russian Revolution and Nabokov and his family were forced to flee to Germany. Although they took with them what they could, most of their wealth was lost. Young Vladimir did earn money teaching boxing and tennis and creating Russian crossword puzzles. And, he was writing. Nabokov often spent his nights, after work, writing in the family’s tiny apartment. Many times he wrote in the bathroom so the light wouldn’t wake his sleeping family.

In 1939, life changed for Vladimir Nabokov when he was invited to Stanford to lecture on Slavic languages. He stayed for twenty years, teaching at Wellesley and Cornell, writing and literally chasing butterflies with his wife, Vera. All his life, Nabokov retained a keen interest in butterfly collecting and even discovered several new species and subspecies. Nabokov and Vera would spend their summers driving around the US, staying in one motel after the other, and looking for butterflies.

Nabokov’s first novel in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, though his most successful books have always remained his most controversial – Lolita and Ada, which was published in 1969.

In 1959, Nabokov and Vera returned to Europe, and he died in Switzerland in 1977.

If you’ve been thinking of reading Lolita but just haven’t gotten around to it, today, the 52nd anniversary of its publication, might be a good day to begin this incredibly written and original book.

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