This Day In Literary History
On August 18th, 1958, Lolita, the classic novel by the legendary Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, was published for the first time in the United States. It proved to be one of the most celebrated and controversial novels of all time.
It told the tale of Humbert Humbert, an intelligent, cultured, middle-aged European man who becomes obsessed with Lolita, a sexually precocious 12-year-old American girl, leading him down a path of degradation, depravity, despair, paranoia, and ultimately, murder.
Nabokov had completed the novel in 1953, but was unable to find an American publisher. One publisher told Nabokov that he should burn every copy of the manuscript. Another suggested that the story wouldn't be so objectionable if Lolita were a boy.
Nabokov tried to get Lolita published in Europe, but one British publisher was so shocked by the novel that he tore up his copy of the manuscript. Finally, in 1955, Nabokov found a publisher - Olympia Press.
Based in Paris, Olympia was known as a publisher of both controversial, challenging works of literature (such as William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer) and pornographic novels.
Olympia's first 5,000 copy press run of Lolita sold out across Europe. There were no real reviews of the book, but in late 1955, in an interview with the London Times, the famous English writer Graham Greene called Lolita one of the best novels of the year.
Greene's comments provoked the outraged editor of the conservative London Sunday Express to publicly condemn Lolita, calling it "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography."
The newspaper kept stoking the flames of outrage, and Britain's Home Office panicked, ordering Customs officers to seize all copies of Lolita that came into the United Kingdom.
France followed suit; the French Minister of the Interior instituted a ban on the novel that would last for two years. In 1958, United States officials were nervous about Lolita, but the novel was published without incident by G.P. Putnam's Sons.
It became a bestseller - the first book since Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind to sell 100,000 copies in the first three weeks of publication. Today, it's rightfully considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
It was later named the fourth greatest English language novel of the 20th century by Modern Library. Vladimir Nabokov originally wrote it in English and later translated it himself into Russian.
Written in a dazzling, lyrical prose style, Lolita is a novel-within-a-novel. It begins with a lengthy forward explaining that the book you're about to read was written by Humbert Humbert while in his jail cell awaiting trial for murder.
Humbert, who died of coronary thrombosis upon completing the manuscript, begins his autobiography by relating the tale of his 1920s childhood romance with an angelic girl named Annabel Leigh, which was tragically cut short when she died of typhus.
Their love for each other and his loss of her would affect Humbert for the rest of his life. Later, just before the outbreak of World War II, Humbert leaves Paris for New York after his first relationship with a woman goes sour.
After the war, he moves to New England to begin a writing career. He rents a room from grotesque widow Charlotte Haze after meeting and becoming smitten with her precocious 12-year-old daughter Dolores, known by her nickname, Lolita.
The tragically deluded Humbert sees in her his beloved Annabel Leigh, despite the fact that the corrupt, nasty Lolita is really the polar opposite of Annabel. The obsessed Humbert will do anything to be near Lolita.
He even marries her mother, Charlotte, though he can't stand her. The marriage ends in dramatic fashion when Charlotte reads Humbert's secret diary, freaks out, flees the house in shock, and is struck and killed by a car.
Later, when Humbert tries to have his way with Lolita, she ends up seducing him and reveals that she lost her virginity to a boy she met at summer camp. Then they hit the road in Charlotte's car.
Humbert and Lolita drive across the country, going from state to state and motel to motel, where the older man bribes the young girl for sexual favors. He's frustrated by the fact that Lolita doesn't return his affection or share his interests.
The deluded Humbert is blind to the fact that his beloved Lolita is really a manipulative sociopath who is exploiting him even more than he's exploiting her. Then she falls ill and is hospitalized.
After she recovers, while Humbert is away, Lolita checks out with a man claiming to be her uncle, who pays her hospital bill. Humbert begins a frantic (and funny) search for her, trying to make sense of humorous clues left behind by Lolita and her "uncle."
He finally gives up the search and has a chaotic, two-year affair with Rita, an alcoholic 30-year-old woman who reminds him of Lolita. Years later, Humbert receives a letter from Lolita, who is now married, pregnant, and in need of money.
Armed with a loaded gun, he tracks her down, intending to kill her husband. Lolita reveals that her husband is not the man she ran off with. That man was Clare Quilty, a demented playwright, pervert, and amateur pornographer.
She had acted in Quilty's play The Hunted Enchanters while a member of her school's drama club. He seduced her, and she became his lover for a time. Humbert gives Lolita the money she asked for, along with her rightful inheritance. Then he leaves to track down Clare Quilty and take his revenge.
Lolita was adapted an acclaimed feature film in 1962, directed by the legendary English filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert, Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze, Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty, and 14-year-old newcomer Sue Lyon as Lolita.
The screenplay was written by Vladimir Nabokov himself. Although the novel had to be sanitized as per Production Code requirements, the movie remains a naughty delight that wonderfully captures both the comedy and tragedy of Nabokov's novel.
In 1997, director Adrian Lyne filmed Lolita. Despite the sincere performance of Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert, the movie is a boring, plodding, depressing mess, with dreadful performances by 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita and a horribly miscast Melanie Griffith as Charlotte Haze.
Frank Langella, also horribly miscast, plays Clare Quilty as a bestial psychopath instead of the delightfully perverse playwright portrayed with comic malice and verve by the great Peter Sellers in the 1962 original. The remake fails because it robs the novel of its comedy.
Vladimir Nabokov would later name Lolita as his favorite novel. It still remains a classic work of literature.
Quote Of The Day
"Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name." - Vladimir Nabokov
Today's video features a documentary on Vladimir Nabokov and the writing of his classic novel, Lolita. Enjoy!