“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
With these words opens the book with the enticing accolade of ‘most controversial ever written’. Exactly fifty eight years ago today, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was published in the United States. It was, predictably, not a straightforward route from manuscript to bookshelf. Nabokov fruitlessly touted his book amongst numerous American publishers, all of whom refused to take it on due to its ostenatiously controversial subject matter. Although each recognised the talent of the work, they judged its narrative to be too inflammatory for publication. They were right. No sooner was the book released in the U.K and France then it was immediatley banned.
But, as often happens with art, the infamy surrounding the book only added to the appetite of its audience. After being priased by Graham Greene in the Sunday Times and routinely condemned by almost everyone else, Lolita soon became the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell over a 100,000 copies in the first three weeks.
Following the many fascinating critical reactions to the text was almost as entertaining as the book itself. Predictably, most instantly decried it as morally absent filth, but a select and growing group of literary critics recognised Nabokov’s genius with language, praising his flamboyant style characterized by double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages, and noting that deliebrately obliterating the boundaries of good taste empowered the writer to access formerly uncolonised themes in literature.
Others began to raise other possible interpretations of the novel’s narrative as a psychological acute study of the nature of human desire in its most dehabiliating form. Elizabeth Janeway in the New York Times claimed “Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh.” In 2003, Iranian expatriate Azar Nafisi noted that for her, the essence of the novel is Humbert’s solipsism and his erasure of Lolita’s independent identity. She writes: “Lolita was given to us as Humbert’s creature […] To reinvent her, Humbert must take from Lolita her own real history and replace it with his own … Yet she does have a past. Despite Humbert’s attempts to orphan Lolita by robbing her of her history, that past is still given to us in glimpses.” One of the novel’s early champions, Lionel Trilling, found that the very ethical ambiguity of the book was its greatest artistic achievement, the manner by which it forces the reader into confrontation with their own voyeurism;”we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents … we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.” Although now recognised as one of the unquestioned classics of twentieth cenutry literature, controversy still surrounds the boook, suggesting it will never cease to horrify some readers and delight others.
Nabokov himself would, in hindsight declare Lolita to be a record of his “love affair with the English language”. Although he himself later translated the novel into Russian, he noted that it remained a personal tragedy of his that the uncut, original version demanded the use of his second language; “I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses – the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions – which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage his own way.”
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