German poet Rainer Maria Rilke described fame as “the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around one name.” Nothing has ever proven the heavy weight and truth of Rilke’s words quite like the critical and cultural response to Lolita. To this very day, 50 years after its initial US publication, Vladimir Nabokov’s complex novel examining love in the light of lechery remains one of the most wildly misunderstood works of literature since the Holy Bible, a truth that is lent wry support by Nabokov’s words from his own memoir, Strong Opinions: “A writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty.”
Nabokov – a ruined Russian aristocrat, a world-famous lepidopterist, a distinguished academic and sought-after lecturer, and a sublime novelist who detested second-rate art and expressed indifference toward books with social or moral messages – made a curious bid for his own casting as the Almighty when he said in a 1962 BBC interview: “Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of pleasure, for the sake of difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.”
How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again
(Chicago Review Press)
Philosophers and theologians have argued for thousands of years that if there is a God who demands full credit for authorship of the universe and all the life it contains, His creation was at best a lark – a bored child creating something out of nothing as a playful panacea for boredom and soul-numbing loneliness – and there is no social purpose or moral message whatsoever behind his authorial duties, all life is a complex riddle with elegant solutions. Taken at his own words, then, Nabokov is God and a little girl named Lolita is his misunderstood masterwork.
When Lolita debuted in American book stores in August 1958, the 310-page novel, a wordy tome heavily dependent on the narrator’s twisted and often poetic internal monologue, was already at the center of an international uproar about morality, social responsibility, and obscenity. Pedophilia was a taboo one did not discuss in polite society and it was certainly inappropriate fodder for an elegant novel.
Lolita was first published in September 1955 by Paris-based Olympia Press (infamous for publishing Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn in the 1930s) in a rather complex arrangement that stirred the flames of controversy before the book, like a tottering infant, had a chance to stand on its own two legs. Under the helm of Maurice Girodias, Olympia Press had fallen on hard times in 1953, and Girodias determined that he would to get back into the black by publishing, in English, any book that had fallen foul of Anglo-American censorship. (Not to imply that Girodias was turning Olympia into a house of smut: the firm was also publishing Samuel Beckett, J.P. Donleavy, and Lawrence Durrell at the time.) Nabokov knew next to nothing about Olympia’s revamped image, guided by the advice of his French agent and Parisian friends and colleagues.
Novelist Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory) declared Lolita one of the three best novels of the year in the British Sunday Times Christmas issue for 1955, prompting John Gordon, 68-year-old editor of Britain’s Sunday Express, to swiftly order a copy from Paris, declaring it in print as “about the filthiest book I ever read … anyone who published it or sold it here would certainly go to prison.”
One must wonder if Greene and Gordon were reading the same novel. In On a Book Titled Lolita (1956), Nabokov wrote of his dismaying experiences shopping the manuscript to American publishers during the spring of 1954:
Certain techniques in the beginning of Lolita (Humbert’s Journal, for example) misled some of my first readers into assuming that this was going to be a lewd book. They expected the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped, too, and felt bored and let down. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why not all the four firms read the typescript to the end. Whether they found it pornographic or not did not interest me. Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme, but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.
Despite Gordon’s dire prediction and condemnation, Lolita was never banned in Britain but was published by the UK firm Weidenfield and Nicholson, relatively new players in the publishing game who opted to take on the challenge. In short time the original English edition was banned in France by the French Government, rumored to be the result of pressure from the British Home Secretary, but Olympia Press succeeded in having the ban removed. While the complex literary and legal ruckus continued overseas, the United States Customs Office found the book unobjectionable, opening the doors for the first G.P. Putnam’s and Sons edition in the US in 1958. And that’s when things really went haywire.
America in 1958 was a complex postwar society, orderly and conformist on the surface with social change bubbling just below the crust. When Nabokov’s “dirty book” hit the streets of the USA., it sold 100,000 copies in three weeks, an immediate success that would allow the 60-year-old scholar and novelist the freedom to resign from teaching and concentrate on writing and butterfly hunting for the rest of his days. The attendant controversy on American shores – Nabokov’s beloved adopted homeland – only helped stimulate sales. In the newly-released critical study Chasing Lolita: How Popular Cultural Corrupted Nabokov’s Little Girl All Over Again, author Graham Vickers observes:
As soon as the Cincinnati Public Library banned it, Lolita immediately reached the top of the bestsellers list. When the Los Angeles Public Library was “exposed” for circulating a copy, the only result was a boom in sales of the book in California. The Texas town of Lolita gravely debated whether it should change its name to Jackson, presumably in case it was mistaken for a little girl. But the feared American obscenity trial never took place – at least not in a courtroom. Instead the book became the butt of endless jokes and cartoons. Again America was absorbing something controversial into its popular culture instead of subjecting it to a witch hunt.
Nor was America attempting to understand that which it had absorbed and mocked. Popular press and TV in America in the mid-1950s, Vickers writes, presented simple, easy to grasp symbols for consumption:
The public, they reasoned, wanted cartoonish representatives of complicated things. Accordingly, in the popular imagination wild-haired Albert Einstein became the Wacky European scientist, surly Marlon Brando the Mumbling Ambassador of Inarticulate Youth, pneumatic Marilyn Monroe the paradigmatic Hollywood pin-up, mad-eyed bald man Pablo Picasso the Famous Modern Artist and so on. It was a kind of visual shorthand, and it was often accompanied by editorial to match. If this trend did not actually discourage serious debate about science, acting, stardom, and modern art, neither did it do much to promote it. In this breezy spirit Lolita would gradually exemplify the Sultry Teenage Temptress. It was a travesty from the start.
With Chasing Lolita, Vickers, author of Neal Cassady: Fast Life of a Beat Hero, is on a mission. The aim is to separate the “miss from the myth,” to provide “the Lolita of Nabokov’s novel a more objective appraisal than its solipsistic narrator, Humbert Humbert, was able to do.” Vickers explores some of Lolita’s predecessors in real life (Lewis Carroll and Charlie Chaplin), in books (Peyton Place and Memoirs of Hecate County), and movies (the disturbing sexualization of moppet star Shirley Temple and Leslie Caron’s pubescent whore-in-training in Gigi, swooning to Maurice Chevalier’s Thank Heaven for Little Girls). What the author finds on the bottom end of American pop culture in 1958 is an environment ripe and primed, no matter how subconsciously or keep-it-in-the-family quiet, for the sexual exploitation of youth.
The postwar social, cultural, psychological, and moral landscape that Lolita was laid down upon was soiled by muddy boot prints from the get-go. Oh, yes, American readers in 1958 were all too familiar with the sexual charms of children and the hidden terrors of molestation by family members, Vickers says, but it was not a topic for discussion in any way, shape, or form, as Nabokov discovered himself in 1954. When Lolita threatened to pull back the mask of their shame – it was too late to ignore the book because it was already a scandalous international sensation – the collective American reaction was to accept and absorb the book culturally but turn it into a cruel joke, instead: Little girls who behave in a sexually provocative manner deserve whatever fate they may have coming to them. That’s how the culture ate it up and spit it back, with the name Lolita becoming a synonym for, to use the dialect of the times, “a fast little article”. Never mind the fact that the fictionalized life of Lolita in Nabokov’s novel purports otherwise. Vickers writes with justifiable venom:
In the brief future that lies before her (she will be dead at seventeen), Lolita will effectively be incarcerated for a year in the series of motels and automobiles that Humbert deploys to avoid staying in any one place where their strange relationship might be detected for what it is. She will fall in love with her odd hero, Clare Quilty, who will quickly dump her for not participating in his drug-fueled orgies. And she will marry and carry the child of a nice guy with no money and a severe hearing disability. Some fast little article.
Writing in a voice that is both tongue-in-cheek and righteously angry, Vickers recaptures Nabokov’s fictional creation for what she is – the victim of pedophile Humbert Humbert, “the European aesthete criminalized by his sexual appetites” – and viciously indicts pop culture for reinventing her as a temptress. The most fascinating aspect of Chasing Lolita, aside from the author’s exhaustive research and his honest ability to admit that on some points he may be stretching his credulity, is that Vickers is as emotionally involved in his narrative as Humbert was in Nabokov’s.
“Of course Lolita is a fictional character,” Vickers says in a rich and refined voice during a late-night phone call to his London home. “But one can treat her as if she is real because part of the wonder of Nabokov’s novel is that Lolita is such a beautifully-created character. She has taken on a life of her own and if Lolita has been made a symbol of something totally inappropriate by pop culture then she deserves consideration, she deserves a voice.”
Vickers underscores that Nabokov’s Lolita was a 12-year-old child – not a teenager – when she first succumbed to the middle-aged man who subsequently narrated the saga of his infatuation with her. She was not equipped in any sense to be the iconic temptress that popular culture would have her evolve into.
The novel’s descriptions of her stress her physical appeal but only in relation to Humbert’s appetites. That appeal owes nothing to any broadly recognizable popular image of a siren, past or present … In fact, there is no indication in Nabokov’s novel that Lolita looked in any way overly seductive, that she dressed to provoke, or that her sexual appetites were significantly different from those of her 1940s classmates. It was not until a publicity poster appeared for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film of Lolita that we first encounter a color photograph of an entirely bogus Lolita wearing red heart-shaped sunglasses while licking a red lollipop – love and fellatio, get it?
The provocative poster for Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the equally provocative tag line ‘How did they ever make a film of Lolita?’ – marks “the first blatantly visual travesty of Nabokov’s grubby chestnut-haired 12-year-old and does not even resemble how Sue Lyon looks in the movie.”
Despite the critical accolades that Kubrick’s movie has received over the years, as an adaptation of the novel Vickers correctly refers to the James Mason/Peter Sellers vehicle as “a patchy misfire.” On her own role as Lolita, Lyon, who avoids interviews since retiring from acting in 1980, said at the time of the film’s release: “I feel sorry for her. She’s neurotic and pathetic and only interested in herself.” Lyon, of course, is referring to Kubrick’s own interpretation of Nabokov’s character, not the titular heroine of Nabokov’s novel. The two are distinct and polar opposites.
Nabokov’s own scenario, largely unused by the master filmmaker, was published as Lolita: A Screenplay by McGraw-Hill in 1974. In his foreword Nabokov wrote, “My first reaction to the picture was a mixture of aggravation, regret, and reluctant pleasure … I keenly regretted the waste of my time while admiring Kubrick’s fortitude in enduring for six months the evolution and infliction of a useless product.”
The life and career trajectory of Lyon would eventually take on dimensions as tragic and complicated as Lolita’s. Only 16 when the film premiered, Lyon was made into an overnight sensation and nabbed a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer (Female). But she could never live down Lolita. Aside from a co-starring role alongside Richard Burton and Ava Gardner in John Huston’s Night of the Iguana (1964), Lyon was not offered any roles that would place her acting career in anything resembling a respectable arc.
Lyon, whose turbulent life led to a diagnosis and treatment for bi-polar disorder, married and divorced five times and was the star of American scandal sheets when she married African-American photographer and football coach Roland Harrison in the early ‘70s (an eerie reflection of Nabokov’s observation that pedophilia and miscegenation are “utterly taboo” in American culture). Lyon and Harrison relocated to Spain to escape the tabloid press, but the marriage could not withstand the pressure.
In 1973, while living in a hotel in Denver and working as a cocktail waitress, the one-time starlet met Gary “Cotton” Adamson at the Colorado State Penitentiary, where he was serving a sentence for robbery and murder. She married Adamson in November 1973 and took up the social cause of conjugal rights and prison reform. In 1974, the recently-released Adamson committed another hold-up and Lyon soon filed for divorce.
“I defy any pretty girl who is rocketed to world stardom at 15 in a sex-nymphet role to stay on that level path thereafter,” press-shy Lyon said in a rare interview many years ago. (Nabokov described Lyon as “a demure nymphet of 14 or so” when he first saw photographs of the young actress at Kubrick’s Beverly Hills home in September 1960, during casting of the motion picture. Nabokov, of course, coined the word “nymphet” in Lolita and it has since passed into the lexicon.)
In Chasing Lolita, Vickers notes that when Adrian Lyne’s film of Nabokov’s novel was released in 1997, Lyon, it seems, could no longer even consider the dreaded name rationally. “I am appalled they should revive a film that caused my destruction as a person,” she told the Reuters news agency.
James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Gary Cockrell, Jerry Stovin
Lolita represented the implosion of Lyon’s life and created one of the darkest episodes in the history of popular culture, if not a permanent dent in the collective psyche. Vickers demonstrates that Lolita herself was “eventually to become an enduring object of interest to the commercial world for reasons that were rarely literary. Her notoriety would eventually seep into every facet of commerce and fashion, ranging from sex toys and movie promotions to paintings and photographic art.” Indeed, a Google search of the name Lolita uncovers a dizzying array of exploitation: Lolita fashion lines, Lolita bras and undergarments, Lolita martini glasses, a Lolita dildo, and multiple bars and clubs carrying the nickname of Nabokov’s Dolores Haze. In February 2008, a chain of retail stores in Britain were forced to withdraw the sale of beds named Lolita that had been designed and marketed for six-year-old girls after a furious public uproar.
In a chapter sardonically titled The Spirit of Free Enterprise, Vickers saves his most bitter bile for pornographers – particularly those who peddle in the international kiddie porn market on the Internet – for co-opting the name Lolita, particularly a profitable and much sought-after Dutch child porn magazine bearing the name.
“Of course,” Vickers writes in summarizing the chapter, “had Lolita’s name remained the fairly common Spanish diminutive it had been before Nabokov bestowed fantastic fame upon it, the pornographers would simply have found another generic label to identify their images of molested and beaten kids. But perhaps it is grimly fitting that those traders in abuse should have knocked off a name so mellifluous and rich in associations since the theft is appropriate to the practice it describes: the stealing of childhoods to realize dark adult fantasies. In her most shameful corruption, Dolores Haze, alias Lolita, was reduced to a logotype for salable images of child abuse in progress, images old and new, color and monochrome, digitized and cloned, and now available on a computer screen near you.”
Press and tabloid exploitation of Lolita’s name is also obscenely rampant, bowing to the art of pandering to the worst instincts of a prurient readership. How can we forget Amy Fisher, the so-called “Long Island Lolita” (Vickers refers to the Fisher incident as “a shabby scandal inflated by the tabloids”) or press epithets for Russian tennis star Maria Yurievna Sharapova as “the Lolita of women’s tennis … Lolita with a racket.”
Neither scholarly nor pedantic, Vickers’ Chasing Lolita is a necessary addition to any complete understanding of Lolita, both the book and the sickening pop culture icon she has morphed into. This thorough study of the pervasive corruption of Nabokov’s doomed heroine is the nearest thing that arts and letters have offered as a way of recovering her lost soul.
Nabokov, who claimed to despise books with a social message, makes a brief appearance in the foreword to Lolita under the guise of John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. He sums up Humbert’s startling memoir thus:
“As a case history, Lolita will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egoistic mother, the panting maniac – these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. Lolita should make all of us – parents, social workers, educators – apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”