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The Panting Maniac: Chasing Lolita on a Grim 50-Year Anniversary

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.

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.”

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.

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