Lolita Turns 50 Today

Stacy Schiff in the New York Times:

Nabokov_1In “circular skirt and scanties,” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” flounced into print 50 years ago today. But before she tripped off the tongue and into the literary canon, before she lent her name to inflatable dolls and escort agencies, Lolita was a much-rejected manuscript, huddling in a locked drawer. Her author spoke of her only in secret, on the condition that his identity never be revealed. He kept her out of the hands of the United States Postal Service. She was his “time bomb.” The wonder is that – in a confessional culture, in taboo-toppling, hail-Britney times – she still startles and sears.

Humbert Humbert claims to have written the text in 56 days, but Nabokov was less of a madman, and a Cornell professor to boot. He labored over the pages for six years. Only in the summer of 1953 did he first mention his novel “about a man who liked little girls” to an editor. Nabokov was a fairly recent immigrant, but he knew well that no one in America was beating down the door to read the sexually explicit confessions of a European gentleman who several times a day, over the course of two years, rapes his prepubescent stepdaughter.

Nabokov’s wife, Véra, had already warned that the novel was not one for children. The first editor to read “Lolita” did not think it even a book for adults, at least not for adults unwilling to serve jail sentences. In 1955, Paris was a city rather than a celebrity; stars of X-rated films did not write how-to books; and “obscene” was a designation for art rather than a denomination of money. Behind Nabokov’s back, friends agreed that no one would touch the thing. They were right. “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years,” cringed one editor.

More here.