On Nov. 26, 1958, Vladimir Nabokov appeared on the CBC program Close-Up to discuss his newest novel. Lolita, published in the United States three months earlier, was a certified smash hit, at or near the top of the bestseller lists. Its resounding success was a far cry from the wilderness years when Nabokov despaired Lolita might never be published at all, and then, after years of wrangling with the novel’s original fly-by-night French publisher, Olympia Press, never published as Nabokov envisioned.
The program, hosted by Pierre Berton with added guest Lionel Trilling, the noted literary critic, is fascinating viewing for several reasons. It was the first televised interview Nabokov gave about Lolita, a surprise because earlier that fall, the Canadian government had seized shipments of the American edition at the border, only overturning that order after the deputy Minister of Justice intervened. Nabokov’s answers – on inspiration, on rejecting the idea the novel needed a message and on the controversial subject matter of middle-aged Humbert Humbert’s illicit desire for 12-year-old Dolores Haze – carry a natural spontaneity that disappeared as Nabokov’s celebrity grew.
Berton’s questioning style is measured but pointed, prodding Nabokov about why he chose such deviant behaviour for his subject. But it’s Trilling who sounds the most dissonant note, calling the novel “erotic” and concluding that “it is not a book about an aberration but about an actual love” that is “full of tenderness and compassion.” The camera moves to Nabokov before he responds to Trilling with apparent agreement, but the non-verbal cues – rolling eyes, half-smirk – reveal the impatience his verbal answers don’t fully convey. Trilling was by no means the first critic to misinterpret Lolita, and he would be far from the last.
I became well-versed in how Lolita was received by the general public while researching my own book, on the 1948 kidnapping of Sally Horner and how it inspired Nabokov to complete his iconic and still controversial novel. The brilliance of Lolita is that the reader is compelled to sympathize with Humbert Humbert as he cajoles, manipulates and seduces Dolores into a nearly two-year odyssey across America, punctuated by repeated rape and abuse. And by presenting this narrative with the fanciest of prose styles, Humbert – and thus, Nabokov – seduces the reader into believing this is a narrative of doomed love, rather than criminal deviance.
And so, aside from sleuthing out what Nabokov knew of Horner and when he knew it, I plunged into Lolita’s bizarre critical and cultural afterlife on both sides of the border. There were awkwardly unfunny jokes by noted comedians such as Milton Berle and Groucho Marx, ribald cartoons in Playboy, Bert Lahr bringing a Broadway house down by singing “I Remember Lolita,” beauty contests in Milan judged by Nabokov’s opera-singing son, Dmitri, and uncomfortable Cosmopolitan photo shoots of a peignoir-clad Zsa Zsa Gabor as Lolita, apple in hand, faux desire on her face.
But the critical reception, which appeared to veer from bafflement to outrage in American circles, also cloaked strange, and sometimes noxious, assessments here in Canada. There were those, such as the Edmonton Journal’s initialled literary critic I.M.M., who fixated on the satirical aspects, wrongly ascribing Dolores Haze as Humbert’s “nemesis” and concluding: “Mr. Nabokov has seized the English language by the scruff of the neck, tickled it under the chin and made it roll over and beg for more.”
No piece of Lolita criticism made me sit up in stunned surprise as did Robertson Davies’s assessment for Saturday Night magazine. In his piece, titled Mania for Green Fruit and published weeks after the novel’s release (as well as the recent release of Davies’s own A Mixture of Frailties, the last in his Salterton Trilogy), Davies judged that the theme of Lolita was “not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.” It never entered Davies’s mind that Dolores Haze might be a victim of repeated rape or that “weak adults” can sexually assault as readily as cunning ones.
I can’t help but wonder if, in Davies’s zeal to characterize Lolita as a comic novel, to extol Nabokov’s genius, he had had some other girl entitled Lolita in mind, an early creation of Mordecai Richler. That Lolita, a bit player in Richler’s 1954 debut novel, The Acrobats, is 19, from Cadiz, Spain, is dark-eyed with hollow cheeks and a woman’s body and who "tried to walk like a woman, but her mannerisms were those of a deficient child.”
What follows is a rather sad exchange between this Lolita and the novel’s narrator, Andre, culminating in her declaration: “Don’t be bad! We’ll soon go up to my room. … Then you can do everything. I’m very good. All the men say so.” Richler’s faded, broken Lolita does not resemble Nabokov’s, who gets away not only from Humbert Humbert, but from Clare Quilty, first her saviour, then her near-predator.
Their overlapping existence is likely coincidental, the timing too tight for either author to have read the other’s novel. But it stands to reason that Davies, already a Canadian literary stalwart, would have known of both – and let one Lolita, of age, influence his judgment upon another, distinctly under the age of consent. If so, that also foreshadows so many future misreadings of Dolores Haze as a femme fatale, drawn from the visual representation – and rather good performance – by Sue Lyon, then 16, blonder and more mature than Nabokov’s textual creation, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film.
Lolita does not feature a seductress. It is not a love story, much as Humbert Humbert may bamboozle some readers into believing it is. But it almost certainly would not have climbed the bestseller lists, nor remained a hot topic for 60 years, nor inspired my own literary restoration project on Horner’s behalf, had Nabokov made simpler storytelling choices.
Which is also why it’s worth thinking about how Lolita misreadings affected the availability of the novel in Canada. The government’s initial ban stemmed from the original Olympia Press edition published in France, and despite being lifted later on, many libraries in the country took their cues and did not circulate Lolita. The chief librarian at the Toronto Public Library, H.C. Campbell, told Quill & Quire in January, 1959, that it only had a handful of copies because of budget constraints and that “the continuing value of the book had to be taken into consideration.”
Sixty years from now, we can look back and see how wrongheaded that decision was. But as we’ll still misread Lolita and we’ll still argue about it, it shows the importance of seeing the novel for what it’s really trying to tell us. And I hope the misreadings and arguments recede so that we can put the true hero – Dolores Haze – at the forefront.
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita.