"The dimmest of my pollutive dreams was a thousand times more dazzling than all the adultery the most virile writer of genius or the most talented impotent might imagine," boasts Humbert Humbert, the European-born author, academic, poet, pervert and protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, 20th-century literature’s most scandalous love story.
As the book begins, Humbert ("an assumed name") confesses that he is fixated on an unconsummated romantic liaison from his youth. As an adult, he lusts for prepubescent girls aged 9 to 14, whom he calls "nymphets." Dolores Haze is just 12 years old when they meet. Humbert rents a room from her mother, Charlotte, then initiates a sexual relationship with Dolores after Charlotte dies in a car accident. "She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita," Humbert rhapsodizes.
Nabokov (1899–1977), a Russian émigré, finished the novel in 1953, while living in Ashland, Ore. Five U.S. publishers initially rejected his manuscript, reportedly for fear of prosecution on obscenity charges. Former Random House editor-in-chief Hiram Haydn, who had a young daughter of his own, objected on moral grounds. "That loathsome novel will be published over my dead body!" he declared. It wasn’t until 1955 that Nabokov found a willing publisher in France’s Olympia Press. Exquisite literature was leagues beyond Olympia’s purview — it was best known for pulpy porno tracts. (That likely explains why the book’s original 5,000-copy run was littered with typos and absent Nabokov’s final corrections.)
It wasn’t until Aug. 18, 1958 that Nabokov’s jewel had its North American debut, thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons. U.S. consumer response was instant: Lolita became the first book since Gone with the Wind (1936) to reach 100,000 domestic sales within three weeks of publication. Here in Canada, however, customs officials had already placed the Olympia edition on a secret list of books banned from importation. Almost immediately, they seized a shipment of the Putnam’s edition at the border. The order was overturned later that fall; by the year’s end, Lolita was a Canadian bestseller.
Nabokov’s book, since translated into more than 20 languages, has sold an estimated 50 million copies worldwide. It is both vile and beautiful, a paradox in print that has made an indelible mark on popular culture. In the half century since Lolita reached this continent, the archetype of the sullen child vixen and cunning pedo has inspired a legion of imitations and reiterations in literature, film, music, theatre, opera and even fashion (primarily in Japan).
Lolita’s character represents eternal youth and forbidden fruit, a ripening temptress with the power to manipulate grown men. Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver (1976), Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby (1978) and Mena Suvari in American Beauty (1999) are all Lolitas by different names. The Police single Don’t Stand So Close to Me (1980) is about a high school student who wants to bed her teacher. Nick Cave’s entire career may be a product of Lolita’s inspiration. When the brooding rocker was a boy, his father read him the book’s first chapter, which famously begins: "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."
Idealized versions of Lolita exist in the realms of hardcore pornography, but also in everyday reality. Consider the premature sexualization of beauty pageant contestants like JonBenét Ramsay (who was six when she died), Swan Brooner (subject of the 2001 HBO documentary Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen) and even Britney Spears, who was 17 when she dressed as a schoolgirl vamp in the video for ...Baby One More Time. Recall the recent furor over 15-year-old Miley "Hannah Montana" Cyrus revealing her bare back in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair. These are examples of The Lolita Effect, a catch-all phrase for the way that young girls’ sexuality is often developed and exploited by modern Western society. It’s unfair, however, to blame Nabokov for those sins. Lolita did not invent pedophilia, but simply pinpointed an ugly fact of human nature.
Regarding Nabokov's novel, critic Louis Menand has written, "You cannot film this story accurately and stay out of prison."
The crux of Nabokov’s tale is Humbert and Dolores’s one-way love affair. Humbert is desperate for this woman trapped inside a girl’s body, but clueless about the emotional volatility of adolescence. She is alternately truculent and manipulative, frequently bartering sex for gifts and privileges. The conflict is so compelling that artists of all sorts have tried to rework it in one way or another. In the first major adaptation, Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film, James Mason played a more bumbling, less assured Humbert; Sue Lyon’s Lolita, on the other hand, barely resembled the original. In the book, Humbert describes the object of his affection as having "frail, honey-hued shoulders," a "silky shimmer above her temple grading into bright brown hair" and the "glistening tracery of down on her forearm." He indicates she is not conventionally beautiful. Lyon-as-Lo, however, was a budding bombshell; the child actor played her closer to 20 than 12.
Due to the pious restrictions of Britain’s film board, Dolores is rarely called a nymphet, and her physical contact with Humbert is cut to a minimum. Kubrick also inflated the character of Clare Quilty, Humbert’s predatory rival for Lolita’s affections. (Peter Sellers’s performance as Quilty left no piece of scenery unchewed.) Lolita was a box-office hit, but Kubrick would disavow it, claiming he wouldn’t have accepted the project if he’d known how severely it would be censored. A second film adaptation, Adrian Lyne’s Lolita (1997), restored some of the book’s sexual content, but missed its point: Lyne’s direction flattened Nabokov’s searing wit and biting satire. (It was also a box-office bomb.)
In 2001, Italian author Pia Pera published Lo’s Diary, a reimagination of Nabokov’s book as narrated by Lolita. (Pera presented Lo as a scheming sadist who tortures her pet hamster.) Nishabd, an Indian film adaptation of Lolita’s tale, appeared in 2006. No homage, however, has equalled Nabokov’s novel. The film adaptations never stood a chance — the medium cannot match the nuances of his prose, and some of the original sex scenes are simply too shocking to reproduce on celluloid. As critic Louis Menand has written, "You cannot film this story accurately and stay out of prison."
The most curious of all of Lolita’s progeny may be Nabokov’s own Look At the Harlequins! (1974), a fictional autobiography in which the narrator, Vadim Vadimovich N., fondles a nymphet named Dolly VonBorg. Critical dissection of the book suggests that Vadim is a parody and/or doppelgänger of Nabokov himself, which further muddies speculation on the real-life inspiration(s) for Humbert. (The saga of Dolores’s origins includes a story published in 1916 by little-known German author Heinz von Lichberg, in which a pedophile pursues an under-aged girl named Lolita.)
Nabokov’s novel was, and still is, astonishing, but the story, channelled through Humbert’s old-world sensibilities, is not nearly as salacious as some of the projects it has inspired. Given its virtuosic craftsmanship and timeless relevance, Lolita shows none of its age. Like the character Dolores Haze, who would die in childbirth at age 17 (her newlywed husband, not Humbert, fathered the baby), Nabokov’s prose remains forever young.
Matthew McKinnon is a Toronto-based writer.