Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita first appeared in Paris fifty years ago this September. An article for The Courier-Journal recalls the obscurity in which the book languished until “copies were seized by U.S. Customs, and reviewer Graham Greene chose it as one of the three best novels of the year.” Here’s a sampling of reactions from Nabokov’s contemporaries:
This is one of the funniest and one of the saddest books that will be published this year,” critic Elizabeth Janeway wrote, in 1958 [upon the book’s publication in the States].
….John Hollander, in the Partisan Review, termed the novel a “tremendous perversity.” Robertson Davies thought it high comedy. Kingsley Amis called it a moral failure.
The circumstances surrounding the novel’s publication are equally contentious.
Not long ago I happened upon a literary pissing contest between Nabokov and Lolita‘s publisher, Maurice Girodias. It began when Girodias published Lolita, Nabokov, and I in The Evergreen Review. The essay portrayed the Russian writer as an amusing, if self-important, ingénue who blundered into the limelight and promptly repudiated their publication agreement.
Nabokov responded in the same publication. He reiterated, “in strophic form,” the terms of his agreement with the publisher, and then recalled:
I had not been in Europe since 1940, was not interested in pornographic books, and thus knew nothing about the obscene novelettes which Mr. Girodias was hiring hacks to confect with his assistance, as he relates elsewhere. I have pondered the painful question whether I would have agreed so cheerfully to his publishing Lolita had I been aware in May, 1955, of what formed the supple backbone of his production. Alas, I probably would, though less cheerfully.
Calling Girodias out on “a number of slippery passages and a few guileful inexactitudes,” Nabokov claims that the man failed to fulfill his financial and other obligations in a timely manner. He contends that he never met the man in person and ridicules Girodias’ assertion that Nabokov, at a party:
“very obviously recognized” him as he was slowly swimming toward me amid the “bodies.” Very obviously, I could not have recognized somebody I had never seen in my life; nor can I insult his sanity by suggesting he assumed I had somehow obtained his picture (in the days of the famous curriculum vitae) and had been cherishing it all those years.
In his reply, Girodias observes:
not everyone has the privilege of acceding during one’s lifetime to Nabokov’s inverted Pantheon! Nabokov’s victims have always been anonymous, at best pseudonymous: am I really the first of the great man’s fantasies of hate to be identified with a live person?
He also provides a “press photograph” that seems to capture his meeting with Nabokov. “It is a poor picture I dare say,” Girodias acknowledges, “but I am certainly recognizable in the forefront, left, exchanging conversational grins with my own brother, Eric Kahane, and Nabokov himself, right… No doubt he will now claim that my snapshot was doctored by the Guepeou.”