In August 1954, Edmund Wilson invited Vladimir Nabokov to send along his latest novel. “I’d love to see it,” said Wilson. “[I]f nobody else is doing it, I’ll try to get my publisher, Straus, to.”
But once Wilson actually read Lolita, he was far less sanguine. His response, dated November 30, 1954 (and taken from Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971), is hilarious in hindsight.
Roger Straus lent me the MS of your book, and I read it when I was in New York — though rather hastily, because I had to give it back, and I have waited to write you about it till I could get some other opinions. I also had Elena [Wilson] and Mary [McCarthy] read it. I enclose Mary’s reactions from a letter to me, which she says I may quote to you. Elena seems to have liked the book better than either Mary or I — partly, I think, because she has seen America from the foreigner’s point of view and understands how it looks to your hero. The little girl, for example, seems quite all right to her, though rather implausible to me.
I am afraid that you will never get the book published by anybody except perhaps Laughlin…. I like it less than anything else of yours I have read. The short story that it grew out of was interesting, but I don’t think the subject can stand this very extended treatment.
Nasty subjects may make fine books; but I don’t feel you have got away with this. It isn’t merely that the characters and the situation are repulsive in themselves, but that, presented on this scale, they seem quite unreal. The various goings-on and the climax at the end have, for me, the same fault as the climaxes of Bend Sinister and Laughter in the Dark: they become too absurd or horrible to be tragic, yet remain too unpleasant to be funny. I think, too, that in this book there is — what is unusual with you — too much background, description of places, etc. This is one thing that makes me agree with Roger Straus in feeling that the second half drags. I agree with Mary that the cleverness sometimes becomes tiresome, though I don’t think I agree with her about the “haziness.”
Enclosed extract from Mary McCarthy’s letter to Wilson:
About Vladimir’s book — I think I have a midway position. I say think because I didn’t quite finish it; I was three-quarters through the second volume when we had to leave. At Roger Strauss’ instructions, I left it at the Chelsea for Philip Rahv to pick up — he may run some of the first part in [The Partisan Review]. I don’t agree with you that the second volume was boring. Mystifying, rather, it seemed to me. I felt it had escaped into some elaborate allegory or series of symbols that I couldn’t grasp. Bowden [Broadwater, McCarthy’s husband] suggests that the nymphet is a symbol of America, in the clutches of the middle-aged European (Vladimir); hence all the descriptions of motels and other U.S. phenomenology (I liked this part, by the way). But there seems to be some more concrete symbolism, in the second volume; you felt all the characters had a kite of meaning tugging at them from above, in Vladimir’s enigmatic empyrean. What about that pursuer, for instance? I thought maybe I’d find the answer if I finished it — is there one?
On the other hand, I thought the writing was terribly sloppy all through, perhaps worse in the second volume. It was full of what teachers call haziness and all Vladimir’s hollowest jokes and puns. I almost wondered whether this wasn’t deliberate — part of the idea.
From Elena Wilson [Edmund Wilson’s wife], in a letter dated November 30, 1954:
The little girl seems very real and accurate and her attractiveness and seductiveness are absolutely plausible. The hero’s disgust of grown-up women is not very different, for example, from Gide’s, the difference being that Gide is smug about it and your hero is made to go through hell. The suburban, hotel, motel descriptions are just terribly funny.
I don’t see why the novel should be any more shocking than all the now commonplace “études of other unpleasant moeurs.” These peculiar tastes are surely as prevalent even if they haven’t been written about as often. Why shouldn’t the book be published in England, or certainly in France and then come back here in a somewhat expurgated form and be read greedily?
Unfortunately, my opinion is very unimportant.