SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT
SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT An Essay in Book History
© 2005-2014 Heine Scholtens | email@example.com
‘And Lolita’s incredible adventures alone could be a novel.’ –– Vladimir Nabokov, Selected Letters, p. xi
TABLE OF CONTENTS
§ 1 Introduction p. 11 § 2 A word on purpose p. 13 § 3 A word on method p. 17 § 4 A word on outline p. 19 1. WRITING LOLITA Up to December 6, 1953 § 1 Introduction p. 21 § 2 Textual sources of Lolita p. 22 § 3 Nabokov on inspiration p. 28 § 4 Writing Lolita p. 31 2. LOLITA REJECTED December 6, 1953 up to February 16, 1955 § 1 Introduction p. 35 § 2 First attempts p. 36 § 3 Second thoughts p. 41 § 4 Lolita rejected p. 47 3. PUBLISHED IN PARIS February 16, 1955 up to September 15, 1955 § 1 Introduction p. 53 § 2 The Olympia Press p. 54 § 3 Lolita at the Olympia Press p. 59 § 4 Published in Paris p. 67 —7—
8 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT 4. THE BLESSINGS OF GRAHAM GREENE September 15, 1955 up to October 30, 1956 § 1 Introduction p. 71 § 2 One of the best books of the year p. 72 § 3 Noticed and reviewed p. 78 § 4 The blessings of Graham Greene p. 82 5. MAKING A CASE FOR LOLITA October 30, 1956 up to April 22, 1957 § 1 Introduction p. 85 § 2 The Anchor Review p. 87 § 3 L’affaire Lolita p. 93 § 4 Making a case for Lolita p. 100 6. LOLITA IN AMERICA April 22, 1957 up to February 11, 1958 § 1 Introduction p. 103 § 2 Copyright law p. 104 § 3 Finding an American publisher p. 108 § 4 Lolita in America p. 123 7. A LITERARY ACHIEVEMENT February 11, 1958 up to August 18, 1958 § 1 Introduction p. 127 § 2 Nabokov on book design p. 128 § 3 The look of Lolita p. 131 § 4 A literary achievement p. 134 8. LOLITA’S SUCCESS August 18, 1958 up to December 31, 1959 § 1 Introduction p. 139 § 2 The United States p. 140 § 3 France p. 145 § 4 The United Kingdom p. 148 CONCLUSIONS BIBLIOGRAPHY
p. 159 p. 165
The present study is an MA-thesis in Book History, written in completion of the MAprogramme ‘Book and Digital Media Studies’ of Leiden University. Research and composition were supervised by Berry Dongelmans, Paul Hoftijzer and Adriaan van der Weel, whom I would herewith like to thank for their guidance and never-ending enthusiasm. Gratitude also goes out to my fellow students, for their companionship, and to my dear family and friends, for their ceaseless support.
Leiden, September 2005
The distribution of this thesis was originally limited to a few printed copies. I am now making a PDF version available online. Apart from a few minor typographical details, this version is identical to the original. The text has not been updated to reflect recent research.
Amsterdam, April 2014
§ 1 INTRODUCTION Vladimir Nabokov was born in St Petersburg on April 23, 1899.1 He was raised in a wealthy, cultured and liberal family; this upbringing resulted in fluency in Russian, French and English. In 1916, Nabokov published his first book, a collection of poems. His idyllic youth ended, however, when his family went into exile as a result of the Revolution of 1917. After a stay in the Crimea, Nabokov went to Cambridge, where he attended university; he took his degree in 1922. From 1925 onwards, Nabokov and his wife Véra lived in Berlin, the centre of the Russian emigration. Supporting his family by giving lessons in Russian, French, tennis and boxing, Nabokov invested all his remaining time in writing. This resulted in a steady production of novels, stories and poems in Russian, most of which were published by émigré-journals and émigré-publishers. His first novel Mashenka (Mary) was published in 1926.2 It was followed by Korol’, Dama, Valet (King, Queen, Knave) in 1928; Zashchita Luzhina (The Defence) and Soglyadatay (The Eye) in 1930; Podvig (Glory) in 1932; Kamera Obskura (Laughter in the Dark) in 1933; and Otchayanie (Despair) in 1936.
The following biographical sketch merely serves as an introduction for those unfamiliar with the basic facts of Nabokov’s life. This thesis does not in any way intend to be a biography of Nabokov. Excellent studies in that field have already been published, most notably by Brian Boyd. See Boyd, B. (1990): Vladimir Nabokov. The Russian Years; Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years. The titles given between brackets are taken from later English translations, most of which were Nabokov’s own.
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12 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT As Véra Nabokov was Jewish, she and Vladimir decided to flee to France when they were faced with the rise of Hitler in Germany. In Paris, a city which ranked second as a centre of the Russian emigration, Nabokov continued his literary career. He published his novel Priglashenie na Kazn’ (Invitation to a Beheading) in 1938, and saw his novel Dar (The Gift) partly serialized. France was not the best place to hide from Hitler, however, and in the face of the German invasion the Nabokovs emigrated to the United States. With him Nabokov took the manuscript of the first novel he had written in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. In the United States, Nabokov divided his time between teaching – first at Wellesley and from 1948 onwards at Cornell University – lepidopterological research, and writing. He was able to continue his literary career and continued writing in English; Nabokov found favour with the influential critic Edmund Wilson and with Katharine White, editor of the New Yorker, among others. In 1941 The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was published, followed by a study on Gogol in 1944, the novel Bend Sinister in 1947, and his autobiography Conclusive Evidence in 1951. From 1947 onwards, Nabokov was increasingly occupied by his new novel, which he first planned to call The Kingdom by the Sea, but which he later entitled Lolita. It was this novel that was to make him famous. Finished in 1953 but only published in the United States in 1958, its success meant financial independence. Nabokov resigned from Cornell University and moved to Switzerland with his wife. There, he devoted himself to his writing. In 1962 Pale Fire was published, followed in 1964 by a massive four-volume translation of and commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Nor did Nabokov’s production falter in the face of old age. His novel Ada was published in 1969, Transparent Things in 1972 and Look at the Harlequins! in 1974. The completion of his novel The Original of Laura was only halted when Nabokov died on July 2, 1977. Within the wide range of his oeuvre, Lolita was always special to Nabokov. After finishing his novel, he did not hesitate to declare it his ‘best thing in English’.3 Over the years, the affection Nabokov felt for Lolita remained. When asked in 1962 whether he did not find it annoying to be seen as the ‘Lolita-man’, Nabokov answered: No, I wouldn’t say that, because Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book – the book that treated a theme which was so distant, so 3
See for example a letter to Edmund Wilson (July 30, 1954). Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 317 (letter 260). Compare a letter to Maurice Girodias (August 3, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 223.
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remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.4 So Lolita was Nabokov’s favourite because it was his most difficult book in an artistic sense. Unsurprisingly, it troubled him deeply that it was also his most difficult book in a more worldly sense, as it proved almost impossible to have it published in what he considered to be his homeland, the United States – its ultimate publication only resulted from an immense effort. Aware of this, Nabokov naturally felt the need to testify of his most beloved book’s troubled history. In 1961, eight years after completion of his novel and three years after its publication in America, Vladimir Nabokov announced that a ‘full account of Lolita’s tribulations’ would ‘soon be published’.5 But it never was. We can of course only guess why Nabokov never published the account he envisaged. But, on the other hand, we can feel confident that his commitment has been met. The present study offers, exactly fifty years after its first publication, a full account of the early publishing history of Lolita. Although we cannot question Nabokov’s decision not to carry out his plans, the question as to why it would be purposeful to do it now is no less than legitimate. It is this question that is the occasion of the introduction in hand. A few words must be said on the why and how of our undertaking. § 2 A WORD ON PURPOSE The question as to why one would want to write a full account of the publishing history of Lolita can be answered on different levels, in terms of both historiography, theory and methodology. We will explore these various forms of motivation successively. The motivation in terms of historiography is most straight-forward. The publishing history of Lolita has been very eventful, for one thing, and these events
BBC Television interview (mid-July 1962). Repr. in Nabokov, V. (1973b): Strong Opinions, pp. 9-19. This quote from p. 15. Compare interviews from 1964 and 1966, also reprinted in Strong Opinions, pp. 47 and 92. Letter to the editor of Playboy Magazine (published July 1961). Repr. in: Nabokov, V. (1973b): Strong Opinions, p. 211. Nabokov expressed the same intention in several interviews. See: Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 228.
14 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT seem worth recounting. We can ask ourselves, however, whether this is still necessary, and there are at least two reasons why it does not seem so. Firstly, a fair number of participants in Lolita’s publishing history have already provided their accounts of the course of events. Most important are the accounts of Vladimir Nabokov and Maurice Girodias.6 Nabokov, although he never got to writing the full account of Lolita’s tribulations mentioned before, wrote the essay On a Book Entitled Lolita as early as 1956. Later, in 1967, he added an essay on the strained relationships with his first publisher, entitled Lolita and Mr. Girodias. Girodias commented on Nabokov and his novel on numerous occasions, most importantly in his essay Lolita, Nabokov and I, published in 1965, and in his autobiography, most recently published in 1990.7 Secondly, several historians have already treated aspects of Lolita’s publishing history. Sally Dennison, for example, has dealt with Lolita extensively in her study on the dependency on ‘alternative’ modes of publishing in the diffusion of modernism, [Alternative] Literary Publishing (1984).8 Michael Juliar has given an outline of the main events in an appendix to his Vladimir Nabokov. A Descriptive Bibliography (1986).9 Brian Boyd has treated the publication of Lolita in his masterful biography of Vladimir Nabokov’s American years (1991).10 Edward de Grazia has presented a most thorough survey within the context of his analysis of the manifold ties between art and censorship, Girls Lean Back Everywhere. The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius
Other examples are Jason Epstein, Walter Minton, Hiram Haydn, and William Styron. This autobiography, as most texts in the Olympic saga, has a rather checkered publishing history. The first of three projected volumes of the autobiography originally appeared in 1977: Girodias, M. (1977a): Une journée sur la terre. This volume was translated into English in 1980: Girodias, M. (1980): The Frog Prince. But sales were slow and the project was abandoned. Revived in 1990 in two volumes, L’arrivée and Les jardins d’éros, there was also an annoucement for a third volume, entitled Le futur perpétuel. This volume, however, was never published. ‘Vladimir Nabokov: The Work of Art as a Dirty Book’. Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, chapter 5. ‘Appendix C: A Lolita Chronology’. Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov. A Descriptive Bibliography, pp. 689-696. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, chapters 10, 12, 14 and 16.
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(1992).11 And John de St Jorre has treated the theme in his history of the Olympia Press, Venus Bound. The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press and Its Writers (1994).12 Indeed, it seems not altogether necessary to write a publication history of Lolita. Why venture on an exploration of territory that has already been charted? On close inspection, however, there is ample reason for exactly such a renewed exploration. As to the testimonies provided by the participants, it must be said that none of them are exhaustive – or accurate, for that matter. In the case of Nabokov and Girodias, the dispute that rose between them seems to have given rise in both of them to a desire to find fault with the other. Girodias’s Lolita, Nabokov and I is an indictment against Nabokov in much the same way as Nabokov’s Lolita and Mr. Girodias is an indictment against Girodias. As to Nabokov’s On a Book Entitled Lolita and Girodias’s autobiographical pursuits, they seem to be literary reworkings of Lolita’s early history rather than truly historical accounts. Nor is the nature of these texts something we can find fault with: we need not apply the same standards to autobiography as we do to history. As to the efforts made by historians, they do not suffice either – and again this deficiency is not something we can find fault with. All material on the publishing history of Lolita published before 1989, the year Nabokov’s selected correspondence was made available, is necessarily lacking in factual matter. The groundbreaking efforts of both Dennison and Juliar were hindered by the unavailability of relevant sources and therefore in hindsight seem strikingly incomplete. As to the histories written after the publication of Nabokov’s selected correspondence, they show a fuller command of sources, but are naturally limited by their scope. Boyd’s biography of Nabokov, for example, is yet to be rivalled; within its scope, however, the publication of Lolita is but one of many stories to be told. Unsurprisingly, Boyd’s treatment of Lolita’s publishing history is therefore in no way exhaustive. De Grazia’s analysis of this history is the most encompassing to date, but his interests lie mostly with the legal aspects of the matter. John de St Jorre has contributed greatly to Lolita’s historiography, but is primarily concerned with the bigger picture of the Olympia Press’s history.
‘With Your Little Claws, Lolita’. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, chapter 14. ‘Light of My Life, Fire of My Loins: The Lolita Saga’. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, chapter 7.
16 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT So while we can find fault with none of the histories of Lolita’s publication that have been written so far, we can still maintain that there is ample reason to write one anew, written without limitation to any particular angle or point of view. But the presentation of historical facts is not the only motivation for providing a full account of the publishing history of Lolita. On a more theoretical level, we can hold that the events leading up to the publication of Nabokov’s novel in the United States raise interesting questions concerning the publication of literary texts in general, especially with regard to what could be called the construction of literary status. At this point one might object that the publishing history of Lolita could not possibly illuminate the nature of literary publishing in general, for the simple reason that Lolita was an exceptional case. This objection would not be justified. Nabokov’s Lolita cannot be an exception for the simple reason, we could say, that with regard to our field of investigation – the past – exceptions do not exist. The sheer notion of exception implies the existence of rules, and no one has ever been able to establish incontestably the occurrence of rules in history. There are, of course, patterns to be discerned. With regard to patterns, however, we cannot say that Lolita’s publishing history cannot be illuminating. It might be an example which is in some respects more pronounced than other examples, but that is exactly what makes it worth studying. It is the explicitness of this particular case which enables it to shed light on the pattern in general. The case of the publishing history of Lolita, in this line of reasoning, reveals workings that remain hidden in other cases. This, I suppose, is especially so with regard to the construction of its literary identity. To quote Christine Clegg: ‘What is then so fascinating about Lolita is the ways in which the contemporary reception demonstrates the very process through which a text is created as literature.’13 The single question that has dominated the early history of Lolita is the question whether it was literature or pornography. The present study, to be clear, does not intend to show that Lolita was one or the other from the outset – quite to the contrary, it intends to show that the predominant acceptance of the text as literature was the outcome of a conscious effort on behalf of the author, his publishers, and a number of others. This study is obviously not the first to be concerned with questions regarding the construction of literary identity. Others have dealt with this topic at length, most
Clegg, C. (2000), ed.: Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita, p. 18.
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notably Pierre Bourdieu and Gérard Genette.14 This brings us to the third motivation for providing a full account of the publishing history of Lolita. This last motivation is methodological in nature. In the decision to assess theoretical issues such as the construction of literary status by means of a case-study, one may well read a preference for small-scale history over all-encompassing theory. And indeed I suppose that book history should at present work from the bottom upwards rather than from the top down. In my view, neither Bourdieu’s schematic outline nor Genette’s analytic encyclopaedia is really helpful in understanding the workings of literature. I suppose there is a need for the provision of examples of sufficient detail rather than for the formulation of universal theories. If the publishing history of Nabokov’s Lolita that is related in the present study proves to be helpful in any way in illuminating the publication of literature at large, I wish to see that as an indication of the soundness of this supposition. § 3 A WORD ON METHOD For a methodology, I take as my cue the proposal for a ‘cultural history of print’ that has been brought forward by Adrian Johns.15 Important in a cultural history of print is the consideration of any book as ‘both the product of one complex set of social and technological processes and also the starting point for another’: In the first place, a large number of people, machines and materials must converge and act together for it to come into existence at all. How exactly they do so will inevitably affect its finished character in a number of ways. In that sense a book is the material embodiment of, if not a consensus, then at least a collective consent. Its identity can be understood accordingly, in terms of these intricate processes. But the story of a book evidently does not end with its creation. How it is the put to use, by whom, under what circumstances, and to what effect are all equally complex issues. Each is worthy of attention in its own
See: Bourdieu, P. (1993): The Field of Cultural Production; Genette, G. (1997): Paratexts. Thresholds of Interpretation. Johns, A. (2002): ‘How to Acknowledge a Revolution’, al. 24. Johns proposed this approach in the context of research into early-modern printing practices, but his views are more widely applicable.
18 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT right. So a printed book can be seen as a nexus conjoining a wide range of worlds of work.16 It is this ‘wide range of worlds of work’ that a cultural history of print sets out to make visible. It does so by ‘taking what seem to us the most self-evident elements of the subject as demanding historical explanation’.17 This approach thus confronts and questions all the agents in the classical communications circuit, first proposed by Robert Darnton: author, publisher, printer, distributor, and reader.18 It covers the full scope from creation to consumption and may well be called, in reference to D.F. McKenzie, ‘the sociology of texts’.19 In practical terms what I offer is a case-study. I will try and follow this particular text, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, through its career from its very beginning, much in the same way as people’s lives are traced in their biographies. In this pursuit, I will labour to provide a full account of the events in Lolita’s history, and to supplement this account with an analysis at certain intervals. The analysis will consist of no more than an attempt to answer basic questions – questions which might seem, at first sight, to query the self-evident. It is thus that I hope to supply an accurate publishing history of Nabokov’s Lolita, an illuminating example of the construction of literary identity, and an indication of the value of small-scale histories in comparison to general theories. This being said, I must outline the limitations of the study in hand.20 Most important of these is that the time frame available for this research only allowed for the use of published sources. There are several archives containing material relevant to the present undertaking that have not been consulted; most important of these is the collection of ‘Vladimir and Véra Nabokov Publishing Correspondence’ in the
16 17 18 19 20
Johns, A. (1998): The Nature of the Book, p. 3. Johns, A. (2002): ‘How to Acknowledge a Revolution’, al. 25. Darnton, R. (1990): ‘What is the History of Books’. McKenzie, D.F. (1999): Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. The present study does not offer an interpretation of Lolita or an indication of its literary value. For an introduction to these themes, please see: Appel, A. (1991), ed.: The Annotated Lolita; Bloom, H. (1987), ed.: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Modern Critical Interpretations; Clegg, C. (2000), ed.: Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita; Olsen, L. (1995): Lolita. A Janus Text; Pifer, E. (2003a), ed.: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. A Casebook; Proffer, C.R. (1968): Keys to Lolita.
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University Library of Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.).21 The dependence on published sources has made itself felt on more than one occasion, and future archival research is surely needed if this study is to have a lasting value. A second limitation is that the same time frame has forced me to discuss only a limited period in the history of Nabokov’s Lolita. The present study covers only the novel’s pre-history and, roughly, the first decade of its existence. As a final boundary, the date of December 31, 1959 has been chosen. Although this date is rather arbitrary, it allows for a well-rounded and coherent story to be told. There is ample material, however, for a continuation on ‘seeing Lolita in reprint’ or on the complex relationship between Nabokov’s novel and its adaptations to other media, such as the movies and the stage. § 4 A WORD ON OUTLINE For now, however, the present study will have to do. Its outline is relatively straightforward. The publishing history of Nabokov’s Lolita is treated in eight consecutive chapters. These chapters are arranged chronologically, the first providing an opening to the history and the last providing its preliminary final. Each chapter, moreover, deals with a distinct theme or phase in Lolita’s publishing history. Transgressions of the chronology occur where the division into thematic phases demands so. After the eighth chapter, brief conclusions will be formulated. But let us begin at the beginning.
For a description of the contents of this collection, see: Attewel, N. & K. Reagan (2003), eds.: Guide to the Vladimir and Véra Nabokov Publishing Correspondence, 1945-1977.
1 WRITING LOLITA Up to December 6, 1953 § 1 INTRODUCTION Where do books come from? What is their origin? If we decide to explore the publishing history of Nabokov’s Lolita, it seems logical to start from the novel’s beginnings, even if it is merely by way of a prologue. But beginnings are hard; they confront us with questions that we seem almost unable to answer. The origin of a book, we like to say, is the author’s ‘inspiration’. Inspiration, however, is a very dubious concept. On the one hand, the very word seems to imply that the ‘inspiring’ is done by someone or something, and that the origin of the work therefore lies elsewhere, in some other work or person. These works and persons have also been inspired, however, and before we know it, we find ourselves in a regressio ad infinitum which can only be stopped by referring to something ‘truly original’. On the other hand, if we wish to stop or altogether avoid this infinite regression by deciding that the origins of a work lie not elsewhere but in the creator himself, the word ‘inspiration’ is the mere cover-up of the incomprehensible action of creatio ex nihilo. Inspiration all too easily tempts us into referring to the Muses, or to God. So we find ourselves in a difficult position. Nevertheless, this chapter will be devoted to the earliest history of Lolita. It covers the period from the novel’s conception up to the completion of the manuscript in December 1953. We will start with an exploration of several theories that have been brought forward concerning the textual ‘sources’ of Lolita (§ 2). Then we will discuss Nabokov’s own views on the origins of his novels (§ 3). Thus gaining a broad view of the pre-history of Lolita, we will focus on the history of it actual creation, that is, on Nabokov writing Lolita (§ 4).
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22 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT § 2 TEXTUAL SOURCES OF LOLITA The theme of Lolita, the love of a middle-aged man for a young girl, was not new to Nabokov’s oeuvre when he started writing Lolita. Several critics have pointed out that this theme can be found in a number of his earlier works. These include the story Skazka (A Nursery Tale, 1926), Kamera Obskura (Laughter in the Dark, 1932), Priglashenie na kazn’ (Invitation to a Beheading, 1935-36), Dar (The Gift, 1937-38), Izobretenie Val’sa (The Waltz Invention, 1938) and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941).1 Lance Olsen, for example, writes: ‘As early as Laughter in the Dark (1932), an Ur-Lolita surfaces when Albinus Ktretschmar sacrifices everything for a girl whom he loses to a hack artist named Axel Rex. Five years later, in The Gift, a character offhandedly tells a “Dostoevskian” story in which an old man falls in love with a young girl who does not return his affections and then marries her widowed mother to be near his idol.’2 The first full treatment of the theme of Lolita occurred in 1939, when Nabokov wrote a story entitled Volshebnik. This story can be regarded as the prototype of Lolita. In the afterword Nabokov would later write for Lolita, called On a Book Entitled Lolita, he recalls: The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris, at a time when I was laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia. As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage. The impulse I record had no textual connection with the ensuing train of thought, which resulted, however, in a prototype of my present novel, a short story some thirty pages long. I wrote it in Russian, the language in which I had been writing novels since 1924 […]. The man was a Central European, the anonymous nymphet was French, and the loci were Paris and Provence. I had him marry the little girl’s sick mother who soon died, and after a thwarted attempt to take advantage of the orphan in a hotel room, Arthur (for that was his name) threw himself under 1
Appel, A. (1970): ‘Backgrounds of Lolita’, pp. 16, 21; Dolinin, A. (1993): ‘Nabokov and “Third Rate Literature”. (On a Source of Lolita)’, pp. 170-171; Olsen, L. (1995): Lolita. A Janus Text, p. 13; Maar, M. (2004a): ‘Was wußte Nabokov?’, p. 37; Maar, M. (2004c): ‘Curse of the First Lolita. Heinz von Lichberg and the Pre-history of a Nymphet’, p. 14. Olsen, L. (1995): Lolita. A Janus Text, p. 13.
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the wheels of a truck. I read the story one blue-papered wartime night to a group of friends – Mark Aldanov, two social revolutionaries, and a woman doctor; but I was not pleased with the thing and destroyed it sometime after moving to America in 1940.3 Whatever the accuracy of the rest of this recollection, the last bit is untrue. In February 1959, Nabokov discovered a copy of Volshebnik while preparing a batch of material to be sent to the Library of Congress, and even suggested to his publisher to have it brought out in a limited edition.4 Nothing came of the plan, however, and the story was only published in 1986, in a translation by Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s son.5 Ever since the acceptance of Lolita as a canonical text, scholars have tried to uncover the source that ‘prompted the initial shiver of inspiration,’ to borrow Nabokov’s phrase. Even Nabokov’s ‘ape in the Jardin des Plantes’ has been pursued, with utmost diligence, by a Nabokov scholar.6 It is not feasible to try and provide a complete overview of all the suggested textual sources for Lolita here, but it might be useful to look at a few examples. In 1979, the ‘complete correspondence’ between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson was published.7 In one of Edmund Wilson’s letters, reference was made to a ‘Russian sex masterpiece’, which he had sent to Nabokov.8 Simon Karlinsky, the editor of the correspondence, followed this trail and came up with a most remarkable text: the sexual confessions of an anonymous Ukrainian, written in French around 1912 and published in 1926 by Henri Havelock Ellis as an appendix to the sixth
Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, pp. 105-106. Letter to Walter Minton (February 6, 1959). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 19401977, p. 282-283. Nabokov, V. (1987): The Enchanter. The novella was later also published in the original Russian: Nabokov, V. (1991): ‘Volshebnik’. See Juliar, M. (1998): ‘The Inspiration for Lolita’. Nabokov has alluded to the same ape in an interview with the BBC (1962). See: Nabokov, V. (1973b): Strong Opinions, pp. 1516. Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (1979): The Nabokov-Wilson Letters. This edition was sprinkled with errors, however, and also turned out to be far from complete. It has been surpassed since by the revised edition: Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya. Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (1979): The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, letter 142, p. 201. Compare Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, pp. 228-230.
24 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT volume of the French edition of his collected writings.9 The confessions tell the story of a young man who is highly sexually active from the age of twelve. Because of his obsessive preoccupation with sex, he fails at his studies and is left without any prospect to a career. He is given the opportunity to move to Italy, where he lives in celibacy and resumes his studies. Disaster strikes, however, when he learns of the existence of child prostitution and lapses into his former obsessive pattern, although it now takes the form of a compulsive search for girls in their early teens and of exhibiting himself to them at outdoor urinals. His prospects for the future are destroyed once again, and he ends his autobiographical note with a desperate call that he sees no way to control his sexual urges. Karlinsky was quick to link the anonymous sexual autobiography to Nabokov’s Lolita: The theme of the closing pages of the confession – a man obsessed by young girls, led on and seduced by his would-be victims who turn out to be far more experienced sexually than he – has an obvious bearing on certain portions of Lolita. […] Nabokov’s reading in June 1948 of the nymphet hunter’s confession published by Havelock Ellis may well have provided the additional stimulus for the next stage of the novel’s development.10 This line of reasoning was also adopted by Donald Rayfield, the editor of the first English translation of the anonymous autobiography, which was published in 1985 as The Confessions of Victor X.11 In his Postface, Rayfield was very candid in his exploration of ‘the real value of the confessions’: There are several references to Victor’s confessions in Nabokov’s work, and a number of preoccupations as well as their common fate as exiles from a lost Russia made it inevitable that Victor should affect Nabokov’s own work. Undoubtedly we are most indebted to Victor for his contribution to the theme and plot of Lolita and the strange sensuous and intellectual character of Humbert Humbert, the hero of Nabokov’s finest English-language novel.12 9 10
Havelock Ellis, H. (1926): Études de psychologie sexuelle VI. Editor’s note in: Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (1979): The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, pp. 201202. X, V. (1985): The Confessions of Victor X. Rayfield, D. (1985): ‘Postface’, p. 123.
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His considerations lead Rayfield to the conclusion: ‘Victor’s confessions provided the final push in the birth of Lolita’s central theme.’13 In 1993, another attempt was made to uncover the source of inspiration for Lolita. Alexander Dolinin unearthed a short story by Valentin Samsonov entitled Skazochnaia printsessa (A Fairy-Tale Princess), published in the Russian émigré journal Chisla in 1933. Skazochnaia printsessa describes the plight of a pervert, Oleg Prostov, who is tormented by a passionate desire for very young girls and makes plans to rape one. He chooses his victim, the thirteen-year-old schoolgirl Ira, lures her into his car, brings her to his apartment and assaults her. She cries, and her tears bring Oleg back to his senses. His passionate desire is transformed into deep pity; Oleg presses his body to Ira’s legs, buries his face in her lap and calms her with paternal kisses. Ira is moved by Oleg’s sobbing and stays with him; Oleg platonically worships her as if she were a princess. The idyll lasts a mere month, until Oleg is arrested and sentenced to jail. It is from jail that he testifies of his passionate tragedy.14 Dolinin too was quick to identify his discovery as a source of inspiration for Nabokov’s Lolita. He stated: Strong affinities of Samsonov’s clumsy story and Nabokov’s involuted and intricate novel seem to be self-evident. They are not limited to pedophilia as a common subject-matter but have a direct bearing on some important motives and images in Lolita. In fact, A Fairy-Tale Princess contains various elements from which Nabokov might have developed parts of his plot and recurrent imagery.15 A third and last example of the attempts to uncover the source of inspiration for Lolita is of a recent date. In 2004, a heated debate was unleashed by the German scholar Michaël Maar.16 Like Karlinsky and Dolinin, he had found a text with a Lolita13 14
Rayfield, D. (1985): ‘Postface’, p. 141. My description of Samsonov’s story is based on: Dolinin, A. (1993): ‘Nabokov and “Third Rate Literature”. (On a Source of Lolita)’, pp. 168-169. This article was brought to my attention by: Machen, E. (1998): ‘Sources of Inspiration for “Lolita”’, p. 17. Dolinin, A. (1993): ‘Nabokov and “Third Rate Literature”. (On a Source of Lolita)’, p. 169. Maar, M. (2004a): ‘Was wußte Nabokov?’, pp. 37-38; and Maar, M. (2004b): ‘Der Mann, der “Lolita” erfand’, p. 46. Maar also reported his findings in English: Maar, M. (2004c): ‘Curse of the First Lolita. Heinz von Lichberg and the Pre-history of a Nymphet’, pp. 13-15.
26 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT theme predating the composition of Nabokov’s novel. In 1916, the long-forgotten German writer Heinz von Lichberg published a novella entitled Lolita in a collection of short stories entitled Die verfluchte Gioconda.17 Its theme, by now, will sound familiar. The novella recounts the story of a cultivated, middle-aged man, who takes lodgings in a Spanish pension. There, he falls for the charms of the daughter of the house, a young and captivating girl. They have an affair, which, after a history which is interspersed with traditional Gothic story elements, ends in the girl’s violent death. Maar was not as rash as Karlinsky, Rayfield and Dolinin were before him. He showed himself to be well aware of the difficulties of distinguishing between coincidence and influence: Die Übereinstimmung von Handlungskern, Erzählperspektive und Namenswahl ist […] frappierend. Leider gibt es, wie Van Veen in Ada bemerkt, kein logisches Gesetz, das uns verraten würde ab wann ein bestimmte Anzahl von Koinzidenzen aufhört, Zufall zu sein. Mangels dieses Gesetz ist die sich aufdrängende Frage auch nicht zu beantworden, freilich nog weniger ab su weisen: Kann Vladimir Nabokov, der autor der einen unsterblichen Lolita, des stolzen schwarzen Schwans unter den Romanen der Moderne, das häßliche Entlein seines Vorgängers gekannt haben?18 But he went on to argue, rather suggestively, that such a scenario could indeed have been possible. It was, however, only in the English-language publication of his findings that Maar reached some kind of conclusion and designated Von Lichberg’s story as a source for Lolita. There he asked himself: ‘What are we dealing with here?’ and after dismissing the options that the Lolita-Lolita correspondence is either an example of ‘fortuitous coincidence’ or of the ‘art of quotation’, he settled for his third option, which he considered ‘the most plausible’: In some mysterious way Lichberg’s Die verfluchte Gioconda fell into [Nabokov’s] hands. Leafing through it, he could have come upon the story of the nymphet and so the theme that had already begun to dawdle in mind. He forgot the tale completely, or thought he had forgotten it. […] Much later, drawn to the surface
Lichberg, H. von (1916): Die verfluchte Gioconda. Maar, M. (2004a): ‘Was wußte Nabokov?’, p. 37.
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by new bait, whole scraps of the story rose from the depths. […] Such is the grace of inspiration.19 This brings us back to our initial concern. What can we learn from the attempts that have been made to uncover the textual sources of Nabokov’s Lolita? Need we say that Nabokov’s novel would not have been written if there had been no Heinz von Lichberg, no Valentin Samsonov, no Victor X? If we can learn anything from these attempts at literary archaeology, it is by stepping back and watching the spectacle. In my view, it is the avidity with which the revelations are brought forward that is most revealing.20 Confronted with the tough question of literary origination, we feel relieved when we can designate a ‘source’. But in fact, we are trapped in an infinite regression of referral. For what are the textual sources for Von Lichberg’s story, or for Samsonov’s? The only thing we know is that in early twentieth-century European literature, in the works of Nabokov and others, there are enough precocious girls to form a soccer-team – or several of them, if we count all the nymphets in Victor X’s confessions separately.21 Uncovering textual sources will not help us explain where these precocious girls come from. And in any case, the origins of Nabokov’s Lolita will not be explained by referring to stories that have a likeness to it. In this respect it might be wise to keep a remark in mind from Jason Epstein, a friend and one-time publisher of Nabokov. In his memoirs he recalls asking Nabokov how the idea for Lolita had occurred to him. Nabokov’s answer was fancy, as could be expected: He told me that one day he, his wife Vera, and his ten-year-old son, Dmitri, had been driving home to Ithaca from a butterfly expedition in the Rockies and stopped for the night in a small Ohio town. Since there was no motel available 19
Maar, M. (2004c): ‘Curse of the First Lolita. Heinz von Lichberg and the Pre-history of a Nymphet’, p. 15. As is the ardour with which they are refuted. For a response to Karlinsky and Rayfield’s theory, see: Nabokov, D. (1987): ‘On a Book Entitled The Enchanter’, pp. 126-127. For a response to Maar’s theory, see: Zimmer, D.E. (2004): ‘Die doppelte Lolita’. I have not found a response to Dolinin’s theory, but feel sure that there is one. I am therefore somewhat confused by Stacy Schiff’s remark on the diffusion of Nabokov’s Volshebnik: ‘Word of its unusual subject spread quickly, stories of forty-yearold seducers of pre-pubescent girls not being in great supply at the time.’ Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 104.
28 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT they took rooms in the home of a Methodist minister. After dinner, when the minister and his wife had retired, Vladimir noticed that Dmitri had disappeared. Vladimir found him under a tree on the lawn in the arms of the minister’s teenage daughter. Vladimir told me that this encounter aroused his curiosity about the sexual precocity of teenage American girls, and back in Ithaca would sit behind them on the school bus, notebook in hand, recording their chatter which soon emerged in the pages of his novel.22 The point is, that there is no need to venture on an expedition to Ohio in search of this long lost minister’s daughter, for she will not explain the origination of Lolita. Epstein is well aware of this. ‘I assumed,’ he concludes his anecdote, ‘that this […] was Vladimir’s way of telling me not to ask foolish questions.’23 § 3 NABOKOV ON INSPIRATION This brings us to the other side of the field. Because from Nabokov’s point of view, the search for sources is indeed a foolish undertaking. Vladimir Nabokov believes in inspiration. ‘Conformists suspect that to speak of “inspiration” is as tasteless and oldfashioned as to stand up for the Ivory Tower. Yet inspiration exists as do towers and tusks.’24 But Nabokov is also well aware that the use of the word ‘inspiration’ in itself does not really explain anything. In his afterword On a Book Entitled Lolita he describes the problem as follows: I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book and who, when asked to explain its origin and growth, has to rely on such ancient terms as Interreaction of Inspiration and Combination – which, I admit, sounds like a conjurer explaining one trick by performing another.25 So what is this trick, this inspiration? Nabokov has tried to explain on several occasions. One of these is the text Inspiration, written on November 20, 1972, for the
22 23 24 25
Epstein, J. (2001): Book Business, pp. 75-76. Epstein, J. (2001): Book Business, p. 76. Nabokov, V. (1973a): ‘Inspiration’, p. 30. Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, p. 105.
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Saturday Review.26 In this text, Nabokov tries to distinguish between three intergrading types of inspiration, which can be seen as three phases in the creation of literary work. The first phase Nabokov describes is a ‘prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack’. It is a ‘feeling of tickly well-being’ which branches through the artist ‘like the red and the blue in the picture of a skinned man under Circulation’.27 And in trying to describe the beauty of the experience, Nabokov reveals that our previously formulated inkling – that when we speak of inspiration we cover up the incomprehensible act of creatio ex nihilo – holds true: The beauty of it is that, while completely intelligible (as if it were connected with a known gland or led to an expected climax), it has neither source nor object. It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret.28 A few days pass before the second phase sets in. This phase is no longer anonymous, and Nabokov is able to describe it in specific terms. It consists of a vision of the tale that is to be told, accompanied by the words that are to tell it: The narrator forefeels what he is going to tell. The forefeeling can be defined as an instant vision turning into rapid speech. If some instrument were to render this rare and delightful phenomenon, the image would come as a shimmer of exact details, and the verbal part as a tumble of merging words. The experienced writer takes it down and, in the process of doing so, transforms what is no more than a running blur into gradually dawning sense […].29 The second phase does not lead to a finished end-product, but rather ‘the first throb’, the nucleus of the book that is to grow around it. This growing around is what happens in the third and final phase, when the writer sits down to write his book. In his description, Nabokov once again confirms an inkling of ours – that speaking of inspiration tempts us into referring to the Muses:
26 27 28 29
See: Nabokov, V. (1973a): ‘Inspiration’, pp. 30-32. Nabokov, V. (1973a): ‘Inspiration’, p. 30. Nabokov, V. (1973a): ‘Inspiration’, p. 30. Nabokov, V. (1973a): ‘Inspiration’, p. 30.
30 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT [O]ne sees inspiration accompanying the author in the actual work on the new book. She accompanies him (for by now we are in the presence of a nubile muse) by means of successive flashes to which the writer may grow so accustomed that a sudden fizzle in the domestic illumination may strike him as an act of betrayal.30 This theory of intergrading types of inspiration might sound rather abstract, and therefore it might be wise to see if Nabokov has ever been more specific. He has. In an interview with Playboy, conducted in March 1963, Nabokov spoke of the early phase in the writing of his novel Ada in what seems to be a riddle: ‘All I know is that at a very early stage of the novel’s development I get this urge to garner bits of straw and fluff, and eat pebbles.’31 In the explication of the riddle, Nabokov gives us an unusually detailed description of the process of writing, which seems to be not only applicable to Ada, but to all of his writings: When I remember afterwards the force that made me jot down the correct names of things, or the inches and tints of things, even before I actually needed the information, I am inclined to assume that what I call, for want of a better term, inspiration, had been already at work, mutely pointing at this or that, having me accumulate the known materials for an unknown structure. After the first shock of recognition – a sudden sense of ‘this is what I’m going to write’ – the novel starts to breed by itself; the process goes on solely in the mind, not on paper; and to be aware of the stage it has reached at any given moment, I do not have to be conscious of every exact phrase. I feel a kind of gentle development, an uncurling inside, and I know that the details are there already, that in fact I would see them plainly if I looked closer, if I stopped the machine and opened its inner compartment; but I prefer to wait until what is loosely called inspiration has completed the task for me. There comes a moment when I am informed from within that the entire structure is finished. All I have to do now is take it down in pencil or pen. Since this entire structure, dimly illuminated in one’s mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not have to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception, I may direct my flashlight at 30 31
Nabokov, V. (1973a): ‘Inspiration’, p. 32. The interview is reprinted in: Nabokov, V. (1973b): Strong Opinions, pp. 20-45. This quote from p. 31.
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any part or particle of the picture when setting it down in writing. I do not begin my novel at the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper. This is why I like writing my stories and novels on index cards, numbering them later when the whole set is complete. Every card is rewritten many times. About three cards make one typewritten page, and when I finally feel that the conceived picture has been copied by me as faithfully as physically possible – a few vacant lots always remain, alas – then I dedicate the novel to my wife who types it out in triplicate.32 It is what Véra Nabokov types out in triplicate that is, in its published form, what we read and what prompts us to ask questions regarding its source or inspiration. As to textual sources, we have seen that even when they are ‘uncovered’, they do not really give any answers. Textual sources give rise to the same questions that prompted our research in the first place. Nabokov’s alternative does not involve any texts.33 But that doesn’t mean his approach is less problematic. As Nabokov himself once noted: ‘The transformation of nothing into something cannot be conceived by the human mind.’34 For all of its descriptive detail, Nabokov’s theory of inspiration saddles the reader with a conjurer’s trick and a secret, with a Muse and a machine. So we find ourselves in a difficult position indeed. § 4 WRITING LOLITA Whatever the incomprehensibilities of artistic creation, the fact remains that there is a novel entitled Lolita, a novel which has been written by Vladimir Nabokov. In his afterword Nabokov stated that the theme of Volshebnik began to plague him again in 1949.35 The writing of Lolita must, however, have begun as early as 1947. In April of that year, Nabokov wrote to his friend Edmund Wilson: 32 33
Nabokov, V. (1973b): Strong Opinions, pp. 31-32. In this context it is important to point out that Nabokov insisted that ‘the newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes’ which had prompted ‘the initial shiver of inspiration’ had ‘no textual connection with the ensuing train of thought.’ See: Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, pp. 105-106. Quoted in: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 379. Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, p. 106.
32 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT I am writing two things now[:] 1. a short novel about a man who liked little girls – and it’s going to be called The Kingdom by the Sea – and 2. a new type of autobiography – a scientific attempt to unravel and trace back all the tangled threads of one’s personality – and the provisional title is The Person in Question.36 But writing Lolita was not an easy task, and the novel developed only slowly. One reason for this was, that Lolita was to have an American setting, and America was still essentially foreign to Nabokov. In his afterword, he remarked: It had taken me some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced by the task of inventing America. The obtaining of such local ingredients as would allow me to inject a modicum of average ‘reality’ […] into the brew of individual fancy, proved at fifty a much more difficult process than it had been in the Europe of my youth when receptiveness and retention were at their automatic best.37 Another reason was, that Nabokov felt a great emotional distance from the character of Lolita’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert. Lance Olsen puts it like this: ‘Always fascinated by the perverse […], Nabokov nonetheless was an almost blandly psychologically normal man himself and one who found it a formidable challenge to inhabit and shape the consciousness of a liar, cheat, pedophile, rapist, and killer.’38 For both of these reasons, Lolita needed a massive amount of research. Nabokov read newspaper stories involving paedophilia and case studies of child molesters, books on handguns and Girl Scout manuals, teen magazines and home decorating guides. He travelled on school busses to listen to schoolgirl’s talk and even visited a school on the pretext of wanting to place his daughter there – which he did not have. And he took advantage of his butterfly hunts through the United States, which brought him to no less than two hundred motel rooms in forty-six states.39
37 38 39
Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 215 (letter 164, 7 April 1947). The Kingdom by the Sea was, for some time, the working title for Lolita, as was Ginny. Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, pp. 105-112. Olsen, L. (1995): Lolita. A Janus Text, p. 12. Appel, A. (1970): ‘Backgrounds of Lolita’, pp. 25-26; Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, pp. 210-211; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), pp. 180, 214; Olsen, L. (1995): Lolita. A Janus Text, p. 14.
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Technical difficulties in writing Lolita were such that in 1950, and again in 1951, Nabokov considered giving up on writing the novel.40 As he recalled in his afterword: ‘Once or twice I was on the point of burning the unfinished draft and had carried my Juanita Dark as far as the shadow of the leaning incinerator on the innocent lawn, when I was stopped by the thought that the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life.’41 The difficulties were overcome, however, and Nabokov continued to work on his novel on and off, whenever he could find the time. As Nabokov wrote to Pascal Covici in November 1951: ‘[…] I am engaged in the composition of a novel, which deals with the problems of a very moral middle-aged gentleman who falls very immorally in love with his stepdaughter, a girl of thirteen. However, I cannot predict its date of completion since I have to combine this work with short term productions in order to vegetate.’42 As has been noted before, Nabokov wrote on index-cards – a method he had taken from his work on lepidopterological papers and which was especially suited as he did not like to write a novel in linear fashion.43 Thus Humbert Humbert’s diary was composed first, then Humbert and Lolita’s trip west, then the climatic scene of Quilty’s murder, Humbert’s history and finally the remainder of the action, more or less in chronological order. Humbert’s final interview with Lolita and suave John Ray’s Foreword were the last pieces to be written.44 In the course of 1953, there was no longer any reason for despair. All difficulties had obviously been overcome when Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson in June: ‘I am writing nicely. In an atmosphere of great secrecy, I shall show you – when I return
Interview with Playboy, March 1963. Repr. in: Nabokov, V. (1973b): Strong Opinions, pp. 20-21. Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, pp. 106-107. It might have been ‘the ghost of the destroyed book’ that brought Nabokov to his senses, but it might also have been his wife Véra, as Nabokov would recall in an interview with the Paris Review, ten years after composing his afterword. See: Interview with the Paris Review (September 1966). Repr. in Nabokov, V. (1973b): Strong Opinions, p. 105. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 128 (November 12, 1951). Boyd, B. (1995): ‘Manuscripts’, p. 342. Reproductions of some of the prepatory indexcards (a hundred of which have been deposited in the Library of Congress) can be found in: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, between pages 226 and 227. Appel, A. (1970): ‘Backgrounds of Lolita’, p. 24; Olsen, L. (1995): Lolita. A Janus Text, p. 14.
34 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT east – an amazing book that will be quite ready by then.’45 In September Nabokov felt that ‘after five years of monstrous misgivings and diabolical labors’ he had ‘more or less completed’ his novel.46 And in November of that year, Nabokov wrote to Wilson: ‘I think I am finishing my book.’47 In this premonition he was not mistaken, for the typescript of Lolita was finished on December 6, 1953.48
Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 313 (letter 255, June 20, 1953). Letter to Katharine White (September 29, 1953). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 140. Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 315 (letter 258, November 23, 1953). As is evident from a manuscript note Nabokov copied from his diary, and from a letter sent that day by Véra Nabokov. See: URL http://www.fathom.com/course/10701032/104_lolitanotes_lg.jpg; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 199; Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 226. This is not consistent with Nabokov’s remark in his afterword, repeated elsewhere, that he finished his book in longhand in the spring of 1954. See: Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, p. 107; Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 37. The remark has lead a number of Nabokov scholars astray. See for example: Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 689; Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 170.
2 LOLITA REJECTED December 6, 1953 up to February 16, 1955
§ 1 INTRODUCTION With the typescript of Lolita finished, Nabokov immediately began casting around for a publisher.1 That finding a publisher would not be easy, was something that could be expected. In the course of finishing his book, he had not only called his book an ‘enormous, mysterious, heartbreaking novel’ but also, quite frankly, ‘a monster’.2 Finding a publisher indeed proved to be a problem. As Nabokov would recall later, in his afterword On a Book Entitled Lolita: The four American publishers, W, X, Y, Z, who in turn were offered the typescript and had their readers glance at it, were shocked by Lolita […]. Some of the reactions were very amusing: one reader suggested that his firm might consider publication if I turned my Lolita into a twelve-year-old lad and had him seduced by Humbert, a farmer, in a barn, amidst gaud and arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, ‘realistic’ sentences (‘He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy.’ Etc.). Although everybody should know that I detest symbols and allegories […], an otherwise intelligent reader who flipped through the first part described Lolita as ‘Old Europe debauching young America’, while another flipper saw in it ‘Young America debauching old Europe’. Publisher X, whose advisers got so bored with 1 2
Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, p. 107. Letter to Katharine White (September 29, 1953). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 140; Letter to Edmund Wilson (October 15, 1953). Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 314 (letter 256).
— 35 —
36 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Humbert that they never got beyond page 188, had the naïveté to write me that Part Two was too long. Publisher Y, on the other hand, regretted there were no good people in the book. Publisher Z said if he printed Lolita, he and I would go to jail.3 This chapter is devoted to the first attempts to have Lolita published in the United States. It covers the period from December 1953, when the typescript was finished, up to February 1955, when Nabokov decided to send his typescript abroad. As we shall see, Nabokov’s account of this period is illustrative but not exactly accurate. We will start with a basic reconstruction of the events between December 1953 and February 1955 (§ 2 and § 3). This will give us broad enough an overview of the developments to try and answer the question why Lolita was rejected by all American publishers who were offered the book (§ 4). § 2 FIRST ATTEMPTS No time was wasted when it came to finding a publisher for the book Nabokov had been working on arduously for five years. In the second week of December 1953, Nabokov was in New York and handed the typescript to Pascal Covici, senior editor of Viking Press, who had already been approached in October.4 The first one to be officially offered the typescript, however, was Katharine A. White, editor at the New Yorker. Nabokov had signed a contract with the New Yorker, giving them first right of refusal to anything he wrote in exchange for a higher fee in case they decided to publish.5 From the outset, the Nabokovs took extreme precaution to make sure that Vladimir’s name could not be connected to his new novel. Thus Véra Nabokov wrote to Katharine White: I shall try to explain about the book. Its subject is such that V., as a college teacher, cannot very well publish it under his real name. Especially, since the book is written in the first person, and the ‘general’ reader has the unfortunate inclination to identify the invented ‘I’ of the story with its author. (This is, perhaps, particularly true of the American ‘general’ reader). 3 4 5
Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, pp. 107-109. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, pp. 220-221. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, pp. 73, 255.
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Accordingly, V. has decided to publish the book under an assumed name (provided he can find a publisher) and wait for the reviews before divulging his identity. It is of the outmost importance to him that his incognito be respected. He would trust you, of course, and Andy, if you promise to keep the secret. Now, suppose you decide that there is nothing in Lolita to interest the New Yorker, would the MS still have to be read by the other members of the editorial staff, or would it be possible for you to make a final decision without it? If the MS has to be read by anyone besides you, would it be possible for you to keep V.’s name secret? Could you be quite sure that there would be no leaks? V. is very anxious to hear from you about it and have your assurance of complete secrecy before he sends you the MS.6 Keeping Vladimir’s name secret was not their only concern. Another was the United States Post Office, which under the Comstock Act had the right to confiscate any material it considered ‘obscene’: Moreover, the nature of the plot being what it is, he hesitates about mailing it. Should he make up his mind to visit New York in January, he would prefer to bring the MS personally to your house. […] He doubts, however, that any part of the book can be suitable for the New Yorker. But he would like you to read it.7 Nabokov’s doubts were justified, as the New Yorker decided they could not take Lolita.8 Pascal Covici of Viking Press decided likewise. In January 1954, the verdict reached Nabokov. Covici thought the book was brilliant, but also thought that anyone who published it would risk a jail-sentence, or at least a fine.9 So on February 3, Nabokov asked Covici to return the typescript to Ithaca, urging him to use the
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 142 (December 23, 1953). ‘Andy’ is Katharine White’s husband, E.B. White. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 142-3 (December 23, 1953). But the reason seems to have been, at least in part, Nabokov’s strict rules, which resulted in the paradoxical situation that Katharine White found no time to read the novel. See: Davis, L.H. (1987): Onward and Upward, pp. 4-5. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 255; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 200.
38 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Railway Express instead of the regular mail.10 That same day, he approached his next prospective publisher, James Laughlin, the founder and editor of New Directions. New Directions was no stranger to Nabokov as they had published The Real Life of Sebastian Knight in 1941, on recommendation of Edmund Wilson, and later also Nikolai Gogol (1944, see illustration below) and Nine Stories (1947).11 Again, Nabokov took the utmost care in formulating his precautions:
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 143 (February 3, 1954). Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 165; Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 243.
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Would you be interested in publishing a timebomb that I have just finished putting together? It is a novel of 459 typewritten pages. If you would like to see it, the following precautions would have to be observed: First of all, I would have to have your word that you alone would read it. Everything else could be settled later. You would further have to give me an address where the MS could reach you personally and directly. This is a very serious matter for me, as you will understand after reading the work.12 But Laughlin was out of the country, and could not read the typescript.13 When Nabokov did not hear from New Directions, he decided to submit his novel to yet another publisher. This time he chose Wallace Brockway, editor of Simon & Schuster. On March 18 he sent out the typescript. Again, Nabokov was cautious: ‘I need hardly remind you that I am submitting it to S. & S. on a highly confidential basis.’14 Simon & Schuster turned Lolita down, and suggested that Nabokov might try to send his typescript to Grove Press.15 But Nabokov decided to try James Laughlin again. On July 4, Véra Nabokov wrote on behalf of her husband: Vladimir asks me to find out if you have returned from your Asian trip, and if you would care to read his manuscript now, in spite of the very rigid conditions he is forced to stipulate about his Ms. If you think you can find time to read it yourself, he will have it sent to you. Should you feel that you want it for publication after having read it, you might naturally want to have the opinion of one of your readers. But Vladimir would like to be sure that you will not show it to anyone unless you are reasonably certain that you desire to publish the book. The sender named on the package will be a friend of ours living in New York.16 Even though Nabokov had expected it to be hard to have Lolita published, this succession of rapid refusals was ruining his hopes of ever seeing the book in print. 12 13 14 15 16
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 144-145 (February 3, 1954). Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 145. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 145 (March 18, 1954). Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 147. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 146 (July 4, 1954).
40 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Halfway through July, he was ready to pay an agent as much as twenty-five percent if he could arrange for publication.17 By the end of the month he wrote to Edmund Wilson about his precious book: The novel I had been working at for almost five years has been promptly turned down by the two publishers (Viking and S. & S.) I showed it to. They say it will strike readers as pornographic. I have now sent it to New Directions but it is unlikely they will take it. I consider this novel to be my best thing in English, and though the theme and situation are decidedly sensuous, its art is pure and its fun is riotous. I would love you to glance at it some time. Pat Covici said we would all go to jail if the thing were published. I feel rather depressed about this fiasco.18 Nabokov was right in his premonition about New Directions, for they would indeed turn the novel down. But even before he had heard their definitive answer, he was convinced that no American publisher would publish Lolita and decided to look abroad. On August 6, Nabokov had his wife write to Doussia Ergaz of Bureau Littéraire Clairouin, Paris, who had arranged the publication in French of some of his Russian and English books.19 Véra asked Ergaz to find a publisher who would bring out Lolita in the original English: My husband has written a novel of extreme originality, which – because of straightlaced morality – could not be published here. What possibility is there for publication (in English) in Europe?20
Letter to Wallace Brockway (July 15, 1954). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 19401977, p. 147. Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 317 (letter 260, July 30, 1954). Nabokov was also still worried about his identity being revealed, for vertically, along the margin, he wrote ‘all this is a secret’. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, pp. 37-38; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 201. Letter from Véra Nabokov to Doussia Ergaz (August 6, 1954). Quoted in: Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 201.
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§ 3 SECOND THOUGHTS Doussia Ergaz replied to the Nabokovs that she thought she could arrange for Lolita’s publication. But in September of 1954 Vladimir wrote to her saying that he had changed his mind.21 The reason for this was, that his outpouring to Edmund Wilson had created an opening. Wilson, although he had not read Lolita, offered his help in the quest to find a publisher. Little more than a week after receiving Nabokov’s letter, he wrote back: ‘By all means, send me your book. I’d love to see it, and if nobody else is doing it, I’ll try to get my publisher, Straus, to.’22 There was then some delay, as the typescript was with New Directions, who were still considering it. But Wilson’s suggestion was very welcome. Nabokov wrote to him in September, saying: ‘Thank you for your nice letter – and for writing to F. & S. about the thing. It is still in Laughlin’s large hands. I am very anxious for you to read it, it is by far my best English work.’23 In October, New Directions reached its final verdict. They had decided that they could not publish Lolita. James Laughlin reported to Nabokov on October 11 that he and his colleague Robert MacGregor felt that ‘it is literature of the highest order and that it ought to be published but we are both worried about possible repercussions both for the publisher and the author. Your style is so individual that it seems to me absolutely certain that the real authorship would quickly be recognized even if a pseudonym were used.’24 Laughlin later commented that he had thought it to be unthinkable that any American publisher could publish the book without destroying his own reputation as well as Nabokov’s.25 Therefore, he suggested that Nabokov should try and have his novel published abroad. This, as we have seen, was something that Nabokov had already considered. But with help from Edmund Wilson under way, he was not quite ready to give up on the idea of seeing Lolita in print in America. First, Farrar, Straus & Young were to be given an opportunity to see his novel. Nabokov wrote to Laughlin:
Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 38. Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 318 (letter 261, August 9, 1954). Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 319 (letter 262, September 9, 1954). Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 153. James, C. (1984): ‘Publishers’ Confessions – Rejections I Regret’, p. 35.
42 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT I understand your point and shall in all probability take your advice regarding publication abroad. Any concrete suggestions you would care to make regarding such publication would be appreciated. Before I ship her to France, I would like to show L. to Farrar, Straus & Young, 101 Fifth Avenue. A short while ago Mr. Straus wrote me and asked to read my latest. Would you please do me the favor of forwarding the MS to him (Mr. Roger W. Straus, Jr.) by Railway Express (or messenger, if you prefer), making sure that the package goes to him personally. I would be much obliged to you if you could do it without delay, since I have written him about it.26 And indeed on the same day Nabokov wrote to Roger W. Straus of Farrar, Straus & Young. His personal fate and the fate of his typescript obviously still concerned him deeply. In his letter to James Laughlin he had emphasized the need to avoid the use of the services of the Post Office; in his letter to Straus he emphasized his felt need to employ a pseudonym for Lolita. He wrote: Some time ago you wrote me kindly expressing interest in my new novel. I could not do anything about it at the time for I had promised James Laughlin of New Directions to let him see it first, even though I did not expect him to want to publish it. I have just heard of him as expected, and am asking him now to forward the MS to you. For reasons you will easily understand after reading the book, I would wish to publish it under a penname. And for the same reasons, I would like you to do me the favor of reading it yourself and not having it read by anyone else unless, after you have read it, you come to the conclusion that you wish to consider its publication.27 But Straus did not wish to consider its publication, given Nabokov’s strict stipulations.28 On several occasions he commented upon his considerations. Straus had thought that Lolita was publishable, but that Nabokov’s insistence that the work
26 27 28
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 152-153 (October 15, 1954). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 152 (October 15, 1954). Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 204.
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should appear under a penname would have made a legal defence too difficult.29 Thirty years after the eventual American publication of Lolita, Straus still defended this view. When Erica Jong suggested some other reason for Farrar, Straus & Young’s rejection of the book in an essay celebrating Lolita’s thirty-year anniversary, Roger Straus sent a letter to the editor.30 The ‘publish it, publish it’ almost sounds as a mantra: […] Philip Rahv, who was my friend and sometimes literary adviser […] urged me to publish it. Despite my own somewhat ambivalent feeling, I agreed that we should publish it. When I got in touch with Nabokov and told him so, he was pleased, but advised me that he would have to publish the book under a nom de plume. He was afraid he would lose his job at Cornell if he signed the book. In the climate of 1954, I felt that there was no way that I should publish the book unless Nabokov signed it. I was confident that the book would be challenged and we would have to defend its publication legally. It was for this reason that we did not publish Lolita, I am sad to say.31 And that was that. But through the offices of Straus, Lolita was already under way to other ventures. Edmund Wilson, who had committed himself to having the book published without ever seeing the typescript, was now finally able to lay his hands on a copy. And although he made it clear that he liked it ‘less than anything else of yours I have read,’ he was still devoted to seeing it in print. He wrote to Nabokov: 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 […]. I am afraid that you will never get the book published by anybody except perhaps Laughlin. I have, however, written about it to a man named Weldon Kees, a poet, who has just written me that he is associated with a new publishing 29 30
James, C. (1984): ‘Publishers’ Confessions – Rejections I Regret’, p. 35. Fot the essay see: Jong, E. (1988a): ‘Time Has Been Kind to the Nymphet. “Lolita” 30 Years Later’, pp. 3, 46-47; Jong would repeat her claims in Jong, E. (1988b): ‘Lolita Turns Thirty. A New Introduction’. Straus, R.W. (1988): ‘Who Liked “Lolita”? How Much?’, p. 22.
44 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT venture in California, and that they want to bring out books of a kind that might otherwise not be published. I have also talked about it to Jason Epstein at Doubleday.32 Weldon Kees and Jason Epstein were not the only options that opened up after Straus had rejected the book.33 Through Straus’ offices, the typescript had also reached Philip Rahv, editor of the Partisan Review.34 Weldon Kees seems not to have approached Nabokov.35 Epstein and Rahv, however, reacted positively. Philip Rahv wanted to publish excerpts of Lolita in his review and asked Nabokov to send him some eighty pages, but again Nabokov’s precautions interfered. He wrote to Rahv: I shall be happy to let you publish parts of the novel in the Partisan Review. But before sending you the eighty pages you suggest, I would like to make sure that, […] you will agree to my using a penname. For reasons of my own, I do not wish to publish it under my name, for the time being, at least. Will you agree to respect my incognito?36 Rahv, however, told Nabokov on November 28 that it would be impossible for the Partisan Review to publish an excerpt from Lolita pseudonymously.37 By November, Jason Epstein had also received the typescript. There is some confusion concerning his role in the publication of Lolita, probably caused by the fact that Doubleday was interested in publishing the novel both before and after its first 32
Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, pp. 319-320 (letter 263, November 30, 1954). In all likelihood the dating of this letter is wrong and should read ‘October 30, 1954.’ Otherwise Wilson suggests sending the typescript to people after they had rejected it. It is unclear why Epstein was not offered the book before, as it seems that Doubleday had an option on the book. See an letter from Nabokov to Allen Tate (October 13, 1946): Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 70. See also the letter from Wilson to Nabokov mentioned above. Extract from a letter from Mary McCarthy to Edmund Wilson. See Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, pp. 320-321. As Kees’ biographer puts it: ‘For a time, Kees entertained the idea that Nabokov’s novel, titled Lolita, might be the second book on [the publisher]’s list.’ Reidel, J. (2003): Vanished Act. The Life and Art of Weldon Kees, p. 310. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 154 (November 20, 1954). Editor’s note in Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 154.
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publication by the Olympia Press. Even Epstein himself seems to be confused about the course of events.38 According to Nabokov’s published correspondence, Nabokov sent him a copy by Railway Express on November 3, urging: ‘Please bear in mind that, if published, I would want this novel to appear under a penname. I would therefore appreciate (for the sake of preserving my incognito) if you reduced to a minimum the number of people who will read the MS for you, and, if you would withhold, even from them, the true identity of the author.’39 Epstein remembered things differently, however, and has stated he received the typescript from Wilson: I don’t recall the date on which I first saw the manuscript of Lolita, but I do recall that Edmund Wilson gave it to me at his house in Wellfleet in Cape Cod […] probably on the Thanksgiving weekend. The manuscript that Wilson gave me was in two black binders. He said it was ‘repulsive’ but that I should read it anyway.40 Whatever the route of the typescript, it landed in the hands of Epstein, who read it with mixed feelings. In the report he submitted to the editor-in chief he stated that he found Humbert’s obsession, and Nabokov’s account of it, repulsive. But he also recognized the author’s pursuit of conscience behind Humbert’s self-destruction: ‘That the passion should be such a sordid one is the mark of the author’s perversity – and he is a remarkably perverse man – but it doesn’t deprive the novel of the merits that it does have.’ 41 Epstein’s mixed feelings would also show later. In an interview with Edward de Grazia, he said: ‘I loved it. I thought it was very funny. I didn’t find it repulsive at all. I 38
In his memoirs he mentions that he felt Doubleday should be able to publish Lolita because large sections of the novel had been published in The Anchor Review without legal difficulties (thus referring to 1957), but also speaks loosely of ‘the manuscript’ and of preserving Nabokov’s incognito. This would have made no sense in 1957 because by then there already was a printed edition. See: Epstein, J. (2001): Book Business, pp. 73, 78. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 153 (November 3, 1954). Letters from Jason Epstein to Sally Dennison (February 23 and March 4, 1982), cited in: Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 175. Epstein held to the same view in an interview with Edward de Grazia (June 3, 1985) and in his memoirs. See: Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 248; Epstein, J. (2001): Book Business, p. 73. Epstein reader’s report. Quoted in: Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 205.
46 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT thought it was quite a brilliant book.’42 But in his memoirs, Epstein seems to have been less enthusiastic: ‘I did not find Lolita repulsive, nor did I find it the work of genius that it has since been called. I admired Nabokov’s earlier novels published by New Directions and preferred their cold precision to the plummy and it seemed to me rather cruel, if also very funny, Lolita, in which Nabokov seemed to be congratulating himself on his jokes.’43 It is unclear if Epstein was for or against publication. Stacy Schiff has read his reader’s report and summarizes that Epstein, in the end, ‘[voted] against the work on the grounds of “its outlandish perversiveness”, but advocating a few more readings.’44 Epstein himself would later recall that he had decided that Lolita ought to be published by Doubleday. ‘[…] I passed a note to my Doubleday colleagues acknowledging the legal risks but urging them to publish Lolita nevertheless. I mentioned my literary misgivings but said that the book was obviously a serious performance and should be taken seriously by us.’45 Whatever Epstein’s final vote, more readings were deemed necessary. Ken McCormick, the editor-in-chief at the time, agreed with Epstein and the typescript was sent to Douglas Black, Doubleday’s president.46 Doubleday was a privately owned company and Douglas Black was a lawyer, filling in until the next generation of Doubleday children came of age. He had other than literary priorities.47 Doubleday had recently run into trouble with Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), which was charged with obscenity. Doubleday came to the novel’s defence, but eventually lost their case before the Supreme Court.48 This was very disturbing, because it meant that Doubleday couldn’t ever legally publish the novel again.49 When
42 43 44 45 46
Quoted in: Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 248. Epstein, J. (2001): Book Business, pp. 74-75. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), pp. 205-206. Epstein, J. (2001): Book Business, pp. 77-78. Letter from Jason Epstein to Sally Dennison (February 23, 1982). Quoted in: Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 175. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 248. Epstein, J. (2001): Book Business, p. 78. For a history of the Hecate County-case, see: Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, chapter 12. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 248.
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Black heard what Lolita was about, he simply refused to even read the typescript.50 It was therefore returned to Nabokov. Nabokov was obviously very disappointed by the whole affair. He gave up on the idea of seeing Lolita in print in America and decided to send the typescript abroad again, which he did on February 16, 1955.51 A few days later, he wrote to Wilson: Doubleday has of course returned the MS and I have now shipped it to France. I suppose it will be finally published by some shady firm with a Viennese-Dream name – e.g., ‘Silo’.52 Nabokov could not have guessed how accurate this supposition was. § 4 LOLITA REJECTED Before we follow Lolita on its French adventures, there are a few issues that want clarification. The first is the number of publishers that have rejected Lolita. Nabokov has always maintained that his novel was rejected by four publishers before it was published by the Olympia Press.53 This number is all too easily copied by a score of scholars.54 From the above, however, we can conclude that Lolita was rejected by no less than five American book publishers and two magazine editors. Running through the list: the New Yorker; Viking; Simon & Schuster; New Directions; Farrar, Straus & Young; the Partisan Review; Doubleday, we might wonder if there was any publisher of 50
Letter from Jason Epstein to Sally Dennison (February 23, 1982). Quoted in: Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 175; Epstein, J. (2001): Book Business, p. 78 Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 38. Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 322 (letter 264, February 19, 1955). See for example: Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, p. 107. See for example: Appel, A. (1970): ‘Backgrounds of Lolita’, p. 17; Jong, E. (1988a): ‘Time Has Been Kind to the Nymphet. “Lolita” 30 Years Later’, p. 46; Couturier, M. (1996): ‘The Poerotic Novel. Nabokov’s Lolita and Ada’, pt. 3; Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 326; Wilson, C. (2002): ‘The Look of Lolita’, p. 20. See also Olsen, L. (1995): Lolita. A Janus Text, p. xiv. This last statement is even more remarkable as Olsen, in the same work, names more than four American publishers to have rejected Lolita, and also mentions ‘one or two European venues’ (pp. 14-15), of which I have not been able to find any trace.
48 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT note who was not given the opportunity to refuse Lolita. And indeed there was such a publisher: Barney Rosset of Grove Press. As we have seen, Wallace Brockway of Simon & Schuster suggested that Lolita be submitted to Grove Press.55 Rosset had by 1954 already acquired a reputation as a courageous avant-garde publisher. Asked afterwards if he would have published Lolita, he said he would have. He felt that Grove wasn’t offered the opportunity because Nabokov was ‘arrogant and snobbish’.56 But those are comments in hindsight; in fact it has not been recorded why Nabokov chose to pass over Grove. The most important issue to want clarification is the question why Lolita was rejected by all the publishers who were offered the book. Sally Dennison tries to answer this question in [Alternative] Literary Publishing (1984). Her work is an attempt to show how unconventional methods of publishing have been instrumental in the diffusion of modernism. It is within this framework that Dennison tries to make sense of Lolita’s refusal. According to her, there were two reasons why publishers rejected Nabokov’s novel.57 The first was that in Lolita Nabokov explored new, modernist literary forms, such as the use of wordplay: ‘For those expecting some serious purpose in a novel, Lolita, with its constant parodies, its elaborate tangle of clues, and its ludicrous B-movie ending could not have been anything but a disappointment.’58 The second reason was, according to her, Lolita’s controversial subject-matter. As Nabokov himself has suggested, publishers who were offered the chance to read Lolita were ‘shocked’.59 Dennison’s line of reasoning has been followed by others.60 Erica Jong, for example, finds it ‘not surprising’ that Nabokov’s novel was rejected by the American publishers it was offered to. She says: ‘Although it contained not one “mural word”, Lolita was a genuinely new creation and genuinely new creations do not usually fare well with mainstream publishers in any age. It was not only that Lolita dealt with forbidden obsessions; Lolita was, above all, literary. American puritanism is more comfortable with sex when it stays in the gutter than when it rises to the level of art.’61
55 56 57 58 59 60 61
Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 147. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, pp. 123-124. Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 160. Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 172. Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, p. 107. Most recently by Ellen Pifer. See: Pifer, E. (2003b): ‘Introduction’, p. 3. Jong, E. (1988a): ‘Time Has Been Kind to the Nymphet. “Lolita” 30 Years Later’, p. 46.
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Edward the Grazia too mentions the controversiality of Lolita’s subject matter as one of the reasons for its rejection, although he sees this reason working on a personal rather than a societal level. It is what he calls ‘the woman factor’: ‘Women seem to have been much more hostile to Nabokov’s tragicomical tale of stepdaughter incest than were men. […] It is likely that some U.S. publishers hesitated to bring out Lolita in 1954 for fear of what the important woman at home or in the workplace would think and say.’62 The line of reasoning suggested by Sally Dennison is illuminating, but is not all together satisfactory. The context which informs her explanation also to a certain extent distorts its accuracy. In an exploration of the relationship between the diffusion of modernism and the existence of alternative routes for publishing, it is tempting to overstress the modernist aspects of Lolita. It is also tempting, in a more general sense, to overstress intrinsic, literary reasons for the novel’s rejection, such as its style and subject-matter. This flaw is evident in Erica Jong’s reasoning, when she suggests that the motive for Lolita’s rejection was that it was a ‘genuinely new creation’. As we have seen, some of the publishers who rejected Lolita had no problem with publishing other works by Nabokov that were no less literary or ‘genuinely new’, such as The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. The flaw is also evident in the emphasis that both Dennison and Jong lay on the fact that Edmund Wilson disliked the book and may, in a way, have misinformed prospective publishers.63 Jong writes: ‘Had Edmund Wilson not dubbed the book “repulsive”, “unreal” and “too unpleasant to be funny”, had he not conveyed these sentiments to his own publisher, the publishing history of Lolita might have been different.’64 This, I feel, is counterfactual speculation to such a degree that it hinders a clear view on the developments. We must not forget that Edmund Wilson would later, in a letter to Nabokov’s wife, admit that he had not actually read Lolita at the time.65 There must have been some other reason for the rejection of Lolita by the American publishing establishment, and indeed there was. From the above it is
Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 253. See Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, pp. 173-174; Jong, E. (1988a): ‘Time Has Been Kind to the Nymphet. “Lolita” 30 Years Later’, pp. 46-47. Jong, E. (1988a): ‘Time Has Been Kind to the Nymphet. “Lolita” 30 Years Later’, pp. 46-47. Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 363 (letter 310, July 15, 1959).
50 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT evident that the single most important reason for publishers to reject the novel was Nabokov’s insistent refusal to sign his name to it. This refusal has become subject to a form of literary mystification. As early as in his afterword to Lolita, written in 1956, Nabokov downplayed the perseverance with which he had upheld his special stipulation. ‘At first,’ he said, ‘on the advice of a way old friend, I was meek enough to stipulate that the book be brought out anonymously. I doubt that I shall ever regret that soon afterwards, realizing how likely a mask was to betray my own cause, I decided to sign Lolita.’66 Years later Véra Nabokov stood by her man when she stated that using a pseudonym was an idea Nabokov ‘toyed with and abandoned before he sent the manuscript out’.67 The Nabokovs, of course, had good reasons to insist on using a pseudonym for Lolita.68 Most important was the risk that Cornell University, where Vladimir taught literature at the time and which provided him with a steady income on which he heavily relied, might be offended if one of their employees published a scandalous book. Nabokov’s expulsion from Cornell would have been an utter catastrophe at this point in his career. This seems to have been the concern of ‘the wary old friend’ as well, who advised Nabokov bring out Lolita anonymously. Dmitri Nabokov, Nabokov’s son, would later state: ‘You see, this friend was afraid publication might embarrass Cornell University, where father was happily teaching.’69 Whatever the reason for Nabokov’s refusal to sign his name to his novel, it is evident that it hindered its American publication immensely. Under 1954 legislation no external evidence could be brought into court in defence of a work charged with
Nabokov, V. (1957): ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, pp. 107. Cited in James, C. (1984): ‘Publishers’ Confessions – Rejections I Regret’, p. 35. This statement is reproduced by Michael Juliar, one of the first people to try and piece together the publishing history of Lolita. Moreover, Juliar adds to the confusion by incorrectly shortening Nabokov’s own statement to: ‘At first, on the advice of a wary old friend […] I decided to sign Lolita.’ See: Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 690. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, pp. 243-244; St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 123. Interview with Edward de Grazia (October 26, 1986). Quoted in: Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 246. De Grazia argues (p. 245n) that this friend was probably Morris Bishop, chairman of the Department of Romance literature at Cornell and responsible for Nabokov’s tenured appointment there. This is a likely suggestion, but we must not forget that the friend is referred to with the initials ‘F.P.’ in Nabokov’s afterword.
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obscenity, and anonymous or pseudonymous publication would indeed have rendered the author external to the book. Edward de Grazia, a lawyer who has specialized in obscenity cases and has, for example, defended Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer before the Supreme Court, puts it like this: Publication of Lolita under a pseudonym in the United States in 1954 would certainly have made difficult any legal defence of the novel. There would have been no apparent way for the publisher’s lawyers to present evidence of the author’s literary distinction or reputation, a matter crucial to successful defence.70 According to De Grazia, if it had not been for Nabokov’s insistence on pseudonymity, Lolita in all likelihood could have been defended before the courts. But it would not have been easy, or cheap. ‘Nabokov’s Lolita could, I believe, have been successfully defended against charges of obscenity if a reputable publisher had brought it out in the mid-fifties. But the predictable legal expenses of a long legal battle [sic] to defend the novel were such that only a large and stable house, or a bold one, could have expected to publish Lolita successfully […].’71 As we will see, Nabokov would eventually decide to sign his name to Lolita – but the house that was to bring it out was neither large nor stable, but very bold.
Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 247. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 251.
3 PUBLISHED IN PARIS February 16, 1955 up to September 15, 1955
§ 1 INTRODUCTION When we left Lolita, the typescript had just been shipped to France. It had proved to be impossible to have Lolita published in the United States and Nabokov was ready to hand his novel over to a foreign publisher. On February 16, he re-sent the typescript to his literary agent Doussia Ergaz and suggested that Sylvia Beach ‘might perhaps be interested if she still publishes’.1 Sylvia Beach, an American bookseller in Paris, had acquired considerable fame when she published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 under the imprint of Shakespeare and Company, the name of her bookstore.2 Nabokov had met her in 1937, when he was living in Paris, at a literary lunch-meeting. He wrote to his wife that he ‘got on swimmingly’ with Beach and thought she might help with the publication of his novel Despair.3 Now he thought she might be of help in publishing Lolita. But the suggestion was not followed up, in all likelihood because Doussia Ergaz knew that Sylvia Beach had steadfastly refused to publish anything after Ulysses. So Nabokov was far off in his suggestion. In a premonition he had had, on the other hand, he had been as close as anyone would ever get. As we have seen, when Nabokov had sent Lolita to Paris, he mentioned to Edmund Wilson that his novel would probably eventually be published by ‘some shady firm with a Viennese-Dream
Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 38. For Shakespeare and Company see: Beach, S. (1960): Shakespeare and Company; Ford, H. (1975): Published in Paris, chapter 1. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 22-23 (April 15, 1937).
— 53 —
54 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT name – e.g., “Silo”’.4 This must have been a reference to Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press, which was active in Paris when Nabokov himself resided there.5 Doussia Ergaz in all likelihood had not the faintest idea of this premonition, but she wasted no time in proving it right. On April 17 she received the typescript and little over a week later, on April 26, Ergaz told Nabokov she had found a possible publisher. On May 13 she named that publisher: it was Maurice Girodias, owner of the Olympia Press in Paris and the son of Jack Kahane.6 This chapter is devoted to the events leading up to the first publication of Lolita by the Olympia Press in Paris. It covers the period from February 1955, when Nabokov sent his typescript abroad, up to September 15, 1955, when Lolita was published. We will start out with a general introduction to the Olympia Press, focusing on its history and its publishing activities (§ 2). This will be followed up by a detailed account of the introduction of Nabokov’s novel to the Olympia Press and of the events leading up to its publication (§ 3). This will enable us to answer the question why it was the Olympia Press that was to finally publish Lolita (§ 4). § 2 THE OLYMPIA PRESS For a proper understanding of the Olympia Press, we need to go back in time to 1931, when Jack Kahane, Maurice Girodias’ father, founded the Obelisk Press.7 Kahane was born in England, but lived in France since the First World War, during which he had married the French Marcelle Girodias in 1917. During periods of bad health stemming from his war experience, Kahane started writing light novels, which were rather successful. This success led to an interest in publishing and in 1928 Kahane formed a partnership with Henri Babou, who specialized in expensive, illustrated books. The first book to be published by Kahane was to be Haveth Childers Everywhere by James Joyce (1930). Because of difficulties with Babou, Kahane formed a new partnership with Marcel Servant and thus established the Obelisk Press. The Obelisk Press was to publish two sorts of books: books by ‘English and American writers who 4
Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 322 (letter 264, February 19, 1955). For the Obelisk Press see: Kahane, J. (1939): Memoirs of a Booklegger; Ford, H. (1975): Published in Paris, chapter 10. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 38. The most detailed history of the Olympia Press available is: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound. What follows is a summary of the first four chapters.
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had something to say that they could not conveniently say in their own countries’ and ‘flower books’, novels of a frothy kind that were published for the sake of making money.8 In less than a decade, the Obelisk Press published a score of important works, such as The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1933), My Life and Loves by Frank Harris (1933), Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) and The Black Book by Lawrence Durrell (1938). The press’s activities came to a halt in 1939 however, when, at the outbreak of the Second World War and after finishing his memoirs, Jack Kahane was found dead. Maurice Girodias, who was born in 1919, took after the profession of his father. As early as 1940 he transformed the remnants of the Obelisk Press into the Unicorn Press. The times were not right, however, for the publication of literature in English in Paris, and in 1941 Girodias established Éditions du Chêne, specializing in high class art books. This was a more successful venture, and after the war was over, Girodias was able to rapidly expand his business. In this expansion, however, Girodias paid almost no attention to his financial situation. When his financial troubles were coupled to a couple of conflicts with the government – one because he had published a pamphlet attacking the government for corruption, the other for a reissue of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn – Girodias lost control of the Éditions du Chêne to the house of Hachette in 1950. It took Girodias three years to recover, and when he did, he returned to the family tradition and founded the Olympia Press in 1953. Just like the Obelisk Press, the Olympia Press was to have two aspects: it would publish literary works that could not be published elsewhere, in the United States or in the United Kingdom, and it would publish ‘dirty books’ solely for the sake of making money. Girodias saw these two aspects very clearly. On the one hand, in his introduction to The Olympia Reader, an anthology of selection from the Olympia Press’s Traveller’s Companion series published in 1965, he is very clear about the financial situation that was the motor behind his plans: I founded the Olympia Press in Paris, in the spring of 1953. It was a shoestring operation if there ever was one. It was conceived as a desperate move on my part to escape complete social and economic annihilation. […] Publishing books in English, in Paris, books that would sell easily because they would belong to the ‘not to be sold in U.S.A. & U.K.’ category appeared at 8
Kahane, J. (1939): Memoirs of a Booklegger, p. 227.
56 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT one point to be the only possible way for me to make money and build up a new publishing business in spite of my lack of capital.9 But in the same introduction, he also relates that the way in which all his previous plans had faltered made him feel the need to fight civilized society, in one way or another: I would never have launched into that next phase of my publishing career had I not acquired over the years the urge to attack the Universal Establishment with all the means at my disposal. To fight one head of the beast rather than another had no real importance; to fight French intolerance or Anglo-American moral conventions really came to the same thing.10
Girodias, M. (1965c): ‘Introduction’, pp. 11-12. Girodias, M. (1965c): ‘Introduction’, p. 18.
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These two aspects are evident from the new name Girodias chose for his enterprise, for ‘Olympia’ referred to Edouard Manet’s infamous painting Olympia (1863, see illustration on facing page). This painting, in which a young naked woman looks knowingly at the onlooker, was the first painting ever to show a prostitute who seemed to be proud of herself and caused a scandal when it was first exhibited in Paris. In both its subject matter and its iconoclasm it served as a perfect metaphor for Girodias’ new firm.11 The two aspects of the firm would continuously intertwine: books that were published to make money shocked the establishment, and books published to shock the establishment would make money. In Girodias’ own words: ‘I deliberately chose to be indiscriminate, to publish good books as well as bad ones: the only standard was the ostracism to which they would have been subjected.’12 Olympia’s business plan immediately showed from its first publications. In the summer of 1953, the Olympia Press published Henry Miller’s Plexus and translations of De Sade’s La philosophie dans le boudoir (The Bedroom Philosophers), Guillaume Apollinaire’s Memoires d’un jeune Don Juan (Memoirs of a Young Rakehell) and Georges Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil (A Tale of Satisfied Desire), the latter published under the pseudonym of Pierre Angelique.13 These titles today all count as literature, although they are controversial without exception. But Olympia would not be Olympia if it had not also published its famous ‘dirty books’. In the course of 1953 Girodias had met the writers around the avant-garde literary magazine Merlin, such as Alexander Trocchi, Austryn Wainhouse, Richard Seaver and Christopher Logue.14 The Merlingroup shared an admiration for Samuel Beckett and managed for his novel Watt to be published by the Olympia Press in July 1953. Apart from their admiration, however, they also shared a precarious financial situation, and in this respect the new Olympia Press came to the rescue as well. Girodias persuaded the Merlin-group to write dirty books for him, pornographic books without any appreciable literary value, that would provide them with a steady income. The group complied and the first ‘DB’s’, as they were called, were Alexander Trocchi’s Helen and Desire, published under the 11 12 13
St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 53. Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 56. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 53. For a detailed description of all Paris Olympia Press titles, see: Kearney, P. (1987): The Paris Olympia Press. For its American continuation, see: Kearney, P. (1988): A Bibliography of the Publications of the New York Olympia Press. For Merlin see: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, chapter 5; Campbell, J. (1995): Exiled in Paris, chapter 2.
58 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT pseudonym of Frances Lengel, and Christopher Logue’s Lust, published under the pseudonym of Count Palmiro Vicarion. Many more were to follow. Girodias named his series of dirty books the Traveller’s Companion. Each volume in the series had a distinctive design: a green cover with the title and author’s name framed in a double border of black and white. Volumes in the series were numbered, and often bore advertisements for other volumes at the back. The usual print run for a volume was 5.000 copies; these were expected to sell out within six to nine months. The author was paid a flat fee of about $500.15 Just as Girodias was deliberately indiscriminate between publishing good books and publishing bad books, he also created a deliberate confusion between his various wares when it came to book design. Some of the more spicy literary works were published in the Traveller’s Companion series itself; others were not part of the series but were published in covers that were very similar. All this served several purposes: The d.b.’s (short for ‘dirty books’) were published in the green paperback volumes that constituted the Traveller’s Companion series, side by side with more respectable items. That confusion was deliberate, as it made it easy to sell the higher class of literature: the d.b.’s fans were as fascinated by the ugly plain green covers as the addict by the white powder, however deceptive both may prove to be. The confusion was also meant to keep the police at bay, as I soon had become the object of their special attention.16 The police would indeed become a special factor in the future history of the Olympia Press. As Patrick Kearney has pointed out, there were more English-language pornography publishers in Paris in the 1950’s, including ‘the Opera, Oceanic and Pall Mall presses, the Armor Publishing Company and Patrick Garnot’s Unique Continental Collection.’17 Of all these, the Olympia Press was considered to be especially dangerous by the British, American and French authorities. A number of reasons can be given for this, but all of them stem from Maurice Girodias’ unwillingness to keep to a low profile.18 This unwillingness would also seriously affect the case of Lolita, to which we will now turn. 15 16 17 18
St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, pp. 58, 69. Girodias, M. (1965c): ‘Introduction’, p. 20. Kearney, P. (1987): The Paris Olympia Press, pp. 14-15. Kearney, P. (1987): The Paris Olympia Press, pp. 22-23.
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§ 3 LOLITA AT THE OLYMPIA PRESS We left Lolita in the hands of Doussia Ergaz, Nabokov’s European agent. In April 1955, Denise Clarouin, associate and friend of Ergaz, contacted Maurice Girodias.19 Clarouin had been a friend of Girodias’ father Jack Kahane; Girodias had met her a number of times. She now called to introduce Doussia Ergaz, who had something to discuss that Clarouin thought would be very interesting for Girodias and his Olympia Press. An appointment for Ergaz was scheduled for the following day. When she arrived she started introducing Vladimir Nabokov: he was a émigré friend and a writer, who had become an American citizen and was teaching in Cornell University. He had already published several books. Girodias interrupted the introduction: ‘Chère Madame,’ he said, ‘vous savez que ma maison est, enfin, spécialisée, et votre ami le professeur Nabokov me semble affreusement respectable…’20 Ergaz seemed to be very amused by this reaction and said that this was exactly why she had approached him: Mais vous avez sûrement été amené à constater que presque tous les grands écrivains ont commis, tôt ou tard, une oeuvre secrète. […] Or cette oeuvre, on ne la découvre en général qu’après leur mort, et elle n’est plus alors qu’une curiosité sans valeur. Vladimir Nabokov ne s’est pas borné à un petit exercise de style dans la genre libertin, il a écrit un vrai grand roman – un livre exceptionnel, tout à fait remarquable, - sur l’un des thèmes les plus choquants qu’on puisse imaginer.21 She mentioned the fact that Nabokov’s novel had been rejected by all of the American publishers it had been offered to, and that they had been horrified. When Girodias mentioned that the novel might have the same effect on him, she told him she was sure he would love it. With the two-volume typescript of Lolita on his desk the next day, Girodias found that Ergaz had been right. On numerous accounts, Girodias has testified of his ‘tremendous enthusiasm’.22 19
20 21 22
There is a very lively account of the events in Maurice Girodias’ autobiography: Girodias, M. (1990): Une journée sur la terre, vol. II, pp. 293ff. Girodias, M. (1990): Une journée sur la terre, vol. II, p. 294. Girodias, M. (1990): Une journée sur la terre, vol. II, p. 294. Girodias, M. (1959a): [Letter to the editor], p. 8.
60 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT At the time Vladimir Nabokov’s manuscript was handed to me at his request, I had never heard of him. The enthusiastic recommendation of his literary agent seemed to point rather to scholarly pomp than to originality. But any prejudices I may have had dissolved after reading the first few pages. I will always remember the effect that first reading of Lolita had upon me: that feeling a high excitement and absolute certainty, so rarely encountered in a publisher’s life – if ever.23 Apart from the literary qualities of Lolita, Girodias was overjoyed with the novel’s main theme. It was something of which he had often dreamed: ‘the treatment of one of the major forbidden human passions in a manner both completely sincere and absolutely legitimate’. He sensed that ‘Lolita would become the one great modern work of art to demonstrate once and for all the futility of moral censorship, and the indispensable role of passion in literature.’24 These are, of course, accounts with the advantage of hindsight. It is obvious, however, that Lolita represented a treasure-trove of opportunities to Girodias. Here was a book with a sensuous theme that could be neatly fitted into his universal attack on the establishment. His enthusiasm was shared by his secretary-editor Muffie Wainhouse and his brother Eric Kahane and Girodias ‘immediately decided to publish it’.25 This meant that one side of the deal was done. Lolita had been successfully introduced to the Olympia Press. The next step was to introduce the Olympia Press to Lolita’s author, Vladimir Nabokov. Doussia Ergaz, who undertook this task on May 13, seems not to have been completely exhaustive in her account of Girodias’ activities. As Nabokov would recall later: [B]efore Madame Ergaz mentioned his name, I was totally ignorant of his existence, or that of his enterprise. He was recommended to me as the founder of the Olympia Press, which ‘had recently published, among other things, Histoire d’O (a novel I had heard praised by competent judges) and as the former director
Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 68. Girodias’ statement that the typescript was handed to him on Nabokov’s request is incorrect. Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 45. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 125; Girodias, M. (1958): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 5; Girodias, M. (1959b): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 5.
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of the ‘Editions du Chêne’ which had ‘produced books admirable from the artistic point of view’.26 Nabokov was informed by Ergaz of the fact that Girodias saw Lolita as a way of propagating social change. She wrote to him saying that Girodias ‘thought that it might lead to a change in social attitudes toward the kind of love described in it.’27 He was not aware, however, of Girodias’ pornographic undertakings.28 In retrospect, it would not even have made much difference to him: 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.29 The only things that interested Nabokov at this point, was to see his novel published, no matter by whom.30 Doussia Ergaz had managed to place Lolita. She contacted Girodias and they met to arrange the details. Girodias was told that Nabokov did not want Lolita to be published under his own name. Girodias was unpleasantly surprised but agreed to publish the novel anyway.31
Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 38. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 38. Nabokov, who did not believe in social purposes for literature, left this remark for what it was worth: ‘It was a pious although abviously rediculous thought but highminded platitudes are often mouthed by enthusiastic businessmen and nobody bothers to disenchant them.’ Girodias later denied having said this: Girodias, M. (1967): [Letter to the editor], pp. 10. To Girodias, this statement seemed absurd: ‘Was he so careless as to entrust his book to a new publisher without so much as a glance at that publisher’s list?’ Girodias, M. (1967): [Letter to the editor], pp. 10. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 38. See also: Nabokov, V. (1982): ‘Postscript to the Russian Edition of Lolita’, p. 191. Nabokov, V. (1959a): [Letter to the editor], p. 8. Girodias, M. (1990): Une journée sur la terre, vol. II, p. 299.
62 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT On June 6, 1955, a ‘Memorandum of Agreement’ was drawn up by Ergaz, which was signed by Nabokov and Girodias.32 For Girodias it was very unusual to have such a written contract, as he usually worked with verbal arrangements. The contract specified the conditions under which Lolita was to be published by the Olympia Press. These conditions can be pieced together from a variety of sources. Nabokov was to have a 10% royalty for the first 10.000 copies and 12% after 10.000.33 He would receive an advance of 400.000 anciens francs (approximately $1.000), one half on signature of the agreement and the other on publication.34 Girodias did not secure a share in the film rights for himself, as he saw no place for Lolita in the cinema; he did, however, grant himself a generous 33% share in the world-wide English-language and translation rights.35 Statements of the number of copies sold were to be provided by the Olympia Press on June 30 and December 31 of each year; payment would be due within a month of these dates respectively. In the event of failure of the publisher to make accountings or payments, or in the event of the publisher going bankrupt, the rights to Lolita were to revert back to Nabokov.36 With the contract signed, there was still one issue that had to be settled. Nabokov had not yet agreed to sign his name to his novel. The circumstances of his decision to finally do so remain rather vague, but it seems to have been his agent Doussia Ergaz who used her influence to make him change his mind.37 Nabokov had written her on May 24:
35 36 37
Nabokov only signed the contract on June 20. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 208. Letter from Véra Nabokov to Walter Minton (19 September 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 227. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 39. Girodias has later said that he paid an advance of two million francs, and this statement has been reproduced by De St. Jorre. Such a figure is highly unlikely, as the total royalties for the entire printrun of Lolita (5000 copies) at its published price (900 francs a volume) would have summed up to no more than 900.000 francs, less than half of the alledged advance. If Nabokov is correct and the advance was 400.000, Girodias in all effect paid no more than twice his flat fee for commissioned pornography for the Traveller’s Companion series. See: Girodias, M. (1990): Une journée sur la terre, vol. II, pp. 298-299; St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 126. Girodias, M. (1990): Une journée sur la terre, vol. II, pp. 299-300. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 37. Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 45.
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J’aurais, comme je vous le disais, certainement préféré de publier sous mon nome de plume. N’accordez donc l’usage do mon nom que si l’éditeur en fait une condition absolue.38 Ergaz now told Nabokov that Girodias had indeed held absolutely to Lolita being signed, and that settled the matter.39 With all the details of the deal arranged, the typescript of Lolita could be prepared for publication. Girodias felt that the text needed some editing, especially with respect to its numerous French phrases. His remarks on the subject are very divergent, however. He has claimed that Nabokov ‘effected a number of alterations in his manuscript’, ‘cut a good number of French sentences and quotations’, ‘[made] numerous corrections’ and finally mentions ‘quelque 200 périphrases et coquetteries inutiles’.40 Nabokov has always downplayed the role of the Olympia Press in the editing of Lolita. When it was suggested in an article on the Olympia Press in general that Nabokov had done ‘some rewriting at Girodias’ request’, he wrote an angry letter to the editor to correct ‘this absurd misstatement’.41 ‘The only alterations Girodias very diffidently suggested concerned a few trivial French phrases in the English text, such as “bon”, “c’est moi”, “mais comment”, etc., which he thought might just as well be translated into English, and this I agreed to do.’42 From the published correspondence, it is evident that Nabokov did indeed correct a number of phrases, neither as numerous as Girodias had it nor as trivial as Nabokov himself suggested.43 In June, before the text was set, he sent a list of corrections to his agent, and drew her special attention to the fact that some of the French phrases had been translated into English: 38 39 40
Quoted in Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 412. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 412. Girodias, M. (1959a): [Letter to the editor], p. 8; Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 68; Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 45; Girodias, M. (1990): Une journée sur la terre, vol. II, p. 300. For the article see: Popkin, H. (1960): ‘The Famous and Infamous Wares of Monsieur Girodias’, p. 4. Nabokov, V. (1960): [Letter to the editor], p. 20. The ideal way of checking the amount of corrections to the typescript would obviously be to compare the typescript to the first edition. This, however, is no longer possible, as the typescript of Lolita seems to have been destroyed. See: Boyd, B. (1995): ‘Manuscripts’, pp. 342-343.
64 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Chere Madame, j’ai relu Lolita et voici quelques petites fautes, coquilles etc. que j’ai corrigees. Vous voudrez bien noter que j’ai supprime plusieur phrases françaises. Veuillez remettre cette liste a M. Gerodias [sic] afin qu’il puisse l’incorporer dans le texte avant la composition.44 On July 6, he sent another list of corrections to Girodias personally, this time to the proofs. He added that he had ‘taken into account what you say about the overabundance of French phrases in the MS. Of your list of sixty I have cancelled or translated one third, but this is as far as I can go.’ Nabokov is overjoyed with the fact that his novel will finally be published: ‘I am delighted that you are doing Lolita. Please rush the proofs and I shall rush them back.’45 This letter was followed by others, dated July 9 and July 18, again involving extensive corrections to the proofs.46 Meanwhile, publication of Lolita obviously became more and more of a reality to Nabokov, and he showed a renewed involvement with its fate. He approached Philip Rahv, editor of the Partisan Review, who had once offered to print parts of Lolita if Nabokov agreed to sign his name to them. As Lolita was to be published without recourse to a pseudonym anyway, this was no longer an obstacle: Lolita is to be published in English, under my name, by the Olympia Press in Paris, presumably before the end of August. I am in the midst of correcting the proofs. All this happened very suddenly. They are rushing the publication because they want to take advantage of the tourist trade. You have been very kind to my little girl. You suggested at the time that you would publish fragments if I signed them. I would now, since it is coming out under my own name anyway. If you are still interested, I could send you a piece at once, provided you can make room for it on your nearest issue. Later, it would become more complicated since the consent of the publishers would have to be secured.47 44 45 46
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 161-163 (June, 1955). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 163-167 (July 6, 1955). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 167-172 (July 9, 1955) and p. 174 (July 18, 1955). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 172-173 (July 13, 1955). This was not followed up as Rahv was persuaded by his lawyers not to publish the excerpts. See: Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 330 (letter 274, November 24, 1955).
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Moreover, Nabokov showed his involvement with the introduction of the Olympia Press edition of Lolita to the United States. He urged Girodias: ‘I hope you have already started a publicity campaign. What are you doing about publicity in the U.S.?’ and sent him a list of addresses to which review copies could be sent. The list included Philip Rahv and Edmund Wilson, and Harvey Breit of the New York Times Book Review. Nabokov added: ‘I am sure you have other periodicals in mind.’48 This is questionable; Girodias did not really believe in the ‘commercial potentialities’ of the book and did not expect sales to exceed 5.000 copies.49 It is therefore doubtful if there ever was any advertising for the first edition of Lolita.50 Proofreading was finished in the first week of August.51 In the same month, the firm of S.I.P. in Montreuil produced a print run of 5.000 copies, the usual number for an Olympia Press book.52 And then, on September 15, 1955, Nabokov’s novel Lolita was finally published (see illustration on following page).53 It was a two volume edition at a price of 900 francs a volume.54 Lolita was now free to conquer the world. Nabokov, on the other hand, was again plagued by gloomy premonitions. As he wrote to Girodias some time before: ‘You and I know that Lolita is a serious book with a serious purpose. I hope the public will accept it as such. A succès de scandale would distress me.’55 48 49
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 174-175 (July 18, 1955). Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 68; Girodias, M. (1959a): [Letter to the editor], p. 8. Compare his remark: ‘I was delighted by the book itself, but I doubted that it had any of the qualities which make a best seller.’ Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 45. Julian Moynahan later remembered: ‘I must say that Maurice Girodias back in 1955 played it very cool in the matter of advance publicity and advertising. There just wasn’t any.’ Moynahan, J. (1970): ‘Lolita and Related Memories’, p. 249. Letter from Véra Nabokov to Elena Wilson (August 6, 1955). Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 327 (letter 271). Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 217. Even a fact as simple as this is not undisputed. Julian Moynahan in his memoir writes that he received his copy by mail in Princeton NJ as early as September 1. Bernard Levin also holds that Lolita was published in August 1955. See: Moynahan, J. (1970): ‘Lolita and Related Memories’, p. 247; Levin, B. (1959): ‘Why All the Fuss?’, p. 32. Letter from Nabokov to Obolensky (November 5, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 231. Dennison is wrong when she holds that the volumes together sold for 900 francs. See: Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 185. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 175 (July 18, 1955).
66 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT
§ 4 PUBLISHED IN PARIS Again there are a few issues that want clarification. We have seen in the previous chapter that no less than two American magazine editors and five American book publishers had decided to turn down Nabokov’s Lolita. There were various good reasons to do so: its new literary form, with which Americans were not yet familiar; its controversial subject matter; and Nabokov’s refusal to sign his name to his novel. But the first publisher to be approached after Lolita had crossed the Atlantic, Maurice Girodias, ‘immediately decided to publish it’. Why, we can ask ourselves, was the Olympia Press this willing to publish Lolita?
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The obvious answer to our question is that the three issues that were considered as obstacles to publication by the American publishers who were offered Lolita, were not considered as such by the Olympia Press. This can be explained. The first two obstacles – the innovative literary techniques Nabokov employed in writing Lolita and the novel’s controversial subject-matter – simply fitted Olympia’s profile surprisingly well. One of the strongholds of the Olympia Press was their list of avant-garde literature, which in 1955 already included Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, Georges Bataille and Pauline Réage, and would later include such writers as J.P. Donleavy and William Burroughs. ‘Avant-garde’ in this period often meant, among other things, that a more explicit description of sexual reality was given than was desirable from a societal point of view. Social controversy and novelty of style therefore often overlapped, and it was in this overlap that the Olympia Press operated. As we have seen, Girodias established his business with the twofold aim of making money and attacking the establishment. Both aims could be fulfilled by publishing what were considered ‘dirty books’, be it sheer pornography or innovative works of literature. When the typescript for Lolita landed on Girodias’ desk, he experienced a sense of recognition: this was a new book, a book that would ‘shock’ and create controversy. This was, therefore, a book for the Olympia Press. The third reason for Lolita’s American rejection, Nabokov’s explicit intention to have his novel published under a penname, was not as easily overcome. But it still proved less of an obstacle for the Olympia Press than it had been in the United States. First of all, the Olympia Press had in the few years of its existence established a tradition of using pseudonyms for many of its authors. This was especially true of the pornography published in the Traveller’s Companion series, for which elaborate concoctions were used such as ‘Count Palmiro Vicarion’ (Christopher Logue), ‘Frances Lengel’ (Alexander Trocchi), ‘Marcus van Heller’ (John Stevenson), ‘Carmencita de las Lunas’ (Alexander Trocchi) and ‘Akbar del Piombo’ (Norman Rubington). It was also true, however, for literary authors such as Dominique Aury (‘Pauline Réage’) and Georges Bataille (‘Pierre Angelique’). It seems likely that Lolita would have been published by the Olympia Press even if the matter of Nabokov’s wish to use a pseudonym had not been settled, especially as the contract for publication had already been signed before it was. In the end, the problem was resolved, as Doussia Ergaz was able to convince Nabokov of the desirability of using his own name. The circumstances of this sudden
68 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT surrender remain rather vague, however.56 What we do know is that Nabokov expressed his intention to use a pseudonym for Lolita to the last American publisher who considered Lolita before it was sent to France, that he expressed this intention to his French agent as well, and that Lolita was eventually published without recourse to a pseudonym. So Nabokov must have changed his mind.57 Another issue wants clarification. We can ask ourselves whether publication by the Olympia Press unequivocally designated Lolita as a work of pornography. I feel confident that is clear from the preceding analysis of the Press’s activities, that this not the case. For someone who held a copy of Lolita in his hands at the time, the only clue that its contents might be shocking was the name of the publisher. It is also important to notice that Lolita, unlike J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955) for example, was not originally published in the Traveller’s Companion series.58 It did not carry a
Girodias later claimed that he had been instrumental in overturning Nabokov: ‘Je m’efforçai de lui faire honte, et il finit par se résigner au courage et a signer le livre de son nom.’ Girodias, M. (1977b): ‘Lolita, héroïne de toutes les censures’, p. 7. Compare Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 245n. Nabokov’s son Dmitri would, as late as 1982, still feel the need to defend his father against Girodias’ charges that he had convinced Nabokov to drop the idea of using a pseudonym. He wrote: ‘Girodias is very optimistic if he thinks his opinions had any influence on Nabokov’s decision not to use a pseudonym for Lolita. […] In any case it should be clear to those with any notion of Nabokov’s ways and work that he was quite able to make his own decisions and that, if he ever sought advice […], he would never have turned to someone of Girodias’ ilk.’ Nabokov’s ‘principal motive’ not to turn to Girodias would have been, according to Dmitri Nabokov, ‘that the “bilge and bile” surrounding Girodias’ activities might in some way reflect on his loyalty to an institution with which he had had a long and happy relationship.’ This is questionable, however, as we have seen that Nabokov did not know about the more dubious aspects of the Olympia Press at the time Lolita was first published. Nabokov, D. (1982): ‘A Few Things That Must be Said on Behalf of Vladimir Nabokov’, pp. 35-36. See: Kearney, P. (1987): The Paris Olympia Press, nr. 24. Lolita only became a volume in the series years later, in 1958. See: Kearney, P. (1987): The Paris Olympia Press, nrs. 141 and 142. That Lolita was published as a volume in the Traveller’s Companion series in 1955 is asserted by all too many Lolita-scholars. See for example: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 292; Clegg, C. (2000), ed.: Vladimir Nabokov, pp. 8, 9 and 10; Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 189.
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number, nor did it contain advertisements for other Olympia volumes in the back. Of course Girodias deliberately created confusion between the various kinds of books published by the Olympia Press, and Lolita’s overall design was similar to that of volumes in the Traveller’s Companion series. But the design in itself was rather inconspicuous, as it consisted of plain green covers without any illustration whatsoever.59 In fact, it looked remarkably like one of the most venerable series in print: the Loeb Classical Library.60 As one Olympia Press aficionado puts it: ‘It’s as close to a brown paper wrapper as you’re wont to get.’61 At present, September 15, 1955, the fate of Lolita as either pornography or literature was yet to be decided. And that is exactly what the ensuing debate would focus on.
On Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, and the feud that stemmed from the fact that his novel was published in the Traveller’s Companion series, see: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, chapter 6; Donleavy, J.P. (1994): The History of the Ginger Man. In a recent article on a collection of Lolita-editions, Joost Pollmann – who does not seem to be familiar with the publications of the Olympia Press – even stated: ‘De allereerste uitgave van Lolita was zeer gedegen vormgegeven, waarschijnlijk om de schijn van ondeugd te vermijden.’ [‘The very first edition of Lolita had a very respectable design, in all likelihood to avoid the impression of vice.’] Pollmann, J. (2005): ‘Lolita heeft vele gezichten. Beeldinterpretaties van een fille fatale’, p. 62. For this suggestion I am indebted to Karlijn de Jongh. Hyde, D. (2002): Between Plain Green Covers.
4 THE BLESSINGS OF GRAHAM GREENE September 15, 1955 up to October 30, 1956
§ 1 INTRODUCTION Lolita was published by the Olympia Press on September 15, 1955, and what followed was – ‘complete silence’.1 The book was not noticed or reviewed anywhere.2 This was ‘hardly surprising’, as Girodias would later recall – the publications of the Olympia Press were generally ignored by the serious press – although he had had some hope: ‘I must admit that I had more or less consciously hoped that some courageous reviewer would break the wall of silence which had so far met any offering by the Olympia Press.’3 What was more, the usual customers for Olympia Press books seemed not to like the book, and it sold very poorly.4 Girodias later commented: ‘Sales were ridiculously low.’5 The reasons for this dislike can be imagined. Nabokov later described them thus:
2 3 4 5
Girodias, M. (1958): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 5; Girodias, M. (1959b): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 5; Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 68. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 293. Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 68. Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 45. Girodias, M. (1958): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 5; Girodias, M. (1959b): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 5. It is curious that De Grazia holds that Lolita ‘rapidly sold out’. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, pp. 255, 259.
— 71 —
72 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT […] Olympia Press informs me that amateurs (amateurs!) are disappointed with the tame turn my story takes in the second volume, and do not buy it.6 If there was any feedback on Lolita, it was negative. Girodias received groans of dismay and irritable complaints from loyal readers and his ‘dirt-book distributors’ in London: ‘Why are you publishing junk like that?’, ‘Stick to the tried and the true’, ‘You’re giving yourself a bad name’, ‘Trash like this is a sheer waste of time’ and ‘Any more like the last one and you can strike my name from the list’.7 All of the trouble it had taken to see Lolita in print seemed to have been wasted: the way things were going, it might as well have remained a typescript. Had it not been for Graham Greene: he is equivocally credited with the rescue of Lolita when she was sinking in deep seas of silence. This chapter will be devoted to the remarkable events that gave Lolita her first share of fame. It covers the period from September 15, 1955, when the novel was first published, up to October 30, 1956, when it could be said that it was enjoying some success, even if it was with a limited audience. First we will look at the way Graham Greene gallantly came to Lolita’s rescue (§ 2). Then we will focus on the short-term effects of this salvage operation, including the first introduction of Lolita to the American public (§ 3). Finally, we will try and see these developments in a broader perspective (§ 4). § 2 ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR The event that was to break the ‘wall of silence’ around Lolita occurred on Christmas Day 1955.8 Graham Greene was asked by the Sunday Times to name his three favourite books for the year 1955 and listed, among two rather different titles, Nabokov’s Lolita: I would nominate Boswell on the Grand Tour (Heinemann), The State of France by Herbert Luthy (Secker & Warburg), and Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (Olympia Press, Paris).9 6
Letter to Graham Greene (December 31, 1956). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 19401977, pp. 197-198. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 129; Morgan, T. (1988): Literary Outlaw, p. 278. When Girodias places the following series of events in 1956, that must be a slip of the pen. See: Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 45. Greene, G. (1955): ‘Books of the Year I. Chosen by Eminent Contemporaries’, p. 4.
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According to Greene, his reasons for doing so were simple. He had bought Nabokov’s novel not long after its publication and ‘enjoyed it enormously’.10 ‘I and other authors are invited every year around Christmas to name three books which we have most enjoyed during the year and on this occasion I nominated Lolita.’11 Maybe it was as simple as that, but it was a nomination that was to have major consequences. J.P. Donleavy had, in the course of 1955 – while correcting the proofs for his novel The Ginger Man, that was also to be published by the Olympia Press – struck up a friendship with the journalist Robert Pitman; their sons played together in Holland Park. Donleavy told Pitman about his novel and when it was published asked Girodias to send his friend a copy. With the copy of The Ginger Man came a copy of Lolita. When Graham Greene nominated Lolita as one of the best books of 1955, most people had no clue what it was about. But Pitman knew, and he happened to occasionally write for the Sunday Express. He approached the editor of the Sunday Express, John Gordon, and said: ‘Hey, I know what Lolita is. Here’s a copy, read this. It’s published in Paris, and it’s a dirty book about an old man having carnal knowledge with a nymphet.’12 John Gordon did not waste time. In the section ‘Current Events’ he took Greene to task for recommending a book as filthy as Lolita: Has Mr. Graham Greene, of Third Man fame, been pulling the leg of the sedate Sunday Times? He was asked by that newspaper to help its readers in their choice of good reading by recommending his ‘best books of the year’. Among three he selected was Lolita, a two-volume novel. On his recommendation I bought Lolita. Without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read. Sheer unrestrained pornography. Its central character is a pervert with a passion for debauching what he calls ‘nymphets’. These, he explains, are girls aged from 11 to 14. The entire book is devoted to an exhaustive, uninhibited, and utterly disgusting description of his pursuits and successes. It is published in France. Anyone who published or sold it here would certainly go to prison. And I am sure the Sunday Times would approve, even though it abhors censorship as much as I do. I am 10
Letter from Graham Greene to Sally Dennison (March 9, 1982). Quoted in: Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 181. Letter from Graham Greene to Sally Dennison (March 9, 1982). Quoted in: Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 181. Both the anecdote and the quote from: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 129.
74 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT shocked to see that respectable newspaper, which so recently joined me in purging British journalism of pornography, now stepping into the business of publicising it.13 Graham Greene responded tongue-in-cheek. In a letter to the editor of the Spectator, signed by him and his friend John Sutro, he suggested the foundation of a society in honour of John Gordon: Sir, – In recognition of the struggle he has maintained for so many years against the insidious menace of pornography, in defence of our hearths and homes and the purity of public life, the signatories propose to form the John Gordon Society if sufficient support is forthcoming. The main object of the Society will be to represent the ideals of Mr. Gordon in active form, in the presentation of family films, the publication of family books, and in lectures which will fearlessly attack the social evils of our time, and to form a body of competent censors, unaffected by commercial considerations, to examine and if necessary condemn all offensive books, plays, films, strip cartoons, musical compositions, paintings and ceramics.14 The initiative met with enthusiasm and a lavish display of British humour. In the next issue of the Spectator, Christine Thomson, the fictitious secretary to the Society, reported that a ‘large number of applications’ had been received, and that all applicants would receive ‘an invitation to attend the first General Meeting of the Society’ that was scheduled for early March.15 Others wrote to the Spectator to apply for membership and to offer donations. Thus a certain A. Livesey wrote: ‘In appreciation of the wholesome work undertaken, I should like to present a portrait of Mr. Gordon to be hung in the Society’s committee rooms. The artist I have consulted for this purpose envisages a handsome canvas, depicting Mr. Gordon in the role of Diana, the Goddess of Chastity, holding in one hand The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and in
Gordon, J. (1956a): ‘Current Events’, p. 6. Quoted in: Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, pp. 691-692. Greene, G. (1956a): [Letter to the Editor], p. 182. According to Sutro, Ian Gilmore of the Spectator sponsored the foundation of the Society from the outset. Sutro, J. (1984): ‘Greene’s Jests’, p. 17. Thomson, C. (1956): [Letter to the Editor], p. 214.
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the other an expurgated copy of the Old Testament.’16 This proposal was supplemented by other readers of the Spectator: ‘[W]e feel that the portrait which Mr. Livesey has generously offered to commission would not be complete without the additional symbol of a hangman’s rope. This could be suitably draped round the figure with some such scrolled inscription such as: “Purity through suppression and strangulation”.’17 Still others offered to contribute their services: ‘We have today written to Mr. Graham Greene, heartily applauding his sentiments, and offering our wholehearted services to the Cause. We have told him that Mr. Gordon has long been our hero – in fact we have a signed photograph of him over a casket containing the ashes of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Well of Loneliness.’18 And already the attention helped Lolita’s cause. In a supposedly worried letter, a reader of the Spectator wrote: ‘I have every sympathy with the objects of the John Gordon Society, but is the Society in danger of encouraging the very evil that it hopes to defeat? Sometimes an attack on an undesirable book serves as an advertisement. I know for a fact that booksellers have received many demands for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita since Mr. Gordon’s original paragraph.’19 When John Gordon admitted that he too had once ‘shamefacedly’ smuggled dirty books past customs, some readers wrote to withdraw their support to the Society, or to suggest that it change its name.20 Others found reason to resign when it was discovered that the Sunday Express itself had once been banned on charges of obscenity.21 Very little seems to have been said in defence of Gordon’s opinions. A certain B.A. Young wrote a letter in favour of Gordon, saying: ‘In an age when books and newspapers are available not only to the adult population of all classes but also to kiddies, it is not a bad thing to have at least one responsible journalist on the side of decent thinking and moral living. Mr. Greene and his sycophants may sneer as they will; but John Gordon’s column in the Sunday Express is courageous, Christian and almost always accurate.’22 But the concluding ‘courageous, Christian and almost always accurate’ was already a sign of inappropriate playfulness, and Young gave the 16 17 18 19 20
Livesey, A. (1956): [Letter to the Editor], p. 214. Taylor, K. a.o. (1956): [Letter to the Editor], p. 247. Dunn, G. & A. Galperin (1956): [Letter to the Editor], p. 247. Montgomery, H. (1956): [Letter to the Editor], p. 214. Cherry, M. (1956): [Letter to the Editor], p. 280; Greene, G. (1956b): [Letter to the Editor], p. 280. ‘Stultissimus’ (1956): [Letter to the Editor], p. 312. Young, B.A. (1956a): [Letter to the Editor], p. 280.
76 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT joke away in a second letter to the Spectator: ‘In today’s Sunday Express Mr. Gordon, alone of London columnists, points out that if the component parts of an Austin motor-car are valued, at cost, at £200 and the car is sold at £800, the manufacturers are making a profit of 300 per cent. This imaginative economic thinking, which is in the very highest traditions of the Beaverbrook press, is exactly the kind of stimulus needed by the youth of today […].’23 Meanwhile, Graham Greene stuck to his original plan. In a second letter to the editor of the Spectator, he mentioned the discussion John Gordon’s confession had caused. He felt confident, however, that the Society would continue under its present name: Personally (and I feel sure to speak for Mr. Sutro too) I honour Mr. Gordon all the more for his public confession, startling though it may have seemed to those who have for years admired his stand against the prevailing looseness of morals. […] None the less certain members feel that the title of the Society will have to be subject to debate at the first General Meeting on March 6, and therefore we are unable to invite the attendance of Mr. Gordon himself on that occasion. I have little doubt that the point at issue will be honourably settled […], and that members, already numbering half a century, will continue to pursue their great objectives under the proud and unstained title of the John Gordon Society.24 The first General Meeting of the John Gordon Society was indeed held on Tuesday March 6, 1956. Amongst others, Christopher Isherwood, Angus Wilson, H.G. Wells and A.J. Ayer were present.25 In the next issue of the Spectator, Graham Greene gave an account of the meeting. ‘Over sixty people attended. Letters of regret were read from the Home Secretary and the Director of Public Prosecutions who were unable
Young, B.A. (1956b): [Letter to the Editor], p. 345. Sherry holds that B.A. Young was honestly defending Gordon. Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene. Volume Three: 1955-1991. New York, Viking, pp. 38-39. Greene, G. (1956b): [Letter to the Editor], p. 280. It is unclear if John Gordon was invited to the meeting or not. Here Greene said he wasn’t, but in a letter to Sally Dennison (March 9, 1982) he stated that ‘Gordon was invited as a guest’. See: Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 182. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 295; Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 39; Sutro, J. (1984): ‘Greene’s Jests’, p. 17.
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to be present.’26 The issue of the Society’s name was quickly settled and the rest of the Meeting was devoted to a discussion of the general aims of the Society. It must have been an amusing evening indeed. ‘Mr. Frere and other publishers present offered cooperation in submitting proofs of forthcoming books to the Society and agreed to indicate by means of a band the Society’s disapproval if it proved impossible for them to withdraw the books after condemnation. […] Another member felt that the Society might well approach the manufacturers of the game “Scrabble” and persuade the to include in each set a pledge to be signed by the purchaser that no words would be allowable other than those in the Concise Oxford Dictionary.’27 A series of John Gordon lectures was instituted, and it was decided that Gordon himself should deliver the first lecture. After a letter to the editor by Gordon himself, the correspondence in the columns of the Spectator was now closed, although it did print an announcement for the first John Gordon lecture to be held at the end of July on which occasion Gordon would speak on ‘Journalism and its Relation to Public Morality’.28 Indeed one last meeting was held on Wednesday, July 25. The Society tried to persuade Gordon to deliver a lecture on censorship, but this was sidestepped by Gordon. As he wrote in a letter to the Society: I propose instead that we make the subject ‘pornography’ which was the original, and I presume still is, the main interest of your society. I suggest instead of a lecture that your distinguished President, Mr. Graham Greene, undertakes to defend Pornography in books and newspapers while I oppose it. […] As the subject is of wide public interest and […] of considerable importance to the community, I think attendance at the debate should not be restricted to members of the Society. I suggest that it should be open to all who wish to participate.29
Greene, G. (1956c): ‘The John Gordon Society’, p. 309. For the minutes of the meeting, see: Sutro, J. (1984): ‘Greene’s Jests’, pp. 17-18. Greene, G. (1956c): ‘The John Gordon Society’, p. 309. Alexander Frere was head of Heinemann. Gordon, J. (1956b): [Letter to the Editor], p. 373; ‘Pharos’ (1956): A Spectator’s Notebook, p. 87. Letter from John Gordon to the John Gordon Society (May 5, 1956). Quoted in: Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 40.
78 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Although Greene had his fictitious secretary reply that he would not be willing to defend pornography, a meeting was arranged at the Horseshoe Inn in Tottenham Court Road. As to its purpose, John Gordon has been very explicit: ‘Of course invite the Press. The more publicity we get the better. After all isn’t the real object publicity?’30 Greene and Sutro were afraid Gordon would not show up, but he did, and the meeting resulted in a hilarious dinner, thoroughly disturbed by a drunk Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s son.31 Later accounts vary as to who won the debate: Gordon or Greene. In the account the Daily Express printed the next day, William Barkeley leaned towards Gordon as a winner, but then Gordon of course was editor of the Sunday Express. In a letter to Michael Richey Greene said that he himself had felt the audience had been in his favour.32 He concluded: ‘Anyway it was all great fun and didn’t in fact reach the point of razor blades or fists.’33 Great fun it had been, and it had served a purpose: the whole exchange had helped push Nabokov’s Lolita towards the centre of attention. § 3 NOTICED AND REVIEWED That this is true is evident from the fact that as early as February 26, 1956, Harvey Breit of the New York Times Book Review picked up the story for his column of literary chit-chat called ‘In and Out of Books’.34 He devoted about a third of a column to the exchange between Greene and Gordon – the first mention in print of Lolita in the United States: We have been looking at the English papers and we notice that Mr. Graham Greene, fine novelist and hater of all things American except Texas, is riding 30
Letter from John Gordon to the John Gordon Society (May 23, 1956). Quoted in: Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 40. Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, pp. 40-42. Letter from Graham Greene to Michael Richey (August 3, 1956). Quoted in: Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 42. Letter from Graham Greene to Michael Richey (August 3, 1956). Quoted in: Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 42. This is, I guess, the right place to note that Breit himself had once been a writer of pornography. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 257; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 213n.
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again. In the Sunday Express, columnist John Gordon writes of his shock at reading a book, Lolita, a long French novel about nymphets, recommended by Mr. Greene as one of the best books of 1955.35 Breit did not define the meaning of ‘nymphets’, nor did he mention Nabokov. But Nabokov read the column and felt disheartened. He had been aware of the fact that Graham Greene had chosen Lolita as one of his favourite novels of 1955, but now the debate on the alleged pornographic nature of Lolita seemed to be crossing the ocean, and chances for an American publication of his novel seemed to be ruined for ever. He wrote to Edmund Wilson: A foul little flurry in the London papers concerning Lolita has been demurely alluded to by Harvey Breit in his column. […] In the same issue of the Book Review there is a nice advertisement of Books on Sex, with patients ‘telling their case histories in their own words’. I am extremely irritated by the turn my nymphet’s destiny is taking, but although I foreglimpsed the situation, I have no inkling how to act, nor do I know even what kind of assistance or defence I can expect in our times when crusades are definitely vieux jeu.36 One cannot blame Nabokov for being irritated, for the irony was striking. On page 35 of the same New York Times Book Review that introduced his Lolita to the American reader, and introduced it in the context of controversy, was an advertisement for a book that left very little to the imagination: George W. Henry’s All the Sexes (1955). ‘Told with uncompromising candor, in the very words which the patients themselves used, a distinguished psychiatrist exposes the forces that drive a man or a woman to homosexuality, narcissism, transvestitism, bisexuality, fetishism, sadism and masochism’ (see illustration on following page).
Breit, H. (1956a): ‘Albion’, p. 8. Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 331 (letter 276, February 19, 1956). The date on this letter must be wrong, as the New York Times Book Review concerned was only published a week later.
80 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT As to Nabokov having ‘no inkling how to act’ and no idea of what kind of assistance or defence to expect, there was to follow a pleasant surprise. Some copies of the Olympia Press edition of Lolita had obviously found their way into the United States, for Breit’s short mention of the novel caused a ‘flurry of mail’. Breit felt obliged to supplement his earlier account: Two weeks ago we quoted an attack on Graham Greene for his favorable mention of a novel, Lolita, which the attacker called pornographic. A novel written in English, but published in France, our mention of it created a flurry of mail – some correspondents wanting to know more, some contributing information.37 There followed ‘an “anthology” of amplification’. Nabokov was identified as the author of Lolita and introduced in general terms; the publisher and the published price were accurately mentioned. Then Breit gave his anthology of quotes from the letters received – all of them in the most positive of words: ‘The novel is much less detailed in its descriptions, and far more decorous in its vocabulary, than most novels on recent best-seller lists.’ […] ‘It shocks because it is great art, because it tells a terrible story in a wholly original way. It is wildly funny, coarse, subtle and tragic, all at once.’38 Readers compared Lolita to Notes from the Underground, The Possessed, Daisy Miller, The Captive and Tender is the Night. The praise was so strong that it elicited a sneer from Breit: ‘According to our various informants, then, in Lolita we
Breit, H. (1956b): ‘Lolita’, p. 8. Breit, H. (1956b): ‘Lolita’, p. 8.
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have a suggestion of Dostoevsky, James, Proust and Fitzgerald. Not a real best seller among them – so to hell with it.’39 The column by Breit did not only prompt readers who were already in the know to supply information; it also made people who were not yet in the know curious. Nabokov’s Lolita became something of a success. With this success, there came some critical attention. The first to review Lolita in the United States was Louis Simpson for the Hudson Review.40 Simpson’s review was essentially favourable. He interpreted Lolita as a farce and praised it for its originality, wit and style. As to the controversial theme, Simpson seems not to have found Lolita immoral, as he interpreted the novel as a parody: ‘It is a joke on our national cant about Youth. If an ideal of adult Americans is the pubescent mind, the body that will fit snugly into a Mademoiselle ad, Lolita only carries a fantasy to its fulfillment.’41 Within a couple of months, a second review appeared, the first to be entirely devoted to Lolita.42 John Hollander in the Partisan Review also was very favourable to Nabokov’s new novel. His interpretation went along the same lines as Simpson’s. Hollander thought Lolita to be a parody.43 He praised the book for its ‘comic genius’, finding it ‘just about the funniest book I remember having read’.44 And in a way, Hollander agreed with Simpson that Lolita was the fullfilment of an American dream: ‘The not-quite-teen-age girl herself, of course, providing her learned lover with duties involving the procurement of sundaes and movie magazines, is the only plausible modern femme fatale.’45 Attention was roused, then. But attention was and is a far cry from an audience. In 1956, Nabokov’s Lolita was not generally available in the United States. Prices were rising to as much as twelve dollars a copy.46 Moreover, the impression lingered that 39 40
41 42 43
44 45 46
Breit, H. (1956b): ‘Lolita’, p. 8. Simpson, L. (1956): ‘Fiction Chronicle’, pp. 302-309. Page is wrong in his assumption that John Hollander’s review was the first to be published. See: Page, N. (1982): Nabokov, p. 81. Simpson, L. (1956): ‘Fiction Chronicle’, pp. 303-304. Hollander, J. (1956): ‘The Perilous Magic of Nymphets’, pp. 557-560. ‘Nearly everything about Lolita is parodic, save for the primary love story, which ridicules only itself.’ Hollander, J. (1956): ‘The Perilous Magic of Nymphets’, p. 557. Hollander, J. (1956): ‘The Perilous Magic of Nymphets’, pp. 558, 560. Hollander, J. (1956): ‘The Perilous Magic of Nymphets’, p. 560. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 40. Boyd even mentions prices of $20. See: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 296.
82 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Lolita was a ‘forbidden book’. Howard Nemerov, a friend of Nabokov, was surely under this impression when he sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times: In the course of efforts to procure a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s new novel Lolita, which is published in Paris, I learned today that the law forbids the importation of this book into our country. I have become so used to being governed for my own good that for twelve hours after receiving this news I did not realize that I felt outraged. No doubt the law is a splendid law, and does much to save us from ourselves. Yet it may be that by the mere corruption of taste, and by the ample provision of substitutes for literature, our society is already so well protected against good writing that Mr. Nabokov’s new book might be allowed to enter the United States without occasioning the fear of any general deterioration of morals or improvement of minds.47 On October 30, 1956, Lolita was known in America. But its fate was uncertain. It would take a campaign of sorts to usher Nabokov’s novel into more than merely being the subject of curious enquiries. § 4 THE BLESSINGS OF GRAHAM GREENE Before we turn our attention to that campaign, we can ask ourselves what role the exchange between Graham Greene and John Gordon played in Lolita’s publication history. As has been said before, it is generally assumed that Greene’s defence of the novel was instrumental in its rise to fame. On the basis of our analysis of the events, this cannot be denied. Even if his observation is coloured by his later stance of disinterested contempt for Girodias’ business operation, it is as Vladimir Nabokov himself put it: ‘Had not Graham Greene and John Gordon clashed in London in such a providential fashion, Lolita […] might have ended in the common grave of [the] Traveller’s Favorites or whatever Olympia’s little green books were called.’48
Nemerov, H. (1956): [Letter to the Editor], p. 36. Nabokov later thanked Nemerov for his ‘very friendly and gallant gesture’. See: Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 192 (November 9, 1956). Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 40.
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The most important effect of the events recounted above was, of course, to create a considerable amount of attention for Lolita. It is not easy to see, however, what element of the events was responsible for the creation of this attention. It has been argued that it was enough for Greene only to mention Lolita as one of his favourite books for 1955. One of the foremost writers of his time and an established literary authority, Greene, according to this line of reasoning, was able to salvage Lolita by the mere association of his name with the novel. Thus Erica Jong in her retrospective on Lolita’s first thirty years finds that Graham Greene conferred a ‘literary blessing’ on the book.49 ‘Graham Greene saw literature and language where others had only seen perversion and pornography. Lolita’s eventual triumph can be traced ultimately to his intervention.’50 Edward de Grazia uses the same vocabulary when he says that ‘[i]n England Lolita gained overnight notoriety when Graham Greene gave it his blessing in the Sunday Times […].’51 And John the St Jorre holds that ‘Graham Greene put his seal on the book.’52 To resort to this kind of mysterious, semi-chivalric terminology is deceptive, however. For for all of Graham Greene’s approval, Lolita still would have been nowhere if it had not been for the circus that was set up, when John Gordon found that he could not agree. The controversy that resulted from the disagreement between Gordon and Greene was at least as important as Greene’s mentioning the novel. Maurice Girodias has drawn attention to this aspect of the matter. In his opinion, Nabokov’s Lolita would never have found a large audience on the strength of its literary quality alone: the controversy was needed to entice the public. ‘The charm of the book seems to me too esoteric, its perversity too symbolic, to win large audiences on the strength of its intrinsic appeal. Some boosting and hustling were called for […].’53 He of course credited himself with providing this ‘boosting and hustling’, but elsewhere admitted that other parties had been important as well. As early as 1958, Girodias claimed that Lolita ‘would never have met with […] success’ if it hadn’t been for ‘the John Gordons of this world’.54 And Nabokov agreed. To quote from his postscript to the Russian edition of Lolita: ‘[I]t was his virtuous horror that attracted
49 50 51 52 53 54
Jong, E. (1988a): ‘Time Has Been Kind to the Nymphet. “Lolita” 30 Years Later’, p. 47. Jong, E. (1988a): ‘Time Has Been Kind to the Nymphet. “Lolita” 30 Years Later’, p. 47. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 259. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 129. Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 146. Girodias, M. (1958): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 7.
84 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT general attention to Lolita.’55 And indeed we must admit that John Gordon’s indignation was as important as Graham Greene’s appreciation. As Stacy Schiff puts it: ‘Together Green and Gordon worked their combinational magic.’56 That magic propelled the history of Lolita into its next phase.
Nabokov, V. (1982): ‘Postscript to the Russian Edition of Lolita’, p. 191. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 213.
5 MAKING A CASE FOR LOLITA October 30, 1956 up to April 22, 1957
§ 1 INTRODUCTION As we have seen, the exchange between John Gordon and Graham Greene led to a certain interest in Nabokov’s Lolita among American readers. This interest was very local in character, however, as it concerned only a limited audience. Lolita’s readers were people with a professional interest in literature: academics and reviewers, publishers and censors. It were these readers who were to determine Nabokov’s novel’s future fate. The short-term effects of Gordon’s attack and Greene’s defence were twofold: positive, as it lead to considerable attention from publishers wishing to add Lolita to their lists; and negative, as government censors in Britain wanted to prevent this ‘scandalous’ book from finding an audience. As to the first of said effects, the prestigious French publishing house of Gallimard expressed its interest in Lolita as early as March 6, 1956. This was, as Nabokov put it, ‘a respectable address’.1 Before the end of the month, a contract was signed for the publication of a French translation and for the publication of an extract in the Nouvelle Revue Française, France’s leading literary journal.2 Italian, Swedish, Danish and German publishers followed suit and began negotiating for translation
Letter to Morris Bishop (March 6, 1956). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 184. Letter to Pat Covici (March 29, 1956). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 185.
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86 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT rights.3 A renewed interest was also shown by American publishers, and Nabokov was approached by firms as diverse as Reynal, Knopf, Harper’s and Indiana University Press.4 It was much easier to envisage an American edition of Lolita from June 1956 onwards, as U.S. Customs had inspected copies of the Olympia Press edition and had decided that there was no reason to forbid the importation of Nabokov’s novel into the United States.5 Although this was not an official ruling and informal rulings of this sort had no precedental legal value, it was an encouraging sign, U.S. Customs being one of the two institutions that could instigate censorship.6 In November a second copy was confiscated and released; by then the expensive legal defence that all prospective publishers had feared two years before seemed far less likely to be necessary.7 This did not mean, however, that an American edition of Lolita was to be expected shortly. For this, there were several reasons. One was, that Nabokov and others felt that as far as the American market was concerned, this was ‘not the right time to publish Lolita’.8 The general public would have to be prepared in order for Lolita to be accepted, and this preparation would take time. A further reason why an American edition of Lolita was not be expected shortly lay in a further consequence of the debate between John Gordon and Graham Greene.9 The British Home Office wished to stop the infiltration of copies of Lolita 3 4
5 6 7
St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 130. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 296; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 213. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 300. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 264. In February 1957 – at the request of Maurice Girodias – Irving Fishman, Deputy Collector of the Restricted Merchandise Devision, testified in writing to Lolita’s examination and release. A facsimile of his letter is published in: Desternes, J. (1957), ed.: L’affaire Lolita, p. 66. Letter to Ivan Obolensky (March 23, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 19401977, p. 211. That the increased interest from censors in Lolita resulted from the dispute between Greene and Gordon is suggested by Nabokov’s agent, Doussia Ergaz, among others. Nabokov quotes her as saying: ‘La réponse de James Gordon [sic] à l’article de M. Graham Greene a indigné certains puritains et […] c’est le Gouvernement anglais qui a demandé au Ministre de l’Interieur […] de prendre cette décision.’ Letter to Graham Greene (December 31, 1956). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 197198. See also: Couturier, M. (1996): ‘The Poerotic Novel. Nabokov’s Lolita and Ada’, pt. 3.
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into the United Kingdom and made a request for the French police to look into the activities of the Olympia Press. This resulted in the banning of 25 titles from Olympia’s list, among them Lolita.10 This meant that Maurice Girodias, whose cooperation was required for any English-language publication of Lolita, was in trouble. And as long as Girodias was in trouble, it would prove very hard to have him sign any contract for the American rights. This chapter covers the period from October 30, 1956 up to April 22, 1957 and will be devoted to two simultaneous episodes in Lolita’s publication history: on the one hand the preparation of the American market (§ 2) and on the other the troubles its original French publisher landed in (§ 3). We shall see that the strategies adopted in both cases was similar: the preparation and publication of pamphlets to raise support for Lolita’s cause. Finally we will attempt to see both the simultaneous episodes and the similar strategies in a broader perspective (§ 4). § 2 THE ANCHOR REVIEW When Nabokov saw the novel he considered his ‘best thing in English’ charged with obscenity, he did not abstain from lamenting its fate. In a letter to Graham Greene, he wrote: ‘My poor Lolita is having a rough time. The pity is that if I had made her a boy, or a cow or a bicycle, Philistines might never have flinched.’11 When it came to defending his novel, however, Nabokov seems not to have wanted to play any significant role. In a letter written to Morris Bishop, he formulated his position thus: I calmly lean on my conviction that no court could prove it to be ‘lewd and libertine’. All categories grade, of course, into one another: a comedy of manners written by a fine poet may have its ‘lewd’ side; but Lolita is a tragedy. ‘Pornography’ is not an image plucked out of context. Pornography is an attitude and an intention. The tragic and the obscene exclude each other.12 Almost the exact same phrasing is used by Nabokov in a letter to Pat Covici, editor at Viking, written a couple of weeks later:
10 11 12
Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 260. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 197 (December 31, 1956). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 184 (March 6, 1956).
88 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT As a friend and one of the few people who have read the book, you will, I am sure, slap down such rumormongers as contend that the book is pornographic. In know that Lolita is my best book so far. Calmly I lean on my conviction that it is a serious work of art, and that no court could prove it to be ‘lewd and libertine’. All categories grade, of course, into one another: a comedy of manners written by a fine poet, or a satirical poem in the genre of Pushkin’s Gavriliad, may have its ‘lewd’ side; but Lolita is a tragedy. Pornography is not an image plucked out of context. Pornography is an attitude and an intention. The tragic and the obscene exclude each other.13 There is no way of telling whether Nabokov’s assertion that he ‘calmly leaned on [his] conviction’ was sincere. In any case, he could only afford to take this stance, because people around him did not remain as calm. A special effort was made by Jason Epstein, the Doubleday editor who had not been allowed by his superiors to publish Lolita in 1954, but who had remained intent on being the first to publish Nabokov’s novel in the United States.14 As it could not be done as a full-length edition, Epstein decided to try another scheme. Being the editor in charge of Doubleday’s Anchor books, a successful series of paperbacks, he was also in charge of the Anchor Review, the literary journal of the series. Epstein decided to include excerpts of Lolita in the Review. He would later recall: […] I knew Customs had admitted the Olympia edition into the United States and that this reduced the risk for the Anchor Review. […] I do recall telling Melvin Lasky, the editor of the Anchor Review, that it would be a good idea if we published parts of Lolita. He seemed to have some doubts but succeeded in overcoming them.15 In September, Epstein approached Nabokov with the idea, and Nabokov wrote back enthusiastically:
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 185 (March 29, 1956). Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, pp. 183-184; Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, pp. 261-262. Letters from Jason Epstein to Sally Dennison (February 23 and March 4, 1982). Quoted in: Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 184.
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Everything you have done for Lolita until now delights me. I hope you will publish the thing in its entirety some day. I approve in advance whatever selection you make for the Anchor Review. It might be difficult for me to help there since in my mind I see the book as a whole.16 In October there followed a meeting of Epstein and Nabokov, Lasky and Fred Dupee of Columbia University, a literary scholar and former editor of the Partisan Review, who was to write an introductory essay. A selection of passages was made, all in all some 90 pages, almost a third of the text.17 Doubleday lawyers were consulted on the risks that the selected material would harbour.18 By November, Dupee’s article was ready.19 Dupee, like reviewers before him, highlighted the aspects of Lolita that did not have to do with eroticism, but with humour: ‘[…] Lolita is not for the mere fancier of erotica or consumer of pornography, if there are such people and if they matter. Lolita applies its heat to the entire sensibility, including the sense of humor. Instead of putting the desires in an agreeable simmer, it acts on them almost like a coutery, sterilizing them with horrid laughter.’20 He went on to describe the book’s general effect as ‘entirely mischievous, like that of some diabolical distorting mirror in some particularly obscene amusement park’.21 Retaining the imagery of popular culture, Dupee’s final verdict of Lolita was very positive – as could have been expected given his involvement in the propagation of the novel: ‘Lolita is partly a masterpiece of 16 17
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 191 (October 1, 1956). Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 300; compare a letter from Nabokov to Wilson (October 22, 1956): Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 337 (letter 282). Letter from Nabokov to Girodias (August 3, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 222. It seems that Doubleday at point was ready too, that is: to place a bid for the rights to Lolita. According to Boyd, they were scared of by Girodias’ demands, as he insisted on a 10 percent royalty. November 1956 seems to me to have been an untimely momement for any kind of offer, however, and I have not been able to find sources for the incedent other than Nabokov’s remark to Girodias in March 1957 that a couple of months before ‘[o]ne of the largest houses in the U.S. came close to making an offer, but gave up, partly in fear of unavoidable court proceedings, partly because of your insistence on “a genuine partnership agreement”.’ See: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 300; Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 207 (March 5, 1957). Dupee, F.W. (1957): ‘A Preface to Lolita’, p. 1. Dupee, F.W. (1957): ‘A Preface to Lolita’, p. 2.
90 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT grotesque comedy, partly an unsubdued wilderness where the wolf howls – a real wolf howling for a real Red Riding Hood.’22 Dupee’s article was not the only one to accompany the excerpts of Lolita. Nabokov wrote an essay as well; he finished his essay On a Book Entitled Lolita in November.23 Of this essay, Nabokov would later say that in it he had ‘said everything [he] wanted to say about the book’.24 With the text of the Anchor Review prepared, there remained only some minor issues to be settled, such as the financial aspect of the matter. On November 20, Nabokov wrote to Epstein: Thanks for sending the Lolita excerpts and the Dupee article. At first glance, it all looks fine […]. You will have it all back early next week. Would the $400 honorarium cover both excerpts and article? If so, I would accept $200 for the excerpts and $200 (or more) for the article. I am writing to Paris to make sure that they won’t mind my signing the agreement with the Anchor Review for the reprint of the Lolita pieces. I think it will be all right and you can prepare the agreement. Send me an extra copy, if possible, so that I can send it to my agent for Olympia.25 All was set for the first appearance in print in America of portions of Lolita. There is no question as to the object of this undertaking: it was meant to prepare the way for a complete and unabridged edition of Lolita – an edition, moreover, that would not be charged with obscenity. Nabokov, who had said that he calmly leaned on his conviction that no court could prove the novel to be ‘lewd and libertine’, was well aware of the efforts of Epstein and Dupee. In December, he wrote to Girodias: You and I understand perfectly well that Lolita is not the kind of book that should appeal to the kind of people you euphemistically call ‘amateurs’. In fact, my friends here are waging an intensive campaign to establish the book as a literary achievement of artistic value and lasting importance, and to counteract
Dupee, F.W. (1957): ‘A Preface to Lolita’, p. 13. In later reprints, the essay is dated ‘November 12, 1956’. See for example: Nabokov, V. (1958a): Lolita, p. 319. Anonymous interview (June 5, 1962). Repr. in: Nabokov, V. (1973b): Strong Opinions, p. 6. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 195 (November 20, 1956).
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the unfortunate publicity it received at the outset. Only after this has been achieved can one hope to have Lolita published in this country.26 Epstein was very clear about the object of this ‘intensive campaign’ as well. When Nabokov was wondering, in March 1957, if he would ever see his Lolita in print in America, Epstein urged him that there was only one solution: to surround Lolita ‘with academic praise and high critical authority, letting her peep out of the pages of the Anchor Review until eventually, little by little, the country gets used to her’.27
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 196-197 (December 14, 1956). Quoted in: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 305.
92 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Then, finally, on April 22, 1957, the summer issue of the Anchor Review was ready for distribution (see illustration on preceding page). Nabokov was charmed by the book and wrote Epstein to thank him. ‘Véra and I are both delighted with Lolita at Anchor. Despite your self-disparaging remarks, the cover is splendid and most enticing. Your arrangements and selection of the Lolita excerpts is above all praise. […] Many thanks to you and Doubleday!’28 On the Anchor Review’s publication, not the slightest outcry of public disapproval was raised.29 What’s more, the Review was reviewed by other reviews. Doubleday was at this time also publishing Nabokov’s Pnin, and Epstein seems to have taken advantage of its appearance to publicize Lolita. Several reviews of Pnin mentioned of the anticipated publication of the Anchor Review.30 Time magazine reviewed both publications in a single article; Howard Nemerov wrote a full review of the unabridged edition for the Kenyon Review.31 As had happened before, Nemerov emphasized the humour in Lolita: he called the book ‘the funniest tragedy since Hecuba’.32 But he also considered Lolita to be a moral book: ‘Lolita is nevertheless a moral work, if by morality in literature we are to understand the illustration of a usurious rate of exchange between our naughty desires and virtuous pains, of the process whereby pleasures become punishments, or our vices suddenly become recognizable as identical with our sufferings.’33 Nemerov, who had less than a year before written his eloquent letter in defence of Lolita to the New York Times, seems not to have been in the know on its troubled publishing history. He wrote of Lolita: ‘That it is published abroad is possible on one of two accounts: that it comes under some statute about pornography and/or obscenity; or that no American publisher, if any were asked, was willing to take the chance; but I am unable to confirm either of these conjectures.’34 He found an elegant solution to this feeling of uncertainty: ‘To be on the safe side I rowed into extraterritorial waters, where a kindly naval gentleman handed me his copy, which I read all 28
29 30 31
32 33 34
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 217 (April 22, 1957). Distribution of the volume did not commence immediately, as it was scheduled for June. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 314. Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 184. [Anon.]. (1957): ‘Pnin & Pan’, pp. 109-110; Nemerov, H. (1957): ‘The Morality of Art’, pp. 313-321. Nemerov, H. (1957): ‘The Morality of Art’, p. 314. Nemerov, H. (1957): ‘The Morality of Art’, p. 320. Nemerov, H. (1957): ‘The Morality of Art’, p. 314.
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during a sunny afternoon, taking certain notes, and handed back after.’35 For the general public, however, the situation must have been approximately the same. The excerpted version of Lolita was the only edition of the novel that was generally available in the United States. George Baker in his piece in the Saturday Review was well aware of this; he also pointed out that the Anchor Review cost only 95 cents whereas ‘bootleg copies’ of the original Paris edition of Lolita cost as much as $12.50.36 There was indeed reason to say, as R.W. Flint did in his review of the Lolita-excerpts, that ‘this first American edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel is a major literary event, worth all the attention we can spare’.37 It proved all the more important as the only full version of Lolita had by now been banned in France. § 3 L’AFFAIRE LOLITA As has been said before, the exchange between Graham Greene and John Gordon did not only lead to a positive kind of attention for Lolita, in the form of publishing interest. It also had a negative effect as it focused the attention of British government censors on Nabokov’s novel. Olympia Press copies of Lolita were seized in London libraries in the fall of 1956.38 The Home Office, moreover, which had urged the French authorities before to look into the activities of English language presses in France, again exerted pressure on the French Ministry of the Interior under the provisions of the International Agreement for the Repression of Obscene Publications.39 As a result, Maurice Girodias received a visit from an inspector of the Brigade Mondaine, the French vice squad, who wanted reading copies of a number of books from the Olympia Press catalogue. According to Girodias, the inspector said that ‘the British Home Office had forwarded renewed complaints concerning [Girodias’] activities, so serious that, this time, grave measures would have to be taken against [him].’40 Girodias knew that the Brigade Mondaine – who not only exert moral 35 36 37
38 39 40
Nemerov, H. (1957): ‘The Morality of Art’, p. 316. Baker, G. (1957): ‘Lolita: Literature or Pornography?’, p. 18. Flint, R.W. (1957): ‘Nabokov’s Love Affairs’, p. 18. More people seem to have found it an important event, as circa 50.000 copies of the Anchor Review were sold. Compare letter to Jason Epstein (October 13, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 230. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 300. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 260. Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 145.
94 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT censorship on all written material, but also controlled prostitutes and brothels – could be bribed; he made some ‘preliminary investigations’.41 According to his report, the bribe that was suggested was the repair of the policeman’s car, amounting to a ‘goodly sum’.42 Girodias decided not to pay, and to see what would happen. For some time, nothing happened. But that was to change. Before, French officials had obviously disregarded the requests from their British colleagues; now, however, in the height of the Suez crisis, in which France and Britain had agreed to an entente cordiale, they proved to be more responsive.43 On December 20, 1956, all twenty-five titles inspected by the Brigade Mondaine were banned by an official decree that prohibited the circulation and sale of the works, and was signed by the Minister of the Interior. Among these twenty-five books was Lolita.44 There being no appropriate law in France for the suppression of obscene publications, the decree reverted to a law that was designed to counteract the publication of politically subversive material – the Loi du 29 julliet 1881 sur la Liberté de la Presse – and to a second law of this nature dated May 6, 1939.45 This was not the only peculiarity of the decree: a number of books on the list had, according to Girodias, ‘been out of print for several years’.46 The decree loosed, as Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd has said, ‘a host of preposterous ironies’: Henry Miller and Frank Harris, banned on the Olympia Press list, were already available in France in French editions. J.P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man, also banned, was freely published in England. Lolita, now banned in its English edition, was in the process of being translated quite legally into French for France’s most venerable publishing house. And since Lolita could be legally brought into the
41 42 43 44 45
Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 145. Girodias, M. (1965c): ‘Introduction’, p. 24. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 301. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 131. Couturier, M. (1996): ‘The Poerotic Novel. Nabokov’s Lolita and Ada’, pt. 3; Girodias, M. (1959b): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 6; Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 145; Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 301. Compare a letter to Katharine White (February 16, 1957): Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 201. Girodias, M. (1959a): [Letter to the editor], p. 8.
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United States once it was smuggled out of France, France was proving itself more pudibund than the Anglo-Saxon countries.47 Girodias’ reaction to this host of ironies was to sue the Ministry of the Interior, a course of action that had no precedent in France.48 The French press supported him in his cause, as it felt that the government was encroaching on traditional freedoms. It singled out Lolita from the other books on the list, and by January 1957 the affair had become known as ‘l’affaire Lolita’.49 Maybe for this reason, it occurred to Girodias to ask Vladimir Nabokov for help, even if his book was only one of the twenty-five that were banned. In February, he wrote to Nabokov with an outline of his plan, which included the publication of a pamphlet in defence of Lolita, litigation on Nabokov’s behalf against the French government, and an appearance of Nabokov in Paris in defence of his work.50 Nabokov was put in a difficult position by Girodias’ plans. In a long letter to Girodias, he described his position: I am following the developments of the case with keen interest. Apart from my personal involvement I can also sympathize with your predicament and the unjustice of which you are the victim. I very much regret that I lack the funds to attack the ban independently, as you suggest. I simply do not make enough money with my books to permit such action, much as I would like to undertake it. Apart from this, I wish to give you every assistance in your campaign. You may use in your pamphlet, described in your letter of February 8, my essay written for Doubleday’s Review. I have also obtained from them the permission to use in your pamphlet Prof. Dupee’s article on Lolita. I am sending you enclosed both pieces. […] I have no objections to your using in your pamphlet parts of the French translation of Lolita provided Gallimard agrees to this. I would very much prefer 47
Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 301. The paradoxical situation was not lost on some journalists. See for example: Baker, G. (1957): ‘Lolita: Literature or Pornography?’, p. 18. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 132. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 301. As Nabokov himself observed, ‘[t]he indignation of the French press does not seem to have been reflected in the American Press’. Letter to Edmund Wilson (January 21, 1957). Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 340 (letter 285). St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 132.
96 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT if you would not stress to much my being a professor at Cornell. I am a writer primarily, and this is the important point. I do not mind be referred to as ‘university professor teaching literature in a great American university’. But I would prefer you not to call Cornell by name. I am enclosing photographs. Return them after use, if this is possible. You will also find enclosed a short curriculum vitae and a list of my published works both of which you may use at your discretion. […] Wishing you success in this struggle for a just cause.51 Even if Nabokov gave full cooperation in the publication of the planned pamphlet, Girodias still wanted him to join the legal actions against the Ministry of the Interior. Therefore, he offered to assume all costs of litigation on Nabokov’s behalf. Nabokov, who did not want to get involved but had before only given a financial motive for his refusal, now needed to come up with a new answer. He wrote to Jason Epstein for advice, and showed some of his feelings about the whole situation: Would you be willing to advise me on a rather puzzling affair. Girodias (Olympia Press) wants me to sue the French government on account of Lolita. He thinks it will help his own action if I join the fray. He rather bluntly states that matters would be helped by showing to the judges that ‘the author of Lolita is an absolutely honorable and authentic writer’ and by having ‘respectability, responsibility and good manners’ represented in the affair. I do not expect to win the ‘heavy damages’ he wants me to sue for. Neither can I lose (financially that is) since Girodias offers to assume all expenses which will be reimbursable to him only in case I win. I am rather loath exposing myself in the company of the Olympia Press. But I am also rather at a loss to find a point of view from which to consider the whole thing. I have to take into account the fact that so far Cornell has been very tolerant. The matter simply has not been discussed, and no questions have been asked. But might not matters be made worse if I start a litigation, and possibly lose it? On the other hand, I wish, of course, to give every possible support to Olympia, though personally I do not care if the ban will be lifted or not, since Gallimard is going to publish the French translation anyway.52 51
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 199-200 (February 12, 1957).
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Epstein replied by return mail, advising Nabokov against initiating a suit and urging him to remain aloof from the legal issue until it clarified itself.53 The following week, Nabokov was able to reply to Girodias, whose offer he had decided to decline: I have been advised against taking [separate] action, mainly because of the distance, and because I could not possibly come to Paris in the near future. Perhaps even more important is the consideration that my university might not like the idea. I thank you for you generous offer to finance the litigation and am sorry it is not possible for me to avail myself of it.54 Girodias again tried to convince Nabokov to reconsider his position, and by now Nabokov’s sympathy for Girodias’ case was giving way to exasperation: I have carefully read your letter of March 5, wherein you urge me to reconsider my decision in regard to lolitigation. You say you fail to understand why Cornell might not like the idea of my intervention etc. To this I would like to say that the fact that my academic standing was introduced into the controversy was very embarrassing to me. I have an established literary reputation on both sides of the ocean, and I published this book as a writer, not as a university professor. My moral defence of the book is the book itself. I do not feel under any obligation to do more. However, I went further and wrote the essay on Lolita, a copy of which is now in your hands. On the ethical plane, it is of supreme indifference to me what opinion French, British or any other courts, magistrates, or philistine readers in general, may have of my book.55 There were enough reasons for Nabokov not to join Girodias in litigation against the French Ministry of the Interior. There was the fear of loosing his position at Cornell University; there was the financial insecurity, even if Girodias offered to pay for the expenses – Nabokov had reasons to be distrustful of such an offer as there was 52 53 54 55
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 203-204 (February 20, 1957). Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 204. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 204 (March 1, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 210-211 (March 10, 1957).
98 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT already a dispute about the payment of royalties over Lolita; there was his opinion that literature could and should be its own defence; and then, of course, there was the fact that there would be no apparent way of distinguishing between Lolita and the other twenty-four banned books. ‘He wanted me to defend Lolita,’ Nabokov later commented, ‘but I did not see how my book could be treated from his list of twenty or so lewd books. I did not want to defend even Lolita.’56 Girodias and his employees naturally saw things differently. Miriam Worms, Girodias’ secretary, would hold as
Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 40.
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much as forty years later say: ‘Nabokov was a coward. Although immensely grateful when Girodias first accepted Lolita for publication, Nabokov subsequently became resentful and ashamed of being published by someone he suddenly considered to be a scandalous publisher. Girodias was far too visible for Nabokov’s taste, and he didn’t have the courage to defend his own book.’57 When it was clear that ‘lolitigation’ by Nabokov was out of the question, Girodias still pursued his other plans. Following the publication of excerpts of Lolita in Les lettres nouvelles in February 1957, the Olympia Press published its pamphlet L’affaire Lolita in early April (see illustration on facing page).58 The print-run of this pamphlet was 5.000 copies, whereas Girodias before had thought of printing only 2.000 or even only 500.59 Part of the print-run was distributed to French government officials and journalists for free, and probably as well to a number of influential American critics, whose names had been supplied by Nabokov.60 The contents of the pamphlet partly corresponded to those published in the Anchor Review. L’affaire Lolita opened with a statement from the editor, concerning the aims of the publication: Le présent ouvrage a deux buts: nous désirons d’une part montrer ce qu’est Lolita, et son auteur, Vladimir Nabokov (qui sont, avec nous mêmes, les principales victimes de [la] mesure). Nous voulons d’autre part révéler les dangers de la censure morale qui s’exerce encore de nos jours sur la chose écrite et sur l’oeuvre d’art – et dont notre affaire n’est qu’un exemple parmi tant d’autres.61 There followed a biographical note on Nabokov – compiled by Jean Desternes, but based on the information Nabokov had sent Girodias in preparation of the publication – and a list of his published works. The pamphlet then continued with French translations of the introduction by F.W. Dupee, of excerpts from the first six 57
Interview with John de St Jorre (undated). Quoted in: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 134. Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 693; Kearney, P. (1987): The Paris Olympia Press, nr. 1. Desternes, J. (1957), ed.: L’affaire Lolita, p. 4; letter to Jason Epstein (February 20, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 203-204. Girodias, M. (1961): ‘Pornologist on Olympus’, p. 145; Letter to Maurice Girodias (March 1, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 205. Desternes, J. (1957), ed.: L’affaire Lolita, p. 7.
100 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT chapters of Lolita, and of Nabokov’s essay On a Book Entitled Lolita. Moreover, it contained an article by Maurice Girodias, entitled L’affaire Lolita, stressing the ironies that had been loosed by the suppression and in general arguing against censorship; an article by Daniel Bécourt, counsel at the tribunal, entitled L’outrage aux moeurs, arguing that the Minister was acting illegally when invoking the two laws that his decree was based on, as they did not concern books; and an appendix entitled La censure internationale, which contained all sorts of documents pertaining to the prosecution of ‘obscene’ works of literature. All in all, the pamphlet was quite an impressive publication, and although it was in no way objective, it did hand its reader a set of tools to determine his own position in the debate over Lolita. It must also be said that Girodias, who was in the end only trying to defend his business interest, not only in Lolita but also in other publications for which it would have been much harder to gain public support, did so very cleverly. This campaign against censorship, this defence of art, made him look very favourable.62 But Nabokov was not to be fooled: as far as he was concerned, Maurice Girodias was, by now, a mere obstacle in the way of an American edition of Lolita. An obstacle that needed to be overcome as soon as possible. § 4 MAKING A CASE FOR LOLITA There is, of course, no way of ascertaining whether a campaign is successful or not: life is not lived in laboratories. We do not and cannot know what would have happened to Nabokov’s Lolita if other strategies had been adopted by the participants in its publishing history. We do know, however, how Nabokov felt about the efforts made on behalf of his novel by Jason Epstein. We have already seen that he was ‘delighted’ with the Lolita-issue of the Anchor Review. 63 Maybe even more important is that he would later testify of the long-term effects of the Anchor-campaign: Jason Epstein, by championing the publication of a considerable portion of Lolita in the summer issue, 1957, of Anchor Review (Doubleday, New York), edited by Melvin Lasky, and Professor F.W. Dupee by prefacing that portion
See for example: Cranston, M. (1957): ‘Obscenity in the Eyes of Some Beholders. Contradictions in the Case of Lolita’, p. 5. Letter to Jason Epstein (April 22, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 217.
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with a brilliant article, helped to make the idea of an American edition acceptable.64 It had been Epstein’s object to have the country get used to Lolita little by little, and this was, more or less, what happened. Had the publication of Lolita in America been inconceivable a few years earlier, by April 1957 several firms were in the market for the American rights, and they were serious. At least some of the praise for this must go to Epstein’s well-coordinated campaign. But there were other reasons as well for the fact that an American edition of Nabokov’s novel had become conceivable. The most important of these was the gradual change in the country’s response to works of an ‘immoral’ nature. Edward de Grazia describes the shift thus: After World War II […] American lower court judges had shown themselves to be increasingly loath to condemn works accused of being sexually immoral – that is, works that expressed immoral ideas, as distinguished from works exciting feelings of lust – and increasingly willing to give weight to the literary merits of works accused of being obscene. […] But the influence of McCarthyism continued to be felt, and a wave of prosecutions was directed against publishers and distributors of […] meritorious books […]. All of these new prosecutions resulted in dismissals of the charges or in acquittals of the defendants by trial or appellate courts.65 The 1957 Supreme Court decision in Roth v. United States proved to be a landmark in this development.66 In his ruling Justice Brennan argued that ‘obscenity’ was not a constitutionally protected expression, but that literary and artistic discussions of sex ‘having even the slightest social importance’ ought to be protected by the First Amendment.67 As De Grazia notes: ‘Eventually, after Roth, all that would be needed to free a challenged book, magazine, or movie (in a case liable to be reviewed by the
64 65 66
Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 40. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, pp. 250-251. Grazia, E. de (1969), ed.: Censorship Landmarks, p. xxi; Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, pp. 250n, 252, 263-264. The court ruling is reprinted in: Grazia, E. de (1969), ed.: Censorship Landmarks, pp. 290300.
102 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Supreme Court) was to persuade the court considering the issue that the work in question was a sort or artful “discussion” of sex – recognized by Brennan to be “a great and mysterious motive force in human life” and “a subject of absorbing interest through the ages.”’68 It was after Roth, to quote De Grazia one last time, ‘that the practically fearless publishing of sexually explicit literary works began in the United States.’69 The strategic publication of portions of Lolita prepared by Epstein no doubt helped to raise public support for the cause of Nabokov’s novel. At least equally important, however, was the judicial climate-change that occurred at the time of Epstein’s campaign. But whatever the cause, after the publication of the summer-issue of the Anchor Review it seemed that the American market was getting ready for Lolita. In France, Maurice Girodias was undoubtedly successful in raising public support for his cause as well. The publication of his pamphlet was a strategic master move: in one go he managed to focus attention on a single title out of a list of twentyfive and to appear to be fighting for the public welfare instead of his personal interest.70 The results of his move were not immediate, however, and as long as the Olympia Press was in trouble, it would prove very hard to achieve any kind of progress for Lolita in the United States.
68 69 70
Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 264. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 252. Compare: Couturier, M. (1996): ‘The Poerotic Novel. Nabokov’s Lolita and Ada’, pt. 3: ‘Girodias was officially fighting against French censorship and in favor of the author and his moral right, but in fact he was using this trial to protect his commercial rights upon the book and the twenty-four orthers which had been suppressed at the same time’.
6 LOLITA IN AMERICA April 22, 1957 up to February 11, 1958
§ 1 INTRODUCTION The idea of an American edition of Nabokov’s novel being conceivable in 1957, and its original publisher being in trouble with the law in Paris, the time seemed right to find an American publisher for Lolita. As we have seen, the exchange between John Gordon and Graham Greene had already prompted some publishers to enquire after the rights. Nabokov at that time had felt, early in 1956, that it was not the right moment to publish Lolita in the United States. Now he felt differently: it was time to do business. The American market had been somewhat prepared for his novel, and he saw his relation with the Olympia Press deteriorating on an almost daily basis. There was, moreover, a third reason for this change of mind. Nabokov feared that the copyright on Lolita might expire if he did not act swiftly. As early as November 1956, he had explained the situation quite clearly to Maurice Girodias: You […] say that you intend to advertise and distribute the book in the U.S. I most earnestly entreat you to abstain from any such action. Please, read carefully the reason which compels me to do so. The book is protected by an ‘Ad Interim’ copyright only. This affords protection for five years, provided not more than 1.500 copies of the book are entered into the U.S. Should you import more than this number of copies, the protection becomes void, both you and the author lose all rights in the book, and anyone can publish and sell it at will. As I have tried to explain before, this situation stems from the fact that I am an American citizen residing in the U.S. A book by such an author, if published abroad, can only be protected by a temporary (5-year) copyright, and not more than 1.500 copies of such an edition
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104 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT can be imported at any time. A regular 28-year copyright can be substituted for the temporary one, if, within 5 years from date of original publication, a new edition is manufactured and published inside the U.S. This edition must be manufactured by American labor. This law is an outgrowth of the elaborate legislation protecting American labor against foreign competition. It is a rigid law and there is nothing that can be done about it. The five-year copyright is given only as a temporary protection between original publication and the bringing out of an American edition. The 1.500 copies limit can not be extended. If we exceed it, we lose all protection.1 With two meters were running – one for time elapsed and one for the number of copies imported – Nabokov needed to find Lolita an American publisher to protect his copyright. This chapter is devoted to Nabokov’s attempts to secure publication of Lolita in the United States. It covers the period from early 1957, when publishers were starting to show serious interest, up to February 11, 1958, when Nabokov signed a contract with G.P. Putnam’s Sons. First we go into the copyright issues surrounding Lolita (§ 2). After that, we focus on the negotiations between Nabokov and his prospective publishers (§ 3). Finally, we will try to find an answer to the question why it was G.P. Putnam’s who finally came away with the plum (§ 4). § 2 COPYRIGHT LAW When Lolita was published by the Olympia Press in Paris on September 15, 1955, Vladimir Nabokov was well aware that he needed to protect his copyright in the United States.2 To do so, he needed to register the book in Washington, and needed the exact date of publication to insert in the application forms. He received the first copy of his book only on October 8, and it was only on November 28 that Girodias supplied him with the date of publication.3 Registering for copyright, Nabokov was told that the formula ‘Copyright 1955 by V. Nabokov and the Olympia Press’, which 1 2
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 193-194 (November 15, 1956). It was Edmund Wilson who had advised him to do so, on July 20, 1955. He warned Nabokov against a number of American firms who made it their business to pirate foreign editions, because he thought Lolita would be just the sort of book they would be interested in. See: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 269. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 39.
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was printed in the book, might cause trouble at re-publication in the United States. He was therefore advised to get an ‘assignment or quit-claim’ from Girodias. It was only on April 20, 1956, that Nabokov received what he had asked for and was able to register his book.4 The copyright that now protected Lolita against unauthorized reprints in the United States was an ad interim copyright only, intended for works in English by American authors that had been published abroad. This meant, as Nabokov so vehemently tried to impress upon Girodias, that the book was only protected as long as no more that 1.500 copies of the book were imported into the United States, and for a maximum period of five years. When more than 1.500 copies of the book could be shown to have been imported into the U.S., or if the book had been published more than five years ago and had not been properly published by an American firm in the meantime, the author and his original publisher could no longer exercise their rights as far as the American market was concerned.5 Girodias seems not to have been impressed by the restrictions and readily fulfilled orders from the United States. Nabokov, as he himself put it, kept ‘an eagle eye on [Girodias’s] lighthearted transatlantics’.6 It is very likely that the provisions of the ad interim copyright have been broken, and Nabokov knew as much. Walter Minton, Lolita’s future publisher, would later recall: ‘He said that he knew that at least three or four thousand copies of the Olympia Lolita had been sold in the United States […]. I said to him: “Don’t ever open your mouth about that to anybody because if it ever became established your copyright wouldn’t be worth beans.”’7
Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 39; Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 292. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 193-194; Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 40. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’., p. 40. Nabokov was also worried about Girodias’ plans to advertise his edition in the U.S. He wrote Girodias (December 14, 1956): ‘If you intend to make any publicity, would you let me see and approve your copy, as well as the list of publications in which you plan to advertise? […] Everybody recommends caution in selecting the right kind of publicity for you campaign.’ Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 196-197. Interview with John de St Jorre (undated). Quoted in: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 144; compare p. 153. Schiff holds that the number Nabokov suspected had been imported was ‘four or five thousand’. See: Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 267n.
106 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT The situation being as it was, there were basically two scenarios. The first was for Girodias to start his own publishing firm in America; the second was for Nabokov and Girodias to licence an existing firm to publish the American edition of Lolita. The first scenario was less unlikely than it might seem now. It would be only eight years later that Girodias created an American branch of the Olympia Press in New York.8 The creation of some sort of imprint for the publication of Lolita in the United States seems actually to have been considered by Girodias in 1957. But he was warned by Nabokov that it would cause all sorts of problems: You know as well as I do that publishing Lolita in the U.S. under your own imprint would mean asking for trouble. Nor can you fail to realize that a secondrate publisher would be no use since he would not be able to defend the book. Some ten years ago Doubleday spent more than $60.000 on the defence of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson. Costs have gone up since then and are beyond the means of a second-rate publisher. Since you know all this, and also know that we have here all sorts of Watch and Ward Societies, Catholic Legions of Decency, etc., and that, moreover, every post master in the country can start censorship trouble, I feel sure that you do not seriously contemplate the course of action you suggest in you letter.9 Nothing came of the plan, and we can imagine several reasons why. First, in 1957, even when it was quite clear to those involved that an American edition of Lolita was likely to be a success from the commercial point of view, it must have been hard to imagine the amounts of money that it would eventually yield. Therefore, setting up a foreign enterprise with the sole purpose of publishing Lolita in the United States must have appeared a considerable risk even to the shrewd businessman that Maurice Girodias was. More important maybe is the fact that by 1957 the relationship between Girodias and Nabokov had already begun to sour. The main reason for this was Girodias’ failure to produce the statements that were due on June 30 and December 31 of each year.10 Nabokov was rightfully irritated by this:
8 9 10
See: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, chapter 13. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 218 (May 14, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 37.
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I began to curse my association with Olympia Press not in 1957, […] but as early as 1955, that is, the very first year of my dealings with Mr. Girodias. From the very start I was confronted with the peculiar aura surrounding his business transactions with me, an aura of negligence, evasiveness, procrastination, and falsity.11 The first half of Nabokov’s advance had been paid a month late, the second half ‘only on December 27, under strong pressure from my agent, and more than three months after that […] payment was due’.12 It took Girodias until March 28, 1957, more than a year and a half after Lolita’s date of publication, to produce his first statement.13 When he finally did, it did not cover the entire period for which it was due. After that, [t]he nuisance of non-statements did not fail to resume. By the end of August, 1957, I had received none for the first semester of that year which was due on July 31. On September 2, Mr. Girodias asked for a postponement of two months, and I agreed to wait till September 30, but nothing happened, and having had enough of that nonsense I advised him (October 5) that all rights had reverted to me. He promptly paid up (44,220 ‘anciens’ francs), and I relented.14 There seems to have been little reason for Nabokov to assist Girodias in setting up a company for Lolita. Girodias, for that matter, spent his profits from Lolita – the only book that earned him ‘a lot of money’ – on a nightclub that he had initially wanted to name ‘Chez Lolita’, but for which he had to settle with the less appealing name of ‘La Grande Séverine’.15 The first scenario being out of the question, only the second remained: Nabokov and Girodias would have to find an American publisher they could licence to produce an American edition of Lolita. There were several parties interested in obtaining such a licence, but disagreements between Nabokov and Girodias continuously created
11 12 13
Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 38. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 39. Compare letter to Girodias (December 14, 1956). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 197. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, pp. 39-40. Girodias, M. (1987): ‘Preface’, p. 8; for the nightclub see: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, chapter 12.
108 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT obstacles. The problem was, that the contract Nabokov had signed granted Girodias world rights to the English edition of Lolita, but not the right to licence a third party. So while the rights were essentially Girodias’s, he had to obtain permission from Nabokov to sell them. As Nabokov wrote to Girodias in March 1957: [M]y agreement with Olympia does not establish your right to license an American edition […]. Please understand me correctly. I quote from a legal opinion obtained on this subject: ‘It is clear in the contract that Olympia has the exclusive right to sell its version in the English language throughout the world. At the same time, the contract does not specify that Olympia has the right to license an American edition. According to the agreement, it can sell only its own edition here.’16 The agreement between Nabokov and the Olympia Press would therefore have to be rephrased. It was to be this necessary rephrasing, and the ongoing struggle between Nabokov and Girodias over the division of the profits ensuing from the licensing agreement, that was to thwart the negotiations with American publishers for over a year. § 3 FINDING AN AMERICAN PUBLISHER Publishing interest in Lolita had, as has been mentioned before, emerged as early as March 1956, when Reynal, Knopf, Harper’s and Indiana University Press had expressed their interest.17 They had been applauded for their courage by Véra Nabokov; but she had also pointed out that there had been reasons to bring out Lolita in Paris in the first place.18 Now, in the spring of 1957, things looked rather different, and the Nabokovs were willing to pursue an American edition of the novel. They had been urged by Jason Epstein to seek out a long-established publishing house; several publishers were considering bidding for the rights.19 Two out of the three previously formulated reasons for not doing so remained, however. It would be no problem to have Nabokov publish his novel under his own name –he had already done so – but
16 17 18 19
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 207-208 (March 5, 1957). Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 296. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 213. Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 206.
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there still was no guarantee that Lolita would not be prosecuted for it’s controversial subject-matter, and Nabokov’s style was still not easy to come to terms with. The Dial Press opted out of bidding out of fear for prosecution, and did not even approach Nabokov. James Silberman, editor of the firm, would later recall: ‘It was one of those books people brought home in the bottom of their suitcases. I was absolutely enchanted by it, but the lawyer said it couldn’t be published in America ever.’20 Michael Bessie, editor for Harper’s, decided not to bid for artistic reasons. ‘I was beguiled for the first hundred pages, then less so, and thought it became repetitive and obvious,’ he was later to say. ‘When I read it again six months later, I couldn’t believe that had been my response.’21 The situation at Random House seems to have been a bit more complicated. The novelist William Styron read a copy of the Olympia Press edition, brought back from Paris by the theatrical producer Lewis Allen in 1957. As he would later recall: ‘Allen and I were so smitten by Humbert Humbert’s sublime obsession that we toyed with the idea of trying to persuade Nabokov to let us publish Lolita in a private edition, and to hell with the obscenity laws. But financial problems sent me instead to Bennett Cerf, who had recently become my publisher.’22 Bennett Cerf, co-owner of Random House, was just as enthusiastic: he thought Lolita a masterpiece. Random House’s new editor-in-chief Hiram Haydn disagreed, however. He was outraged after reading the novel. According to Styron, ‘Hiram rose from his desk, his face actually blue with rage. “That novel will be published over my dead body!” he roared.’23 Haydn himself has testified of his dislike as well: From the beginning the book affected me strongly. I found the author’s playful tone epicene, effete, sick. I went on reading, revolted to the point of nausea. And then, about halfway through, I pounced like a cat upon what I now see as a rationalization of my emotional reaction – something that would base it on a responsible, professional judgment. As the tour of motels began, Nabokov and Humbert Humbert merged into a single entity. […] It was a short step to convincing myself that
20 21 22 23
James, C. (1984): ‘Publishers’ Confessions – Rejections I Regret’, p. 35. James, C. (1984): ‘Publishers’ Confessions – Rejections I Regret’, p. 35. Styron, W. (1995): ‘The Book on Lolita’, p. 33. Styron, W. (1995): ‘The Book on Lolita’, p. 33.
110 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Nabokov was a cruel and sadistic person who could maintain his self-imposed detachment only so far.24 Haydn proves to be an interesting example of what De Grazia has dubbed ‘the woman-factor’, as he reminded Styron in his fury of the fact that he had a daughter the same age as Lolita. ‘He [said] that I, Bill Styron, knew full well that he, Hiram Haydn, had a daughter the age of the victim of Humbert Humbert’s disgusting lust, and that when my own daughter was that age perhaps I’d understand the hatred a man might feel for Lolita.’25 Haydn forcefully held on to his opinion and threatened to quit if he was overruled. Cerf, who had great respect for his new editor-in-chief, decided against publication.26 Then, in early March, Nabokov received a visit from Prince Ivan Obolensky, coowner of the newly founded publishing house McDowell, Obolensky. McDowell, Obolensky was ready to publish Lolita in the spring of 1958 and was willing to stake everything on its success.27 Nabokov was aware of Epstein’s warning to seek a longestablished firm, but he was tempted by the offer made by Obolensky anyway. He wrote Epstein to see if Doubleday would not be willing to make an offer as well: We […] received the visit of Mr. Ivan Obolensky from New York. […] His firm is tremendously eager to acquire the American rights of Lolita at once and to publish it in the course of this spring. Your letter has, of course, cast a chill shadow on my reaction to this plan. On the other hand, I am sure you understand my situation. I only hope they will not make it irresistibly attractive – but they seem to be planning just that. My experience with Harper[’]s has been disappointing, I am not sure I would consider any offer coming from them. As to Random, I have never had any dealings with them. What I would like best of all, would be to get an offer from
Haydn, H. (1974): Words & Faces, p. 264. Styron, W. (1995): ‘The Book on Lolita’, p. 33. According to Haydn another of his daughters, who had studied under Nabokov at Cornell, rebuked him sternly: ‘[M]y picture of him was ridiculous; he was a great teacher and a wonderfully witty and talented man.’ See: Haydn, H. (1974): Words & Faces, p. 264. Styron, W. (1995): ‘The Book on Lolita’, p. 33. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 305.
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you. Two or three weeks will certainly elapse before anything is signed and settled, but Lolita is young, and I am old.28 The same day, however, he wrote to Girodias to introduce McDowell, Obolensky. The copyright-concerns were never far from his mind: The possibility has arisen that a new publisher in New York may want to bring out Lolita. As you remember, several months ago there had been a considerable interest on the part of several American publishers, none of whom came through with an offer. […] I now hear from another firm who wants to make a definite offer and bring out the book without delay. This is a newly created firm, and they seem willing to undertake the risk of litigation, hoping that Lolita could help them to make a name for themselves. I suggest therefore that you and I attend now to the rewording of our agreement, to avoid delays when their offer arrives. […] I suggest that we amend our agreement in such a way as to make possible the sale of American rights to an American publisher. Would you send me a new contract or would you like me to send you a draft of such a contract? It would have to comprise a clause authorizing me do dispose of the American rights to our mutual advantage, and stipulating your terms is case I succeed in doing so. Or else could you say that you would be willing to give up your American rights in the book for a consideration, and I suggest that you quote a lump sum and also an alternate arrangement. Please bear in mind that 1) this is not an old, opulent firm and 2) that we have to create conditions under which an American edition can be brought out, since otherwise you could only bring in 1.500 copies of the original edition – after which, by September 1960, the copyright will expire, and the loss will be yours as well as mine.29 Nabokov had reasons of his own to consider the offer from McDowell, Obolensky. As he confessed to Epstein, these were mostly financial: ‘I cannot possibly live on my Cornell salary only. Now comes this unexpected offer from Obolensky. As I 28 29
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 206 (March 5, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 207-208 (March 5, 1957).
112 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT intimated to you over the telephone, my reaction to it is not a matter of principle but a matter of money. I am not particularly impressed by his firm but I cannot afford to miss the opportunity of not missing the opportunity to sell the book.’30 We must remember, however, that this was still March 1957. The campaign prepared by Epstein to have Lolita accepted by the general public had still to reach its peak event – the publication of extracts of the novel in Doubleday’s Anchor Review. From various sides, Nabokov was persuaded to ‘realize the difficulties and dangers […] if Lolita were to come out without due preparation.’31 That is why at the end of the month, he wrote to Obolensky to decline his offer: I have given much thought to the plans you suggested for Lolita and have consulted several friends whose opinion I value. I have also been in touch with my publisher in Paris. The unanimous opinion is that this is not the right moment to publish Lolita in the United States. I am terribly sorry to disappoint you. Here are a few reasons against publication: 1. Everybody seems convinced that Lolita would be banned if it were to be published now, without further preparation. Even if you are willing to assume the costs of a legal fight which may run into 50.000 or 60.000 dollars, you may eventually lose the case, and then Lolita would be lost irretrievably. 2. Should the book get into trouble, the N[.]Y. Times would at once refuse to advertise it, and every important publication in the country would follow suit. Nor would the Post Office let you announce the book directly through the mails if the legal action were begun under a federal statute. 3. When you suggested that you would get in touch with a reprint house it became clear to me that you did not realize all the implications of this case. Could you visualize Lolita as a little paperback being offered for sale on the newsstands? Let me repeat that I am terribly sorry that this will be a disappointment to you. But I have become convinced that the publication has to be put off at least until I see how the Anchor Review fares, how the Paris litigation is settled, and what decision the Supreme Court takes in some similar cases now before it.32 30 31
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 210 (March 10, 1957). Letter to Jason Epstein (March 10, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 209. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 211-212 (March 23, 1957).
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For a few months, there seemed to be no progress in the situation. Nabokov had learned not to be too impatient, however, as is evident from his reply to a letter in which Girodias had suggested to bring out his own reprint of Lolita in the United States. He wrote: I agree that our interests are identical insofar as we both want the book to be published here, and to sell. While it remains true that no first-rate publisher will agree, as a matter of policy, to publish jointly with you, or with anyone else, yet [sic] there are other ways in which your claims could be satisfied, provided those claims are just and reasonable. The bigger the American publisher, the better your chances of reaching an agreement satisfactory to you. I can only repeat that the course to follow is first of all to wait for Doubleday to make up their mind. […] Whoever publishes Lolita here will have to agree to defend it, at his own expense, and to carry this defense through the courts as far as the Supreme Court, if necessary. I am sure you are getting a lot of offers right now from all kinds of mediocre firms. So am I. This is not what we need.33 After the Anchor Review appeared, Nabokov was waiting for an offer from Doubleday. Waiting for Doubleday proved to be quite an exercise in patience, however. This was not surprising, as their lawyers advised against publication. They regarded the publication of Lolita too great a risk as Doubleday had already been convicted before, for publishing Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County. Ken McCormick recalled later: [W]e wanted our lawyers to make sure it was all right, and they came back and they said: ‘Look, normally you could publish it without any fuss. But if you have been found guilty of bank robbery and you are on a corner and you don’t have a gun, but there’s a bank there and the bank is being robbed: you would be the first person to be arrested.34
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 218-219 (May 14, 1957). Interview with Edward de Grazia (October 12, 1984). Quoted in: Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 248.
114 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT In an ironic way, Wilson had not only devoted himself to having Lolita published in America, but had also obstructed the way for publication. Because in spite of all the enthusiasm the editors at Doubleday felt for Lolita, it was decided that the novel would be turned down. Again McCormick: ‘And the boss said, “Look, this is nuts and you know it. We can’t defy the lawyer when he guarantees we’ll get into trouble.” So very sadly we said no.’35 It is unclear whether this was entirely so. For by June, Epstein seems to have come through with an offer for a long-term option on Lolita. At this point in time, the relationship between Nabokov and Girodias had worsened, and Nabokov advised Epstein to transmit his offer to Girodias himself, as Girodias would certainly not accept the offer if it was transmitted by Nabokov. Nabokov had his doubts anyhow: What you offer, in effect, is an unlimited option as against an advance of $1.500 to be divided between Olympia and me. I am very much interested in having Doubleday publish Lolita. Moreover, I would be glad to know that Olympia is tied by your contract and cannot publish the book here in a way that would be undesirable to me. But even I would like to put on record that an advance of $1.500 does not seem adequate. There would be no point in discussing the advance before having Mr. G.’s reaction to the whole plan, however. […] I would very much prefer, of course, if you could buy the American rights from G. – whether outright or on the basis of some kind of royalty, even if this meant some kind of reduction in my 10% rate in an agreement I could then sign with you. But if this cannot be done, by all means write to him, and then we shall see what he really expects from a deal. I do hope you will agree to tackle Girodias yourself.36 Whatever the precautions and warnings, Girodias was not sympathetic to Doubleday’s offer. He seems to have refused it outright.37 Nabokov wrote him to defend the publisher he most wanted to publish his novel:
Ken McCormick in an interview with Edward de Grazia (October 12, 1984). Quoted in: Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 249. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 220 (June 10, 1957). As is suggested by a letter from Nabokov (August 3, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 222. Boyd holds that Doubleday was ‘frightened off by Girodias’ greed’. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 316; compare p. 356.
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I do not think you are quite right about Doubleday and about the whole question of option and delay of publication. The situation here is extremely delicate. […] I assure you that in spite of it Doubleday’s interest is very real. The reason they want an option is to be prepared to publish the moment a favorable break in the situation allows it. Of this I am certain. I agree with you that some delay should be established. I also believe that a more substantial advance than the one they offered should be asked. […] Incidentally, I think you are wrong in your assumption that Doubleday would not be prepared to defend the book. It was mentioned (and I am convinced that a clause to this purpose should be included in any agreement with either an American or a British publisher) that they would have to assume an obligation to defend the book before the Courts, carrying the proceedings, if need be, all the way to the Supreme Court. An important consideration is, too, that Doubleday think of me as one of ‘their’ authors. They have acquired two more books from me, and will do more than any other publisher to ‘push’ Lolita, which would be as much to your advantage as to mine (or theirs). For all these reasons I am sorry that you so resolutely rejected their offer.38 Girodias, however, did not need Nabokov’s consent to decline Doubleday’s offer, just as Nabokov did not need Girodias’ consent to decline offers he received. But if either of them ever wished to accept an offer, he would have to reach an agreement with the other. This was perfectly clear to Nabokov, who tried to impress upon Girodias that they were in this together: Please, do keep in touch with me. I am positive that Lolita is the best thing I have written so far; I shall be always grateful to you for having published it. It would be an awful shame if some false move prevented you and me from enjoying some profit from it.39 With Doubleday out of the picture, Nabokov was suddenly lacking in serious candidates. He decided to approach Prince Obolensky again:
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 222-223 (August 3, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 223 (August 3, 1957).
116 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT If you are still interested in Lolita would you care to get in touch with Olympia? Here is the situation. Olympia has the English-language rights (no licensing right, so I would have to approve the final arrangements). Mr. M. Girodias, Olympia’s owner, is a difficult person. I suggest (provided, of course, that you still want to publish the book in this country) that you make it clear to him from the start that you are prepared to defend the book in the American Courts, the Supreme Court included, and that you would publish immediately. I would be delighted if you could come to terms with the man.40 Before the end of the month, two other candidates joined the fray. One of them was the firm of Simon & Schuster. The other was G.P. Putnam’s Sons.41 Nabokov received a letter from Walter Minton, President: Being a rather backward example of that rather backward species, the American publisher, it was only recently that I began to hear about a book called Lolita. Since then we have heard much and read much. Briefly, I am wondering if the book is available for publication and if, as I have heard, the Olympia Press controls all English rights, we have your blessing to negotiate with them.42 Having missed out on all the activity surrounding Lolita, Minton was ready to catch up. He had first heard of Nabokov’s novel, as Time would later describe, from ‘a superannuated (27) nymphet named Rosemary Ridgewell, a tall (5 ft. 8 in.), slitheryblithery onetime Latin Quarter showgirl who wears a gold swizzle stick around her neck and a bubbly smile on her face.’43 Ridgewell had discovered Lolita when she read the excerpts in the Anchor Review and had persuaded Minton to read it. As Minton 40 41 42 43
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 223-224 (August 7, 1957). Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 316. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 224-225 (August 30, 1957). [Anon.] (1958b): ‘The Lolita Case’, p. 102. The sneers in this account can be explained by the fact that not only Ridgewell was having an affair with Minton, but the author of the article in Time as well. To make matters worse, Mrs. Minton only learned from her husband’s affairs through the article in Time. Ridgewell would later also get to know Girodias ‘in the biblical sense’ (De St Jorre), and seems even to have been ‘gunning’ for Nabokov (Schiff). See: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 356; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), pp. 236-237n; St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 144; Girodias, M. (1990): Une journée sur la terre, vol. II, pp. 429ff.
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would later recall: ‘A man called Henry Exstein, who ran a remainder business, first recommended Lolita to me. He gave me one of the green Olympia Press copies, but I never did anything about it. A couple of weeks later, a young lady, Rosemary Ridgewell, a showgirl at the Copacabana in New York, sat me down one evening and said: “You’ve got to read this.” I read it in her apartment that night in about three hours and knew that it was something extraordinary.’44 As far as Nabokov was concerned, Putnam’s was more than welcome to negotiate with the Olympia Press. Nabokov wrote Minton to tell him so and warned him: ‘Mr. Girodias, the owner of Olympia, is a rather difficult person. I shall be delighted if you come to terms with him.’45 On September 14, 1957, Ivan Obolensky of McDowell, Obolensky flew to Paris to negotiate with Girodias. He offered the princely royalty of 20%. Girodias was willing to agree to this if he were to get 12.5% and Nabokov was willing to settle for 7.5%. He added that he considered his claim justified and fair. But this was hard to agree with, of course. Nabokov’s agent, Doussia Ergaz, said she was ‘outrée de ces pretensions’. Nabokov, infuriated over Girodias’ behaviour, wrote to Paris to cancel his agreement with the Olympia Press: In view of your failure to submit your statement and to pay me as required by paragraph 9 of our Agreement, I regret to inform you that I am now invoking paragraph 8 of said agreement and am exercising my right to declare the Agreement between us null and void, and that all the rights granted under the Agreement revert to me.46
Interview with John de St Jorre (undated). Quoted in: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, pp. 143-144. In the light of this recollection it seems strange that John Sutro holds that it was a meeting from the John Gordon Society that drew Minton’s attention to Lolita. See: Sutro, J. (1984): ‘Greene’s Jests’, p. 19. Greene’s biographer, Norman Sherry, even holds that Minton was present at the second meeting of the Society and ‘[I]mmediately […] recognized that he must take up the challenge and publish Lolita.’ Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 44. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 225 (September 7, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 228 (October 5, 1957).
118 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT It took Girodias only a couple of days to respond. On October 9, he notified Nabokov that the royalties (44.220 francs) had been paid to his agent; hereupon Nabokov relented.47 In the meantime, Simon & Schuster had had some time to consider their strategy. Maria Leiper, editor at the firm, later recalled that she had never written a stronger report. ‘I said it was brilliant, a real work of art, that we couldn’t turn it down. But Jack Goodman, the head of the editorial department, said “It sounds repulsive.” Dick Simon and Max Schuster didn’t like the idea either, and that was that. It broke my heart.’48 Then, some way or other, Obolensky managed to satisfy both Girodias and Nabokov, and it seemed as if a deal was about to be struck. Nabokov wrote to Epstein: Obolensky offered a flat rate of 15% and found some way to satisfy Girodias besides as to his outlay. You know that I would have preferred you to publish Lolita, but your negotiations with Girodias were definitely suspended. Simon and Schuster notified me that their lawyers had advised them against publishing Lolita. Putnam[’]s never came through with the offer they had announced they would make. The only standing offer was that of Obolensky, and he managed, moreover, to subdue Girodias. So there was no choice but [to] accept.49 Nabokov sent Obolensky all the material pertaining to his relationship with the Olympia Press and to the attempts he had made to annul his contract, in order to have it analyzed by a lawyer. By now, he felt that time was running out, not only when it came to the protection of his copyright, but also regarding the marketability of his novel: ‘All this is an awful nuisance. […] I am told on all sides that time is of the essence and that if much more time is allowed to pass before Lolita is published, the interest of “the reading public” may wane.’ Time-pressure did not prevent him from attempting to obtain better conditions in his deal, however: ‘And finally: the situation being what it is I did not raise any questions which would arise if publication of Lolita
Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 228; Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 40. James, C. (1984): ‘Publishers’ Confessions – Rejections I Regret’, p. 35. See also an interview with Maria Leiper by Stacy Schiff (February 8, 1998). Quoted in: Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 217. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 230 (October 13, 1957).
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became imminent. I would like nevertheless to mention that while I consider the royalty you offer as very generous, I would want a rather more substantial advance than the one you offered to Mr. G. I prefer to say this now since I would not want you to undertake any steps in behalf of Lolita under the impression that we were agreed on this point.’50 Girodias at this point threatened to revert to his old plan of producing his own American reprint of Lolita, and Nabokov urged Obolensky: ‘Could you speed up the proceedings so as to obtain a clear answer from your Paris lawyer within a week? I am afraid that unless I can write Girodias a determined and final letter soon, he may take the initiative and involve me into difficulties. I wish to avoid a legal fight at all cost.’51 Between November 20 and November 29 there was a meeting between the two parties that were after the rights to Lolita: McDowell, Obolensky and G.P. Putnam’s Sons.52 On the 29th, Nabokov sent letters to both parties. In his letter to Obolensky he stressed the need to clarify his legal position with regard to the Olympia Press: I would like to avoid any kind of misunderstanding, so let me remind you that, as has already been mentioned, I cannot enter into an agreement before a clarification of my relations with Olympia has been achieved. I also mention to you that, much as I would desire a break with Mr. Girodias, I would not undertake litigation, since this would involve a loss of time (a most essential consideration) and, probably, considerable expenses. It is important for me to establish my legal position with regard to Olympia in the shortest possible time and I would be most interested to know the conclusions to which your legal adviser has arrived.53 In his letter to Minton he stressed another aspect of the matter: not the administrative mess he by now found himself in, but the need to strike a deal:
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 231-232 (November 5, 1957). It is curious that Nabokov would only a couple of weeks later say of himself: ‘I am no businessman.’ Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 235 (November 20, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 235 (November 20, 1957). Letter to Ivan Obolensky (November 29, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 19401977, p. 236. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 236 (November 29, 1957).
120 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT I would like to repeat that, although McDowell, Obolensky did make an offer for Lolita, no agreement has been signed, nor am I under any definite commitment, either to them or to any other publisher. I would welcome a formal offer from you. My wife forgot to mention one important consideration. Can I assume that if you publish Lolita you would be prepared to defend it in the Courts, going all the way to the Supreme Court, should such a necessity arise; and that this could be made part of the agreement?54 The respective answers seem to have determined the eventual outcome of the negotiations. At McDowell, Obolensky the long-awaited legal advice arrived: their lawyers were of the opinion ‘that an arbitration would probably be necessary to make the abrogation of the agreement with Olympia “stick”, and that such litigation might or might not be successful.’55 Ivan Obolensky was persuaded by his partner McDowell that they should not publish Lolita.56 Walter Minton, on the other hand, wrote Nabokov on December 3, 1957: I rather doubt that any publisher will make the blanket guarantee you suggest, or at least make it in terms which are actually effective. […] I can therefore only say to your request that we will do our best to make Lolita the success it deserves and will do everything practical to prevent its being prosecuted.57 Even if Minton was not willing to make any guarantees, this was the kind of answer that Nabokov was waiting for. Before the end of the month, he sent Minton the file on his contract with the Olympia Press. He insisted that he wished above all to avoid litigation, even though he had again received a statement from Girodias he disagreed with. Moreover, he advised Minton that Barney Rosset of Grove Press had been invited by Girodias to make him, Nabokov, an offer. He quoted Rosset's offer literally:
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 236-237 (November 29, 1957). Letter to Walter Minton (December 23, 1957). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 19401977, p. 237. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 40. Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 237.
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‘Recently I received a letter from Maurice Girodias asking me if I would be interested in publishing Lolita in this country. I certainly am interested and wrote back to him to that effect, suggesting that we make an arrangement whereby I would pay you a royalty of 7 1/2 per cent on the first 10.000 copies and 10 per cent thereafter. A separate royalty of 5 per cent would go to M. Girodias.’58 This was enough information for Minton to give an outline of possible approaches in early January, 1958. He suggested three courses of action: either Nabokov was to file suit to abrogate the contract in Paris; or he was to sign a contract with an American publisher providing for division of the royalty with Girodias; or he was to sign a contract with an American publisher and ignore the dispute with Girodias.59 Minton also increased his initial offer. He had first offered a royalty of 15% to be shared between Nabokov and Girodias. Nabokov, however, wanted 10% for himself and was not willing to agree to any deal that gave Girodias an equal share. Girodias was not willing to accept a royalty of 5%. Now Minton offered a royalty of 17.5%, so Girodias could have 7.5%.60 Nabokov was pleased with the offer. He wrote Minton: ‘Your offer of the additional royalty for me is a considerable inducement. I still believe that Mr. Girodias should (and will) back down somewhat. I regret very much that you showed him all your cards, and all my cards, when you first approached him. One of these days I am going to write him again and make him a take-it-or-leave-it offer. But I think we should first know the verdict in his court suit.’61 This verdict had been scheduled for January 7, but by January 12, there had still been no ruling. Two days later Véra Nabokov wrote Minton a response along the same lines as her husband had: The three solutions you suggest seem to sum up the situation, except that my husband is convinced that Mr. G. will accept a lesser royalty. He was in a most conciliatory mood in November, changed his attitude entirely when Putnam[’]s entered the picture, and, if left alone for a fortnight or so, will probably come back to his senses.62 58 59 60 61 62
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 237-238 (December 23, 1957). Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 246. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, pp. 144-145. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 244 (January 12, 1958). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 245 (January 14, 1958).
122 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT She added that she had still not heard the court verdict, and she suggested it might prove advantageous if Girodias was to loose his case. ‘An adverse decision of the Court might prove very much to my husband’s advantage since there seems to be a provision in the French law releasing the author if the publisher cannot continue to publish his book. We shall try to find out about the verdict.’63 The verdict, as it happened, was given that same day: the ban by the Ministry of the Interior was overturned.64 Girodias could go back to business; Gallimard publicly announced that it would bring out the French translation of Lolita within a couple of months.65 Girodias wired Nabokov about the positive outcome. Nabokov rose to the occasion and wrote Girodias his ‘take-it-or-leave-it offer’: I was glad to hear the ban on Lolita was lifted. Many thanks for your wire. This new situation raises a new question. I don’t think you quite understand my position: as far as I am concerned the original agreement between Olympia and me is null and void. In order to sell your edition you need a new agreement. I would be willing to consider a reasonable offer from you for such a new agreement, provided that it took care of all the aspects of the matter, including the American, British and foreign-language rights (the latter item being the least important of the four). Such an agreement would have to be a three-way contract: 1) Between you and Putnam[’]s, and 2) between me and Putnam[’]s, regarding an American edition; and 3) between Olympia and me, regarding the other matters. The thing has been dragging on too long. I would prefer to arrive at an outof-court settlement, but one way or another I am resolved to have the whole matter settled now. I suggest that you think matters over once again and see if you can suggest a reasonable settlement. I shall not accept a 50/50 division of the American royalty.
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 245 (January 14, 1958). Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 694. De Grazia holds that Girodias’ case was already won in 1957; Girodias holds that it was only won in February 1958. See: Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 266; Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 46. The contract, as had been said before, had already been signed in March 1956.
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I wish to repeat that all the suggestions in this letter are made by me on a voluntary basis, that I consider myself under no obligations, and that these suggestions will in no way prejudice any rights or privileges that are mine in consequence of the abrogation of my agreement with Olympia Press. May I hear from you within ten days? If no agreement can be reached I shall consider myself obliged to obtain an injunction against the sales of your original edition of Lolita.66 That this was a take-it-or-leave-it offer can also be concluded from the note he sent Minton that same day: ‘Here is a copy of my letter to Girodias, mailed today. If this does not do it, I shall admit to defeat.’67 Girodias, freed from his ban, also was ready to have ‘the whole matter settled’. His answer, suggesting that Nabokov’s lawyer get in touch with his own, slightly confused Nabokov; Minton, however, who was asked for advice, kept his cool. On February 11, 1958, he cabled Girodias that Nabokov had agreed to a contract with G.P. Putnam’s Sons for U.S. publication.68 Rosemary Ridgewell received a finder’s fee, equivalent to 10% of Nabokov’s royalties for the first year, plus 10% of Putnam’s share of the subsidiary rights income for two years.69 American publication of Lolita was secured. § 4 LOLITA IN AMERICA After such a prolonged series of negotiations, one feels surprised that anyone succeeded in securing the prize at all. We can ask ourselves why Minton was successful where so many others had been forced to bail out for some reason or other. For an answer to this question, we can refer back to the reasons for refusal we listed before. We found there were three reasons for publishers to reject Lolita: its 66 67 68
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 246-247 (January 16, 1958). Editor’s note to Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 247. Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 46. It must have been some kind of verbal arrangement, because Nabokov only mailed back the signed contract to Minton on March 1. Letter to Walter Minton (March 1, 1958). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 249. This amounted to $20.000. Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 19401977, p. 225; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), pp; 236-237n.
124 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT controversial subject-matter and the ensuing fear of litigation; its use of progressive literary techniques; and, most important, Nabokov’s refusal to sign his name to the book. In 1957 and early 1958, the last reason had obviously expired. Lolita had already been published under Nabokov’s name; there was no possible need to hide behind a nome de plume now. The other two reasons, however, remained. We have seen that Harper’s, Simon & Schuster and Random House all refused to publish Lolita for either artistic or legal reasons. Walter Minton of Putnam’s was not taken aback by these obstacles. As to the artistic side of Lolita, we have seen that he knew after his first reading of the book that ‘it was something extraordinary’.70 As to the chance of litigation arising, Minton was no fearful man. He even seems to have had a preference for ‘shocking’ books. Minton has been characterized as manifesting ‘a business acumen that combined intelligence with a predilection for books that excite and titillate’.71 Putnam’s had under his rule already published Norman Mailer’s Deer Park, and would go on to publish Terry Southern’s Candy and the eighteenth-century erotic novel Fanny Hill – all three of them books that presented risks of litigation.72 Besides his ability to recognize extraordinary books and his daring in the face of books that risked obscenity charges, Minton possessed a third quality that enabled him to succeed where others had not: he knew how to deal with Girodias. By late 1957 the relationship between Girodias and Nabokov had worsened to the point that it would have been hard for anyone to have them agree over anything. Prince Obolensky, for instance, seems to have been positively bewildered by the mess that author and publisher found themselves in. Minton was successful in ‘convincing two extremely difficult that their business interests lay in a deal where each would have to compromise.’73 Despite Nabokov’s disparaging remark to Minton that he regretted ‘very much that you showed [Girodias] all your cards, and all my cards, his most important tool in this was a willingness to not be completely truthful on all the aspects of the matter all of the time.74 Minton once remarked about his dealings with Nabokov and Girodias: ‘I just lied my head off to both of them.’ Reminded of this 70
Interview with John de St Jorre (undated). Quoted in: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, pp. 143-144. Madison, C.A. (1966): Book Publishing in America, p. 414. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 265. For a detailed analysis of the risks involved, see De Grazia’s chapters 15, 25 and 23 respectively. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 145; See also Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 357: ‘Minton […] counseled Nabokov strongly [���]’. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 244 (January 12, 1958).
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later, he revised his statement – but the point is the same as far as we are concerned: ‘I didn’t lie. I just did not tell them all the details.’75 And hence he succeeded. The moment Nabokov signed his contract with G.P. Putnam’s Sons, he in effect switched publishers. His business arrangements with Girodias would never revert back to normal, whereas Putnam’s would publish many more of his books. Can we say that Nabokov regretted his association with the Olympia Press? The answer to this question is not clear, and in all likelihood never will be.76 In his retrospective essay Lolita and Mr. Girodias, published in 1967, Nabokov stated: What always made me regret our association [was] the obligation to endure the elusiveness, the evasiveness, the procrastination, the dodges, the duplicity, and the utter irresponsibility of the man.77 In that same essay, however, he reminds us of what he had once written Girodias – a statement that was still as true in 1967 as it had been on August 3, 1957: I am positive that Lolita is the best thing I have written so far; I shall be always grateful to you for having published it.78 Later, Nabokov would write Girodias: ‘I never resented my connection with your firm. What a ridiculous thing to say.’79 Whatever Nabokov’s stance, Girodias did not regret the association they had. When it came to Lolita, he said on several occasions: I do not regret having published this admirable book; in spite of many disappointments, it has proved to be a rather exhilarating experience.80
Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 223. I disagree with De St Jorre who states that signing an agreement with Girodias ‘was a decision that Nabokov regretted to the end of his life’. See: St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 120. Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 41. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 223 (August 3, 1957); Nabokov, V. (1967): ‘Lolita and Mr. Girodias’, p. 40. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 277 (January 26, 1959). Girodias, M. (1959a): [Letter to the editor], p. 9; Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 90.
7 A LITERARY ACHIEVEMENT February 11, 1958 up to August 18, 1958
§ 1 INTRODUCTION When the deal for an American edition of Lolita was finally struck, Nabokov did not want to waste time: the mere agreement did not protect his copyright. On March 1, 1958, returning his signed contract to Putnam’s, he immediately came down to business: I have almost finished checking the published text of Lolita for misprints etc., and shall mail it to you, together with the Anchor article, on Wednesday. Please find enclosed two scrapbooks with clippings on Lolita – one multilingual, the other sent me by my Swedish publisher. I have sold the following rights: French (Gallimard), German (Rowohlt), Italian (Mondadori), Swedish (Wahlström & Widstrand), Danish (Reitzel), Dutch (Oisterwijk). Is there anything else you would like to have or to know? List of publications? Curriculum vitae? If you want to know more about me and my background, you can look it up in Conclusive Evidence (Harper). Do you need a photograph?1 Nabokov also raised an interesting question: ‘What about the jacket?’2 When Lolita was published by the Olympia Press in 1955, Nabokov had not been able to influence the physical appearance of the book, as it was published in what amounted to a 1 2
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 249-250 (March 1, 1958). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 250 (March 1, 1958).
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128 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT standard design. Now, after the intensive campaign his friends had waged to have Lolita accepted by the general public, he was not ready to see any mistake ruining his novel’s chances.3 And thus he wanted to be personally involved in the design of Lolita’s dust-jacket. This chapter is devoted to the events leading up to the publication of Putnam’s edition of Lolita. It covers the period from February 11, 1958, when Putnam’s bought the rights to the novel, up to August 18, when it was published. First we take a look at Nabokov’s previous involvement in the design of his novels (§ 2). Then we focus on his wishes for the design of the American edition of Lolita (§ 3). Finally we try to see the decisions made at Putnam’s in a broader perspective (§ 4). § 2 NABOKOV ON BOOK DESIGN It was not unusual for Nabokov to meddle in the way his books were published.4 His involvement was usually directed at one of two aspects of the book’s physical appearance: the lay-out of the book’s dust-jacket on the one hand; the blurb, the material that was chosen to sing the praises of the publication, on the other. As Paul Maliszewski has said: ‘Art and design considerations arose over nearly all of his books; often several times, as publishers reprinted them. In the same spirit, Nabokov routinely edited and approved his publishers’ blurbs and promotional material, so as to guarantee they didn’t distort or misrepresent his books.’5 As to the first aspect, Nabokov showed a dislike for certain kinds of artistic realism, and much preferred a simple and sober typographical design. As to the second aspect, he would continuously scold publishers for comparing him to the wrong writers and asking the wrong contemporaries for endorsements.6 Thus Nabokov wrote to Allen Tate of Henry Holt & Co., the publisher of Bend Sinister, in 1947: 3
Compare letter to Maurice Girodias (December 14, 1956). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 196-197. I am forced to limit this discussion to the period after Nabokov’s emigration to the United States (1940), as correspondence with his publishers has only been published for this period. See: Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977. Maliszewski, P. (2000): ‘Paperback Nabokov’, p. 6. Later Nabokov would remark: ‘Personally, I am against all endorsements – especially the ones that come from old friends.’ Letter to Walter Minton (July 3, 1959). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 293.
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Has anything been done about the dust jacket for B.S.? I should like it to be as sober as possible.7 And to John Fischer of Harper & Brothers, the publisher of Conclusive Evidence, he wrote in 1950: The jacket copy is, as you say, not a success. I object strongly to the following points: 1. [Edith] Sitwell, a ridiculous mediocrity, does not belong here. 2. The paragraph stressing the ‘immeasurable wealth’ etc. is impossible – sets my teeth on edge. 3. Nabokov does not tell about the assassination of his father with ‘good humored detachment’. 4. The sentence about the ironically appropriate butterflies is too silly for words. 5. The quotation from Proust is bad English and anyway irrelevant.8 Later that same year Nabokov wrote to the same publisher again, concerning the same publication: Time is passing, and I still have not seen either blurb, jacket or binding. Who is designing the jacket? I trust there is no ‘Russian’ stuff – churches, pagodas, samovars – being considered. I am raising this question only because I have had something of the sort inflicted upon me by an English publisher.9 It seems as if Nabokov’s involvement with the design of his books increased over the years. In 1956, five years after the publication of Conclusive Evidence by Henry Holt, Nabokov wrote to Jason Epstein, who was at that time preparing not only the Anchor Review with excerpts from Lolita, but also the full publication of Pnin, Nabokov’s account of the misfortunes and misadventures of a Russian immigrant, working as a professor in an American university:
7 8 9
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 73 (January 28, 1947). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 104 (July 20, 1950). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 107 (November 14, 1950).
130 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT I have just received the sketches. They are executed with talent, the picture as art goes is first-rate, but in regard to my Pnin it is wrong: The sketch looks like the portrait of an underpaid instructor in the English department or like a Republican’s notion of a defeated Adlai, when actually he should look like a Russian muzhik clean-shaven. I am sending you some photographs of Pnin-like Russians, with and without hair, for a visual appreciation of the items I am going to discuss. 1. The head should look quite bald, without any dark margin, and must be ampler, rounder, smoother, more dome-like. Note Zhavoronkov and Yegorov for the type of head, which however should be bigger in Pnin’s case, not eggshaped. Maslov would be perfect, minus hair. 2. The glasses should be definitely tortoise-shell ones, with heavier, somewhat squarish frames. 3. The nose is very important. It should be the Russian potato nose, fat and broad, with prominent nostril curves. See Zhukovksi for nostrils, and Obrastov for a replica of Pnin’s fat glossy organ; but Pavlov and Maslov are also good. 4. The terribly important space between nose and upper lip. This must be simian, large, long, with a central hollow and lateral furrows. See Zhavoronkov, Baykov, Yegorov, Zhukovski. The latter’s lips are very Pninian. Pnin’s bad teeth should not show. 5. The cheeks and jowls. Jowls and jaw should be large, broad, massive. See Baykov, Zhavoronkov, Yegorov. 6. The shoulders should be very broad, square, padded. Pnin wears a readymade American suit of four years age. 7. The tie should be a flamboyant one. Now, instead of all this, the sketches show a puny professor Milksop, with an egg-shaped face, flat nose, short upper lip, non-descript chin, sloping shoulders, and the necktie of a comedy bookkeeper. I have noticed long ago that for some reason illustrators do not read the books they illustrate. In my book, all the details listed above are mentioned in the first chapter, and repeated further on.10 The illustrator might not have read Nabokov’s novel, he or she certainly read this missive. It was executed in all of its extraordinary detail, and one wonders if it was not actually Nabokov who drew the picture, but verbally, and the rest of the production 10
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 190-191 (October 1, 1956).
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process was a matter of mere translation from words into images. When the design was finished, Nabokov was enthusiastic: ‘The jacket is absolutely splendid – I never imagined that an illustrator could render an author’s vision so accurately.’11 § 3 THE LOOK OF LOLITA Given Nabokov’s previous involvement with the design of his books, and given his concerns for the reception of Lolita in the United States, it is not surprising that he wanted to exert his influence in order to see the book appropriately published. Nabokov wrote Minton on March 1, 1958: What about the jacket? After thinking it over, I would rather not involve butterflies. Do you think it could be possible to find today in New York an artist who would not be influenced in his work by the general cartoonesque and primitivist style jacket illustration? Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for Lolita (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway – that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.12 In this wish list, the ‘do’s’ lack in clarity when compared to the ‘don’ts’. There was to be no representation of a little girl, there were to be no butterflies, the picture was to be non-Freudian and non-juvenile – the last two already being harder to interpret. But when it comes to what Nabokov did want, a ‘delicately drawn’ picture of a ‘dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway’, it becomes very hard to imagine what he had in mind. How does one delicately draw a dissolving remoteness? And how does one transform such a drawing into an enticing dust-jacket? 11
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 192 (November 13, 1956). Despite this judgment, Nabokov still remembered the illustrator’s mistakes years later. In 1959, when prescribing the jacket for his Collected Poems in the same meticulous fashion as he had done the jacket for Pnin, Nabokov wrote to Pyke Johnson of Doubleday, Doran & Co. (March 15, 1959): ‘If you look up my correspondence with Jason regarding the Pnin jacket, you will note into what hideous trouble the otherwise excellent artist got in his first sketch. I think there were some fourteen mistakes.’ Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 285. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 250 (March 1, 1958).
132 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Minton set to work, however. In the meantime, Nabokov busied himself with the preparation of the text. It appears that Minton had suggested including the essay On a Book Entitled Lolita, first published in the Anchor Review, in the American edition. Nabokov readily accepted: […] I quite see your point and agree with you that the inclusion of the article might add an extraneous element to the book. I would be delighted to have it republished in the form you suggest, – with Doubleday’s consent. I am sending you herewith a copy of Lolita which we have checked for misprints and errors. I would not like to change the paragraphic division, and would like to be consulted on any questions of punctuation that may arise. A number of words are not in Webster, but will be in its later editions.13 By April, the galleys for Lolita were ready.14 Putnam’s, moreover, had commissioned some sketches for Lolita’s jacket. Minton sent them to Nabokov for approval, but was not very happy with them himself. Nabokov agreed that they were not suitable. He wrote to Minton: I have just received the five designs and I quite agree with you that none of them are satisfactory. I have looked up in the Reporter the picture you mention but find it to be in the primitivistic wobbly style which I dislike.15 Nabokov again described his preferences, and again his prohibitions were much more outspoken than his commands: I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls.16
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 251 (March 7, 1958). Letter to Harry Levin (April 28, 1958). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 257; Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 361. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 256 (April 23, 1958). It is unclear to which picture Nabokov refers. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 256 (April 23, 1958).
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But he also suggested an entirely different solution to the problem posed by Lolita’s jacket: If we cannot find that kind of artistic and virile painting, let us settle for an immaculate white jacket (rough texture paper instead of the usual glossy kind), with Lolita in bold black lettering.17 It was this solution that was decided upon: the dust-jacket of the first American edition was to be typographical (see illustration below). Printed on ‘immaculate white’ paper, the word Lolita appeared in ‘bold black lettering’. Below, Nabokov’s name
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 256 (April 23, 1958).
134 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT appeared in red. The only addition was a rather discreet attempt to reap the harvest of Pnin’s recent success: ‘A novel. By the author of Pnin’.18 By mid-May page proofs of Lolita were ready and vetted by Véra Nabokov.19 After their correction, production of the novel could commence. At the beginning of August, a press cocktail was organised by Minton at the Harvard Club in New York.20 Two weeks after that event, on Monday August 18, 1958, G.P. Putnam’s Sons published the American edition of Lolita. The published price was $5. § 4 A LITERARY ACHIEVEMENT Nabokov’s active involvement in the design of his Lolita might seem remarkable to us. Authors do no usually exert influence on the appearance of their books to the degree that he did, if at all. From Nabokov’s perspective, however, there could not have been a more natural course of events. He had always been concerned with Lolita’s fate in some way or other. Of course, he had refused to assist Girodias in his lawsuit against the French Ministry of the Interior, but he had also confessed to Girodias how much he would be distressed if his novel were to turn out a succès de scandale. As we have seen before, Nabokov was very happy to see his friends – Jason Epstein most notably – ‘waging an intensive campaign to establish the book as a literary achievement of artistic value and lasting importance, and to counteract the unfortunate publicity it received at the outset’.21 Nabokov’s involvement in the design of Putnam’s edition of Lolita is best understood as his personal continuation of this campaign. Nabokov was well aware, as he wrote in another context, ‘that “form” and “content” are one’.22 His
19 20 21
Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov. A Descriptive Bibliography. New York & London, Garland Publishing, nr. A28.2, pp. 220-221. Christopher Wilson in his otherwise excellent article presents a misleading image of Putnam’s first edition. Although he does not explicitely say so, the context of the image suggests that it is the true first edition. It is not, however, as it says ‘Complete and unabridged’ on the cover. This addition only occured on the occasion of Lolita’s fourth or fifth impression. Wilson, C. (2002): ‘The Look of Lolita’, p. 20. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 226. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 229. Letter to Maurice Girodias (December 14, 1956). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 196-197. Letter to Edmund Wilson (October 21, 1941). Nabokov, V. & E. Wilson (2001): Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, p. 57 (letter 24).
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concern with the look of Lolita was an attempt to contribute to the book’s acceptance as a literary achievement. Nabokov’s instructions support this interpretation. Before suggesting a typographical solution to the problem posed by Lolita’s jacket-design, Nabokov suggested using ‘a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway’ and somewhat later expressed his preference for ‘pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain.’ As Christopher Wilson – one of the few so far to research the design of Lolita-editions – has suggested, these instructions did not amount to an image at all: ‘[T]hese jacket designs, in there restricting detail, seem designed to tie the hands of any artist who might try to interpret Lolita in his or her own way. Rather than requesting an image that is especially suited to the novel, Nabokov appears to be specifying a non-image.’23 From the perspective of Lolita’s publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, the course of events wasn’t very remarkable either. They must have also had authors who did not interfere with the design of their books at all, but then Nabokov’s Lolita was a special case in many respects. A jacket with a typographical design suited Putnam’s as well. Walter Minton was intent on presenting Nabokov’s novel to the general public without any government interference. Moreover, he had promised Nabokov that Putnam’s would ‘do [its] best to make Lolita the success it deserves and [would] do everything practical to prevent its being prosecuted.’24 Publishing Lolita in an inconspicuous dust-jacket was not more than one of the ‘practical’ things that could be done. Nor does the course of events seem remarkable when we compare Putnam’s approach to the approach of another of Lolita’s publishers. The situation in the United Kingdom, even though it was only to take place a year-and-a-half later, was similar to that in the United States. Nabokov wrote to George Weidenfeld, head of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, who had acquired the British rights to Lolita:
Wilson, C. (2002): ‘The Look of Lolita’, p. 21. Wilson suggests a further reason for Nabokov’s behaviour, aside from ‘the desire to avoid any further controversy’: according to him Dmitri Nabokov, Nabokov’s son, had suggested that Nabokov was ‘wary of potential poshlust’. Poshlust is the inclination towards ‘not only the abviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive’ Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 237.
136 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Perhaps it is too early to discuss this matter but before you decide on the binding and jacket of Lolita may I suggest that you take a look at the pictures on jacket and cover of the Dutch edition. They are perfectly and enchantingly right. On the other hand, the Swedish edition has a horrible young whore instead of my nymphet.25 This suggestion is rather surprising, as the cover of the first Dutch edition of Lolita, which Nabokov thought ‘perfectly and enchantingly right’, features a young girl, a feature to which Nabokov had previously ‘emphatically opposed’ (for the Dutch and Swedish editions of Lolita see illustrations below). In any case, Weidenfeld & Nicolson did not follow up on Nabokov’s suggestion and asked their art director Eric Ayers for a design. Ayers later recalled his line of reasoning:
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 274 (January 12, 1958).
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Obviously, you couldn’t have a photograph of what happened in the book. So I went away and thought, ‘The best solution, because of the content, is to do it typographically.’26 The first design was made by taking a piece of hand-made paper, soaking it in water and blotting it off. The ensuing sheet was coloured with an eye dropper with magenta and green dyes, merging on the paper, that was still moist. Ayers finished his design by the application of lettering. George Weidenfeld thought the result was too extravagant, however, and asked for an alternative. It was then that Ayers created a design of bold black lettering on a solid brown surface (see illustration on page 156).27 This unusually austere design was met with great enthusiasm by Nabokov, who asked Ayers to design the jackets for all his other books as well.28 This was not without its irony. Nabokov had once expressed his surprise with the fact that book designers did not read the books they were designing. Ayers had never read Lolita and did not believe in the use of knowing a book’s contents. He readily agreed anyway.29 Nabokov saw an inconspicuous dust-jacket as one of the ways to prevent unwelcome attention to his novel, and at least his American and British publishers agreed. We of course do not know how Lolita would have fared if it had been presented in a different jacket; it is likely, however, that the defensive techniques applied by Nabokov and his publishers furthered the novel’s success.30 It was now to the critics to see if they could appreciate Lolita as ‘a literary achievement’.
27 28 29 30
Interview with Christopher Wilson (September 20, 2001). Quoted in: Wilson, C. (2002): ‘The Look of Lolita’, p. 20. Wilson, C. (2002): ‘The Look of Lolita’, p. 20. Wilson, C. (2002): ‘The Look of Lolita’, p. 20. Wilson, C. (2002): ‘The Look of Lolita’, p. 22. I trust that Ellen Pifer, when she suggests that ‘the book jackets of various paperback editions’ contributed to ‘the popular misconception of the nymphet as sexy teenager decked out in tight jeans and bright lipstick’ is referring to editions that were published during the 1970s and after. Before, for both the United States and the United Kingdom, the same applies to paperback editions as has been discussed above with regard to the hardback editions. The first American and British paperbacks can even be said to mimic their hardback predecessors. See: Pifer, E. (2003b): ‘Nabokov’s Novel Offspring. Lolita and her Kin’, p. 84. Compare also her reference to Lolita, elsewhere in the same volume, as ‘reading matter secreted between plain covers’. Pifer, E. (2003b): ‘Introduction’, p. 4.
8 LOLITA’S SUCCESS August 18, 1958 up to December 31, 1959
§ 1 INTRODUCTION With the publication of Lolita in America on August 18, 1958, Nabokov’s most important wish had been fulfilled. The edition was favourably received, and already on September 6 Nabokov was in a position to write: Lolita is having an unbelievable success – but all this ought to have happened thirty years ago. I don’t think I shall need to teach anymore, yet I am sorry to abandon my idyllic Cornell.1 This was a decisive step of consolidation in a history interspersed with controversy. Two other countries where such controversy had raged, France and the United Kingdom, were soon to follow suit. This chapter is devoted to the consolidation of Lolita’s success. It covers the period from August 18, 1958, when the novel was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in New York, up to December 31, 1959, when Lolita was available in regular editions in both the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. We first take a look at Lolita’s ascent in America (§ 2), then we focus on France (§ 3), and finally we see how the novel even entered into England (§ 4).
Letter to Elena Sikorski (Spetmebr 6, 1958). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 19401977. Ed. D. Nabokov & M.J. Bruccoli. San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 259.
— 139 —
140 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT § 2 THE UNITED STATES The publication of Lolita in America was not wanting for attention. On August 17, 1958, the day before Lolita’s publication, the novel was reviewed in a dozen Sunday newspapers.2 About two-thirds of the reviewers were enthusiastic, a third showed puzzlement, taxation, or even outrage.3 The New York Times illustrated the division of opinion nicely.4 On August 17 Elizabeth Janeway reviewed Lolita glowingly for the New York Times Book Review. She started by stating: The first time I read Lolita I thought it was one of the funniest books I’d ever come on. (This was the abbreviated version published in the Anchor Review last year.) The second time I read it, uncut, I thought it was one of the saddest. I mention this personal reaction only because Lolita is one of those occasional books which arrive swishing behind them a long tail of opinion and reputation which can knock the unwary reader of his feet. Is it shocking, is it pornographic, is it immoral?5 Her own judgment was essentially positive, and she compared Nabokov to Shakespeare: ‘Humbert is the hero with the tragic flaw. Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh – which is the eternal and universal nature of passion. […] Humbert is all of us.’6 This settled the question she raised earlier: ‘As for its pornographic content, I can think of few
Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 364. Boyd has also published on Lolita in America seperately, but this material corresponds to that in his Nabokov biography. See: Boyd, B. (1991b): ‘The Year of Lolita’. Roughly, this proportion was to last. According to Schiff, ‘Of the first nineteen reviewers weighing in on Lolita, eleven had praised the book, five had damned it, three had settled comfortably on the fence.’ Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 242. The New York Times is not alone in its ambivalent approach. The New Republic first printed a positive review by Conrad Brenner, but later also printed an editorial in which the editors expressed the obligation they felt to ‘differ with our own reviewer’. See: Brenner, C. (1958): ‘Nabokov. The Art of the Perverse’, pp. 18-21; [Anon.]. (1958a): ‘Lolita and the Critics’, p. 3. See also: [Anon.] (1958b): ‘The Lolita Case’, p. 102. Janeway, E. (1958): ‘The Tragedy of a Man Driven by Desire’, p. 5. Janeway, E. (1958): ‘The Tragedy of a Man Driven by Desire’, p. 25.
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volumes more likely to quench the flames of lust than this exact and immediate description of its consequences.’7 Orville Prescott, however, denounced Lolita no more than a day later in the daily edition of the same paper. Prescott opened, like Janeway, with the observation that Lolita was a book with a reputation: Certain books achieve a sort of underground reputation before they are published. Gossip arouses expectations that they are even nastier than the last succès de scandale. College students returning from visits to Paris demonstrate their newly acquired sophistication by brandishing paperbound copies. College professors write solemn critical analyses in scholarly publications. And if their authors are really lucky some act of official censorship publicizes their work to the masses. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is such a book.8 His reading of Nabokov’s novel, however, was much less enthusiastic: ‘Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.’9 All the attention, be it positive or negative, did not fail to have an effect on sales. On the morning of August 18, Walter Minton wrote a euphoric telegram to Nabokov: everybody talking of lolita on publication day yesterdays reviews magnificent and new york times blast this morning provided necessary fuel to flame 300 reorders this morning and book stores report excellent demand congratulations on publication day10 That same day, in the afternoon, he wrote a supplement: ‘I telegraphed you this AM there were over 300 reorders on publication day. It is now 3:00 PM and there are over 1.000!’ The ‘1.000’ was crossed out, with ‘1.400’ written underneath, and ‘another order just arrived’. In the same mail came another note: ‘Over 2.600 reorders today – 7 8 9 10
Janeway, E. (1958): ‘The Tragedy of a Man Driven by Desire’, p. 25. Prescott, O. (1958): ‘Books of the Times’, p. 17. Prescott, O. (1958): ‘Books of the Times’, p. 17. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 257 (August 18, 1958).
142 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT mostly all from New York but they are beginning to arrive from out of town by wire, phone, etc.’11 Within a couple of days, Minton was able to report on more orders from the book trade. On Monday there had been 1.943, on Tuesday 2.789, on Wednesday 670 and on Thursday 1.375.12 Putnam’s supported their publication of Lolita with advertisements. In these advertisements they boasted of both the critical acclaim and the massive sales. An ad in the New York Times of August 21, 1958, exclaimed for example: Just published… and already causing a storm of controversy! The American edition, complete and unabridged, of one of the most widely discussed novels of our time is now at your bookstore. […] 4 days old and already in its 3rd large printing. 62.500 copies in print13 Three days later, a full-page ad in the New York Times Book Review quoted the positive judgments of Dorothy Parker, Graham Greene, William Styron, Harry Levin, Lionel Trilling, and others.14 This was indeed, as Christine Clegg has called it, ‘a lavish display of critical approvals and authorative literary claims’.15 All in all, the launch of Lolita in the United States was a massive success. Although Putnam’s ads cheerfully mentioned the ‘storm of controversy’ that the novel had caused, resistance to Lolita was only limited. No criminal prosecution was brought to suppress Lolita, although a number of libraries, such as the Cincinnati public library, banned it from their shelves.16 The Texas town of Lolita considered changing its name to Jackson.17 But the country’s over-all reaction to Lolita was predominantly benevolent. Groucho Marx jokingly announced that would put off reading Lolita for six years, until she was 18. One cartoon among many read ‘Take me to your Lolita’.18 11 12 13 14
Quoted in: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 365. Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 258. [Advertisement]. In: The New York Times (August 21, 1958), p. 23. [Advertisement]. In: The New York Times Book Review (August 24, 1958). Reproduced in: Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, opposite p. 227; also in: Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, between pages 294 and 295. Clegg, C. (2000), ed.: Vladimir Nabokov, p. 11. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 367; Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 269. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 375. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, pp. 375-376.
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The fun was not wasted on Nabokov; he would even draw his publisher’s attention to a cartoon he found particularly funny (see illustration below).19 Two weeks after its publication, Lolita started to ascend the bestseller list. By early September, 80.000 copies of the novel were in print. This amounted to all of Nabokov’s previous print runs in Russian and English combined.20 By the end of September, Lolita was number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It was displaced from its position on the top of the bestseller list after seven weeks, by Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.21 This, however, was not the end of its success.
Letter to Walter Minton (July 3, 1959). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 293. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 230. Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 694; Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 370. Page and Clegg are wrong when they hold that Lolita was only displaced by Doctor Zhivago after six months. See: Page, N. (1982): Nabokov, p. 13; Clegg, C. (2000), ed.: Vladimir Nabokov, p. 12.
144 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Several book clubs had already made the novel their selection of the month.22 Moreover, and more important, the movie rights to Lolita were sold to James Harris and Stanley Kubrick in September 1958. They paid $150.000 and 15% of the producer’s profits.23 Only two months later – the novel was in its ninth printing by then – the paperback rights to Lolita were sold as well. Fawcett Crest paid the
Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, pp. 363, 367. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 366; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), pp. 232-233.
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enormous sum of $100.000.24 Before the end of 1959, when the hardback edition was in its seventeenth printing, Lolita was published in paperback in a print run of two million copies (see illustration on facing page).25 At a published price of fifty cents, the ‘most talked about novel of our day’ was within the reach of every American. § 3 FRANCE In France, in the meantime, Lolita had again landed in trouble. The ban by the French Ministry of the Interior on the Olympia Press edition of Lolita had just been lifted when the contract for an American edition of the novel was signed with G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and for a short while it seemed as if things were settled. But in May 1958, only three months after the removal of the ban, the Fourth Republic fell and General De Gaulle assumed power. Under his rule, the government aimed for a tighter control of the press, and Girodias’ Olympia Press was again under attack.26 On July 19, the Home Secretary imposed a new ban on Lolita, invoking this time the Loi sur la Press Enfantine. Moreover, it appealed to the Conseil d’Etat against the judgment cancelling the earlier ban.27 The Conseil d’Etat gave its ruling on December, 17, 1958. According to the Conseil, the Minister of the Interior had absolute power not only to apply, but also to interpret the law and could not be questioned even by the Conseil itself.28 The 1956 ban on Nabokov’s Lolita was restored in addition to the 1958 ban.29 Curiously, the bans that Girodias saw himself confronted with – which he chose to ignore – only applied to the English language edition of Lolita.30 Thus it was pos-
26 27 28
Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 374; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 237. Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov. A Descriptive Bibliography. New York & London, Garland Publishing, nr. A28.4, p. 222. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 261. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 135. Girodias, M. (1959b): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, pp. 6-7. Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 47; Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 266. Girodias, M. (1959b): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 7; Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 694. By November Girodias had ordered for a second printing of the Olympia Press edition of Lolita. This time, the title was indeed included in the Traveller’s Companion series, and Girodias added a preface of his own, giving an outline of Lolita’s checkered history.
146 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT sible that on March 1, 1959, the Nouvelle Revue Française published a fragment of the French translation, entitled Le Voyage de Lolita.31 Before the end of the next month, Gallimard published the complete and unabridged translation, the rights to which they had already acquired in 1956 (see illustration below).32 The irony of the situation was not lost on Girodias. He had already ‘asked Gallimard to mention in their version that my firm was the publisher of the original version, as this was very important to me in my litigation with the French government’.33 Even when this was prevented by
31 32 33
See: Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, nr. A28.1.2, p. 218; Kearney, P. (1987): The Paris Olympia Press, nr. 141, p. 86. Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 695. Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 695 and nr. D28.7, p. 581. Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 47.
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Nabokov – who wanted to thwart Girodias in all possible ways and stated to Michel Mohrt, editor at Gallimard, that the translation had been made after Putnam’s edition – Girodias saw an opportunity to have his book released: […] I was still fighting. There was no way of appealing against the final judgment of the Conseil d’Etat and of having the ban lifted on the English version of the book by direct litigation […]. But since the French version of Lolita had been authorized while my own English edition was still under a ban, I had yet another way open to me: to sue the government for damages, under the pretext that an unjust application of the law had been made, and that the republican principle of equality between citizens had been violated.34 Girodias later claimed that he had sued the government for no less than one hundred million francs in damages.35 Whatever the amount, the government’s representatives, who can hardly have been blind to the irony of the situation themselves, chose to avoid further litigation. Girodias was called to the Ministry of the Interior, where he was proposed to compromise: the Minister would cancel the ban if Girodias withdrew his request for damages. Girodias agreed. On July 21, 1959, the ban was abrogated.36 This time it was for good. The abrogation of the ban on Lolita did not do much to repair the relationship between Maurice Girodias and Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov continued to feel that he had been cheated for a percentage of his royalties, and continued to urge Putnam’s to stop its payments to the Olympia Press.37 Girodias, on the other hand, published at least four reprints of the Olympia edition of Lolita, to which he added various prefaces of his own making without Nabokov’s permission. The parties would only be separated in 1969, after Girodias’ nightclub La Grande Séverine had gone bankrupt and had taken the Paris Olympia Press with it in its fall.38 The French reading public,
34 35 36
Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 47. Girodias, M. (1990): Une journée sur la terre, vol. II, p. 446. Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 47. Juliar gives as the date for the formal lifting of the ban September 19, 1959, but does not state his sources. Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 695. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 153. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 256; St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 268.
148 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT however, was free to enjoy Nabokov’s Lolita, both in translation and in a domestic English edition. § 4 THE UNITED KINGDOM In the United Kingdom, the publication history of Nabokov’s Lolita mirrored to a great extent the course of events that had taken place in the United States. As early as January 1957, Graham Greene had expressed interest in having the novel published by the Bodley Head, with which he was associated. He wrote Nabokov: I thought Lollita [sic] a superb book + I am now, as a director of a publishing firm in England, trying to arrange its publication. In England one may go to prison, but there couldn’t be a better cause!39 Greene attempts to arrange for Lolita’s publication were successful, and on June 17 Max Reinhardt, Managing Director of the Bodley Head, wrote Nabokov requesting an option to publish Lolita in England in two or three years.40 Nabokov did not find the offer unreasonable, and passed it on to Girodias, explaining to him: In June, I have been approached by Bodley Head. They want a long-term option, but they offer an advance which they would be willing to forfeit if they did not publish within the delay. If you are willing to discuss this offer, I shall ask them to get in touch with you. Please let me know your reaction for I must answer them. They asked for a delay of ‘two or three’ years, and therefore would probably agree to make it two years.41 It was much too early to come to any sort of agreement, however. The same problems between Nabokov and Girodias that made it so very hard to find an American publisher for Lolita also obstructed any negotiations with British publishers. In any case, the offer by the Bodley Head was not followed up. A little over a year later, in September 1958, the situation was an altogether different one. In February a contract had been signed between Nabokov, Girodias 39 40 41
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 198 (January 1957). Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 198. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 222 (August 3, 1957).
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and G.P. Putnam’s Sons, arranging the American publication of Lolita. This contract clarified the legal situation, and it stipulated that Putnam’s had the right to choose a British firm to cooperate with.42 Putnam’s seems to have had a preference for the firm of Weidenfeld & Nicolson from the outset, but Graham Greene and the Bodley Head were not yet ready to give up one the idea of publishing Lolita. Greene had his secretary write to Max Reinhardt, the managing director: He [Greene] says that all that has transpired is that Putnam’s are publishing it in the U.S. and there was some sort of proposal that Weidenfeld should publish it in England, but it was felt that Nabokov would prefer Mr Greene to have first refusal for the Bodley Head if he wished.43 In late September, a British magistrate declared Lolita obscene and imposed a £200 fine on a bookseller who tried to sell the Olympia Press edition of the novel. It was clear that publishers and printers would face even stiffer penalties.44 Despite this willingness of the British government to prosecute Lolita, the Bodley Head went ahead with its plans. On October 10, Reinhardt and Greene cabled Nabokov that they had made an offer to Putnam’s for the British rights to Lolita.45 Apparently Walter Minton, the director of Putnam’s, replied to this offer with the suggestion that the Bodley Head and Weidenfeld & Nicolson might collaborate in the British publication of Lolita. This, however, was not something that Reinhardt wanted to do. He wrote to Graham Greene: I cannot understand why the book must be published in collaboration with another publisher, but his letter has crossed mine when I said that we would only be interested if we did it on our own.46 The foremost reason why Greene and Reinhardt did not feel for cooperation was that
44 45 46
St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 147. Letter from Greene’s secretary to Max Reinhardt (September 3, 1958). Quoted in: Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 45. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 367. Editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 266. Letter from Max Reinhardt to Graham Greene (November 3, 1958). Quoted in: Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 45.
150 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT they were under the impression that Weidenfeld & Nicolson were planning an expurgated edition of Lolita, whereas the Bodley Head was willing to bring out the novel without any cuts whatsoever. Moreover, Max Reinhardt simply did not want to appear to need the support of another publisher.47 In the end, the offer from the Bodley Head was refused. Walter Minton favoured Weidenfeld & Nicolson, as they had vowed to defend Lolita in court. The Bodley Head would be far less able to do so, he thought, as Graham Greene had made a number of powerful enemies in his early defence of the book. It was this argument that finally convinced the Nabokovs, who had preferred the Bodley Head, as they felt they owed a great debt to Graham Greene.48 In November, the contract with Weidenfeld & Nicolson was signed.49 When the Bodley Head heard of this, Reinhardt wrote to Nabokov to express his concern: Graham Greene told me today Lolita was going to be published with some severe cuts. As he is about to go abroad he asked me to […] tell you that if this were so it would be a great shame and he thinks it would detract from the quality of the book. I don’t know what arrangements you and Mr Minton have finally made. So far as we are concerned we made what we thought was a substantial offer and agreed to publish the book as it is and without any cuts whatsoever. This offer still stands if you are at all interested.50 The Bodley Head, he revealed, had even thought of its own way to avoid prosecution: There is here a very real danger of prosecution when the book is published and so far our laws do not allow for the defence to bring in the literary merit of a book. On the other hand the person who is prosecuted in the publishing company publishing the book is one who actually signs the contract. If the Bodley Head published Lolita it was the intention for Graham Greene to sign the contract on our behalf. Although one could not bring in a witness for the
47 48 49 50
Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, pp. 45-46. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 239. Girodias, M. (1965a): ‘Lolita, Nabokov, and I’, p. 46. Letter from Max Reinhardt to Vladimir Nabokov (January 1959). Quoted in: Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 47. Compare editor’s note to Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 278.
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defence to prove the literary merit of the book he could use the arguments himself for his own defence. I seriously feel if this were known the dangers of prosecution would be less.51 Nabokov, however, was able to reassure both Graham Greene and Max Reinhardt. On January 26, he wrote Reinhardt: I am very much moved by Mr. Graham Greene’s attitude toward my book. Will you please convey to him my deepest gratitude. Under no circumstances whatsoever would I consent to a bowdlerization of Lolita. In the Putnam-Olympia-Weidenfeld agreement there is a special clause to the effect that the London edition of Lolita must be an exact replica of the Putnam edition (including my afterpiece). So far the question of abridgment has not arisen. I wish to thank you for you continued interest in my book. As you know, I greatly appreciated your offer but the final decision was not in my hands.52 There proved to be no reason to feel concerned about Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s intentions, indeed. In December, a new definition for obscene works had been proposed in Parliament.53 When Nigel Nicolson – who was a member of Parliament for the Conservative Party and a member of the Select Committee on the Obscene Publications Bill – was asked to defend his decision to publish Lolita, he rose to the occasion. According to a report in the Times, he stated that ‘borderline cases were the most difficult. As a publisher, he had had to make such a decision and it had not been at all easy. The advice one often heard was “publish and be damned,” but that was very bad advice. He did not want to be damned. He felt that this particular work was a work of such outstanding literary merit and so widely acclaimed that some publisher had to have the courage to make it available to British readers.’54 Nicolson did not change his position: he defended Lolita. When asked by Edward Heath, Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, to drop publication of Lolita in the interest of ‘political peace’, 51
52 53 54
Letter from Max Reinhardt to Vladimir Nabokov (January 1959). Quoted in: Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 48. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 277-278 (January 26, 1959). [Anon.] (1958c): ‘Parliament’, p. 4. [Anon.] (1958c): ‘Parliament’, p. 4.
152 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT he refused.55 And when speaking in his constituency Bournemouth, a bulwark of conservativism, he claimed: Lolita could not possibly corrupt anybody. It is the very opposite of corrupting. It condemns what it describes, just as a murder story implicitly condemns murder. A book which describes a wicked man is not therefore itself wicked. It is usually the opposite. It holds him up as an example of what not to do, by describing the consequences of his wickedness. This is exactly what Lolita does.56 Nigel Nicolson thus showed great determination to defend Nabokov’s novel in the political arena. Weidenfeld & Nicolson were also keen, moreover, to prepare the way for Lolita in the literary world. A venerable campaign was set in motion on Lolita’s behalf, much in the same way as a literary campaign had been waged in the United States prior to the novel’s publication.57 On January 23, 1959, at the instigation of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an open letter was published in the Times, signed by no less than 21 leading writers and publishers.58 It read: Sir, – We are disturbed by the suggestion that it may yet prove impossible to have an English edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Our opinions of the merits of the work differ widely, but we think it would be deplorable if a book of considerable literary interest, which has been favourably received by distinguished critics and widely praised in serious and respectable periodicals were to be denied an appearance in this country. Prosecutions of genuine works of literature bring governments into disrepute and do nothing to encourage public morality. When to-day we read the proceedings against Madame Bovary or Ulysses – works genuinely found shocking by many of their contemporaries – it is Flaubert and Joyce whom we admire, not the Public Prosecutors of the time. Let good sense spare us another such case.59 55 56
57 58 59
[Anon.] (1990): ‘Maurice Girodias (Obituary)’, p. 14. Quoted in: Sherry, N. (2004): The Life of Graham Greene, p. 48. Nicolson would in February loose his seat by 91 votes in an election in which between 7.000 and 8.000 people participated. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 268; Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 248. St Jorre, J. de (1994): Venus Bound, p. 147. Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 248. Ackerley, J.R. a.o. (1959): [Letter to the Editor], p. 11.
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Also in January, a very eloquent defence of Lolita by Bernard Levin entitled Why All the Fuss? was published in the Spectator,. Levin found Lolita ‘a superb, a brilliant book’: The vie amoureuse of a middle-aged man and a twelve-year-old might be expected to arouse feelings of revulsion, but in this book it does not, for two reasons. In the first place, the pace of the book, titanically digressive though it is, is so swift, and the style so brilliant and clear, with the vivid clarity possessed by some dreams, that the reader is enthralled by the sheer literary magnificence, which transmutes any feelings (any feelings, of either attraction or revulsion) he might have about the subject-matter. In the second place, the narrator, by the most brilliant stroke in the book, is made the innocent, his nymphet the seducer […].60 Levin found Lolita ‘in short, a literary achievement of which the post-war world […] has cause to be proud’.61 He then went on to review the controversy surrounding its immanent publication in Britain. If all was taken into account, he held, one could really not think of a cause for concern. ‘Can it seriously be maintained that if it were published numbers of middle-aged men would take to seducing twelve-year-old girls? […] And if not, I repeat, why all the fuss?’62 In his piece The Lolita Question, published in the Observer in February, Philip Toynbee took the same approach. He wrote: ‘Mr. Nabokov is not a propagandist for anything or against anything, and it is not his intention either to stimulate our pruriencies or to shame them into hiding their faces.’63 He suggested that Lolita only needed to be banned if could be shown ‘that a single little girl was likely to be seduced as a result of its publication’.64 And although he added, ‘Nor do I think it certain that this will not be shown’, such a girl was of course never produced.65
60 61 62 63 64
Levin, B. (1959): ‘Why All the Fuss?’, p. 32. Levin, B. (1959): ‘Why All the Fuss?’, p. 33. Levin, B. (1959): ‘Why All the Fuss?’, p. 33. Toynbee, P. (1959): ‘The “Lolita” Question. Two Kinds of Extremism’, p. 20. Toynbee, P. (1959): ‘The “Lolita” Question. Two Kinds of Extremism’, p. 20. Girodias would happily quote from Toynbee in his preface to the third Olympia Press printing of Lolita, adding: ‘Sexual perverts obey impulses potent enough not to require intellectual stimuli; does Humbert, Vladimir Nabokov’s unhappy hero, waste time reading about the innocent objects of his desire?’ Girodias, M. (1959b): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, pp. 9-10. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 268.
154 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT George Weidenfeld was well aware of the importance of this kind of publicity for the successful publication of Lolita in Britain. He reported to Nabokov on January 28, 1959: ‘The battle for Lolita goes on […] and we are going ahead with our plans to bring out the book as soon as possible.’66 In addition to the campaign in which Lolita was once again surrounded with praise, Weidenfeld wanted to make it clear to everyone that his firm had serious intentions in publishing Lolita. The means to do so, he thought, was to publish all of Nabokov’s earlier works: We are most anxious to lose no time in re-publishing your past works. The scheme you suggest regarding the chronology of this re-issue seems to me admirable. […] My whole point is to impress on critics, the book trade and the public alike that we are bent on publishing your whole opus, which we wish to have in print as soon as possible.67 But for all of the efforts made on Lolita’s behalf, the fate of its publication still depended on factors that could hardly be influenced. The public and the intellectual climate could be prepared, of course, but Weidenfeld & Nicolson still depended on a change in the Obscenity Bill. Weidenfeld confessed as much in his letter to Nabokov: The salient problem is one of timing. As you know the Obscene publications Bill has now had its formal second reading and will reach the crucial committee stage at the end of February and should we are reliably informed become law in May or June. Our legal advisers and indeed our literary friends are strongly of the opinion that we should not publish before this new bill has become effective. The reason for this is that under the present law the literary quality of the book in question is held to be completely irrelevant and one is not allowed to call any witnesses to testify to the book’s merits. Under the new bill not only will literary merit be taken into account in deciding the fate of the book but the defence will be able to call witnesses to testify to the book’s merits. I need not explain to you how enormous the chances of victory, in the event of prosecution would be increased if we could produce in court as witnesses the formidable array of literary personalities who signed the letter to the Times.68 66 67 68
Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 278-279 (January 28, 1959). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 279 (January 28, 1959). Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, pp. 278-279 (January 28, 1959).
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It was necessary to wait even if George Weidenfeld and Nigel Nicolson were willing to risk jail sentences. In Britain, printers shared responsibilities with publishers for the distribution of material that was found obscene. By March 1959, more than thirty printers had refused to print Lolita, as they felt sure that it would be prosecuted.69 The situation only changed in the fall of 1959, when the new Obscene Publications Act was introduced. This law was akin to the 1957 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roth v. United States. It made it possible for the first time to use testimony of literary value in the defence works charged with obscenity.70 The government decided to test the new law by instituting prosecution against Penguin Books for publishing D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.71 But even before Penguin was acquitted in 1960, it was felt that the publication of literature which could be charged with obscenity was less of a risk. Weidenfeld & Nicolson finally found a printer for their edition of Lolita. By September 25, Nabokov could write his publisher: ‘I am glad everything is going well with the printing of Lolita. Please do not forget to show me the proofs – unless you are absolutely certain that no misprints could occur.’72 Distribution was halted, however, as the Attorney General’s position towards Lolita was unclear. At Nigel Nicolson’s suggestion a few copies of the book were circulated in October and one was submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions. If he would approve, the novel would be published on November 6, 1959; if not, the 20.000 copies that had been printed would be destroyed.73 Nabokov visited England at the end of October. He lectured on censorship at Cambridge University – not once mentioning Lolita – gave a television appearance, and lunched with a group of Britain’s opinion makers. Everything was done by Weidenfeld & Nicolson to impress upon everyone that their author was a serious man of letters.74 On publication eve, November 5, Weidenfeld & Nicolson threw a party for 300 influential well-wishers at the Ritz. Officially it was a party to meet the Nabokovs, as it
70 71 72 73 74
Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), pp. 246-247. In April, the situation had not changed. See: Girodias, M. (1959b): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 8. Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 269. For the trial see: Rolph, C.H. (1961), ed.: The Trial of Lady Chatterley. Nabokov, V. (1989): Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 299 (September 25, 1959). Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 257. Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, pp. 389-399.
156 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT still was not clear whether Lolita would be prosecuted. In the midst of the festivities, an anonymous supporter in the Home Office telephoned to say the government had decided against prosecution. When Nicolson climbed on a table and broke the news, the cheers could be heard blocks away.75 The next day, on November 6, 1959, Lolita was published in the United Kingdom (see illustration below.76 Like in the United States before, its publication was accompanied by a lavish display of critical approvals. The Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 399; Schiff, S. (1999): VĂŠra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 258. Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, nr. A28.3, p. 222.
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edition contained an appendix entitled Some critics’ opinions of Lolita, which contained no less than nine pages of endorsements from writers and critics from all over the world and reprinted the open letter that had appeared in the Times. The elaborate campaign to have Lolita accepted in Britain – and the controversy that had surrounded the book for months on end – did not fail to have its effect. Lolita sold out on publication day.77
Boyd, B. (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years, p. 399; Juliar, M. (1986): Vladimir Nabokov, p. 695.
The Nabokov scholar Alfred Appel tells an amusing anecdote of his first experiences with Nabokov’s Lolita. I was Nabokov’s student at Cornell in 1953-54, at a time that most undergraduates did not know that he was a writer. Drafted into the army a year later, I was sent overseas to France. On my first pass to Paris I naturally went browsing in a Left Bank bookstore. An array of Olympia Press books, daringly displayed above the counter, seemed most inviting – and there, between copies of Until She Screams and The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe, I found Lolita. Although I thought I knew all of Nabokov’s works in English (and had searched through out-of-print stores to buy each of them), this title was new to me, and its context and format were more than surprising, even if in those innocent pre-Grove Press days the semi-literate wags on fraternity row had dubbed Nabokov’s Literature 311-312 lecture course ‘Dirty Lit’ because of such readings as Ulysses and Madame Bovary (the keenest campus wits invariably dropped the B when mentioning the latter). I brought Lolita back to my base, which was situated out in the woods. Passes were hard to get and new Olympia titles were always in demand in the barracks. The appearance of a new girl in town thus caused a minor clamor. ‘Hey, lemme read your dirty book, man!’ insisted ‘Stockade Clyde’ Carr, who had just earned his sobriquet, and to whose request I acceded at once. ‘Read it aloud, Stockade,’ someone called, and, skipping the Foreword, Stockade Clyde began to make his remedial way through the opening paragraph. ‘Lo… lita, light… of my life, fire of my… loins. My sin, my soul… Lo-lee-ta: The… tip of the… tongue… taking… a trip… Damn!’ yelled Stockade, throwing the book against — 159 —
160 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT the wall, ‘It’s God-damn Litachure!!’ Thus the Instant Pornography Test, known in psychological testing circles as the ‘IPT’.1 If our exploration of the publishing history of Lolita makes anything clear, it is that there is no such thing as an Instant Pornography Test. And that there is no such thing as an Instant Literature Test neither, as is implied by all those who speak of Lolita as a masterpiece that was merely awaiting recognition.2 The identities of texts are not fixed, and the concepts both of ‘pornography’ and ‘masterpiece’ are culturally and temporally relative.3 It makes sense to ascribe the predominant acceptance of Lolita as literature to a conscious effort on behalf of its author, his publishers, and a number of supporters. In the outcome of their campaign, not only the book’s literary qualities have been decisive. Several essentially external factors have been so as well. First of these was the readiness of a number of people to attach their names to Lolita and to link their fates with the fate of the text. Nabokov himself is a prime example in this respect, both with regard to the decisive turn in Lolita’s fate that his decision to sign his novel brought about and to the reluctance that preceded this decision. But Graham Greene’s elegant defence of the novel is also a good example, as is the determined personal support shown by Nigel Nicolson. Another factor that was decisive in the outcome of the campaign to have Lolita accepted as literature was the score of secondary texts that were used to strut the novel whenever it seemed likely to collapse. Nabokov’s On a Book Entitled Lolita and Dupee’s A Preface to Lolita both fulfilled this function, as did the Anchor Review in which both essays were first published and Girodias’s pamphlet L’affaire Lolita. Girodias’s prefaces to the novel’s Olympia Press reprints fulfilled this function, proclaiming his willingness to attack censorship. The same holds true for the lavish display of critical approval, printed as a nine-page appendix to the Weidenfeld & Nicolson edition of Lolita. A third factor, already mentioned by Appel above, was ‘the context and format’ of Lolita. Especially in the case of the American and British first editions, Lolita’s publishers were determined to impress upon the public their sincere intentions in 1 2
Appel, A. (1970): ‘Backgrounds of Lolita’, pp. 18-19. For example Véra Nabokov, quoted in: Schiff, S. (1999): Véra. (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), p. 254; Erica Jong, quoted in: Grazia, E. de (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 247. Olsen, L. (1995): Lolita. A Janus Text, p. 9.
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bringing out Nabokov’s novel. In both cases, the physical appearance of Lolita was consciously used as an instrument to influence its reception. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, moreover, added a fair number of other books by Nabokov to their list in their campaign aiming for acceptance. The one main exception in many respects was Maurice Girodias. As we have seen, Girodias did not feel uncomfortable in the face of confusion, nor does he initially seem to have been intent on securing Lolita’s respectability. Nevertheless, his divergent role was decisive. As Sally Dennison has said before, Lolita’s publication by the Olympia Press added immensely to its allure and moved critics to proclaim its greatness in the process of defending it from suppression.4 At the end of our account of the publishing history of Lolita, we surely must admit that Girodias had a point when he asserted that ‘Lolita certainly owes its present fame more to its adventures and unconventional beginning than to its intrinsic qualities.5 Now we have come to the end of our exploration of the publishing history of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, we are in a position to oversee our undertaking as a whole. What is there to be said about this undertaking as such? The first thing that must be said, is that the approach we have adopted has enabled us to give an account of Lolita’s publishing history that is both detailed and comprehensive, and does not neglect any aspect of the history in favour of any other. I feel confident that the early years of Lolita have been made available to the reader with a clarity that is unprecedented. The credit for this clarity must be ascribed to the book historical perspective that has informed our inquiry. Book history, in focusing on the material or the external factors in the literary enterprise, seems especially suited as a viewpoint from which to consider the complicated history of Lolita’s first publication. Clarification of Lolita’s publishing history is not the only asset of our exploration, however. Our inquiry has also provided us with a viewpoint from which to consider questions of a more universal nature. Our detailed description of the publishing history of a single book sheds light on the history and nature of book publishing in 4
Dennison, S. (1984): [Alternative] Literary Publishing, p. 189. Compare the review by Kingsley Amis: ‘As things are, it is ont ennough that such a book should be declared non-obscene in the eyes of any reasonable person; it must be declared great as well if it is to be quite safe.’ Amis, K. (1959): ‘She Was a Child and I was a Child’, p. 635. Girodias, M. (1958): ‘Publisher’s Digression’, p. 7.
162 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT general. Although an account of the exemplary nature of a case study can never be exhaustive, there are a few matters that I would like to single out and discuss briefly. A first example is that in reading the publishing history of Lolita, we cannot but be struck by the obstacles that its publishers and prospective publishers saw themselves confronted with, and by the degree to which these obstacles were the result of the political and legal atmosphere in general. It would not go too far to say that the publishing history of Lolita would have been different if the Suez crisis had not taken place. Neither can we really underestimate the importance of McCarthyism in America or the rise to power of Charles de Gaulle in France for the fate of Nabokov’s novel. The publishing history of Lolita serves as an illustration of the extent to which the world of publishing is influenced by the societal climate. It also serves as a reminder that the history of literature and the history of literary publishing cannot be studied in separation from history at large. Another example is that in reading the publishing history of Lolita, we are confronted with the differences and similarities between countries that were important in the novel’s early history. The narrowing down of our research to one individual title allowed for a broad geographical scope and thus for comparison. With respect to Lolita, we see a kinship in mentality between the United States and the United Kingdom, and a difference in mentality between these countries on the one hand and France on the other. Still other attitudes would have become apparent if we had been able to include into our account such countries as the Netherlands, Belgium, or Italy. The publishing history of Lolita thus serves as an illustration of the local diversity in a subject we generally consider as a unity – the intellectual history of the West. It also serves as a reminder that the study of history, of whatever scope or subject, is served by comparison to similar situations. A third and final example of the exemplary nature of our case-study is that in reading the publishing history of Lolita we cannot but question the workings of literary publishing in general. In the history of Lolita it is evident that the acceptance of the text as literature was engineered by means of non-literary elements. The elements employed in the successive stages of Lolita’s career, such as book design, publisher’s lists and supportive secondary texts, were not exceptionable; these elements were merely better visible than in other instances of literary publishing. The publishing history of Lolita thus serves as an illustration of the otherwise very theoretical issue of the construction of literary identity. It also serves as a reminder of the ways in which facts and theories are interdependent: we may not be able to read
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examples without asking theoretical questions, but we surely cannot answer our theoretical questions without providing examples. The common denominator in these observations is, of course, the idea that part and whole are inseparably linked. It has been this supposed link between the individual and the universal that was the mainspring of the present undertaking. I hope that in providing both a detailed description of a very limited terrain and a viewpoint from which to consider much larges prospects, this undertaking has proved its value.
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166 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT Baker, G. (1957): ‘Lolita: Literature or Pornography?’. In: Saturday Review (New York), vol. 40, 22 June 1957, p. 18 Beach, S. (1960): Shakespeare and Company. London, Faber and Faber Bernard, A. (1990), ed.: Rotten Rejections. The Letters That Publishers Wish They’d Never Sent. London, Robson Books Bloom, H. (1987), ed.: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Modern Critical Interpretations. New York, Chelsea House Bourdieu, P. (1993): The Field of Cultural Production. Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. R. Johnson. Cambridge, Polity Press Boyd, B. (1990): Vladimir Nabokov. The Russian Years. Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press ––– (1991a): Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years. Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press ––– (1991b): ‘The Year of Lolita’. In: The New York Times Book Review, vol. 96, nr. 36 (8 September 1991), pp. 1, 31-33 ––– (1995): ‘Manuscripts’. In: Alexandrov (1995), pp. 340-345 Breit, H. (1956a): ‘Albion’. In: The New York Times Book Review, 26 February 1956, p. 8 ––– (1956b): ‘Lolita’. In: The New York Times Book Review, 11 March 1956, p. 8 Brenner, C. (1958): ‘Nabokov. The Art of the Perverse’. In: The New Republic (Washington DC), vol. 138, , nr. 25, issue 2275, 23 June 1958, pp. 18-21 Campbell, J. (1995): Exiled in Paris. Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, and Others on the Left Bank. New York, Scribner Cherry, M. (1956): [Letter to the Editor]. In: The Spectator (London), nr. 6662 (March 2, 1956), p. 280 Clegg, C. (2000), ed.: Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita. Cambridge, Icon [A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism] Couturier, M. (1996): ‘The Poerotic Novel. Nabokov’s Lolita and Ada’. Transl. from Couturier: Roman et censure, ou la mauvaise foi d’Eros (chapter 5). Seyssel, Champ Vallon URL: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/abvn.htm [consulted August 22, 2005] Cranston, M. (1957): ‘Obscenity in the Eyes of Some Beholders. Contradictions in the Case of Lolita’. In: The Manchester Guardian, nr. 34485 (May 14, 1957), p. 5 Darnton, R. (1990): ‘What is the History of Books’. In: The Kiss of Lamourette. Reflections in Cultural History. New York, W.W. Norton, pp. 107-136 Davis, L.H. (1987): Onward and Upward. A Biography of Katharine S. White. New York, Harper & Row
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168 | SEEING LOLITA IN PRINT ––– (1965c): ‘Introduction’. In: Girodias (1965b), pp. 11-29 ––– (1965d): ‘A Sad, Ungraceful History of Lolita’. In: Girodias (1965b), pp. 534-545. Repr. of Girodias (1965a) ––– (1967): [Letter to the editor]. In: Evergreen Review (New York), vol. 11, nr. 47 (June 1967), pp. 8, 10, 18. Available online: URL http://www.evergreenreview.com/100/girodias.html and following [consulted August 22, 2005] ––– (1977a): Une journée sur la terre. Première partie: J’arrive! Paris, Stock. Transl. as Girodias (1980) ––– (1977b): ‘Lolita, héroïne de toutes les censures’. In: Le Monde (Paris), vol. 34, nr. 10095 (July 15, 1977), pp. 7,9 ––– (1980): The Frog Prince. New York, Crown ––– (1987): ‘Preface’. In: Kearney (1987), pp. 7-11 ––– (1990): Une journée sur la terre. I: L’Arrivée. II: Les jardins d’éros. Paris, Éditions de la différence Gordon, J. (1956a): ‘Current Events’. In: The Sunday Express (London), January 29, 1956, p. 6 ––– (1956b): [Letter to the Editor]. In: The Spectator (London), nr. 6665 (March 23, 1956), p. 373 Grazia, E. de (1969), ed.: Censorship Landmarks. New York & London, R.R. Bowker Company ––– (1992): Girls Lean Back Everywhere. The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius. New York, Random House Greene, G. (1955): ‘Books of the Year I. Chosen by Eminent Contemporaries’. In: The Sunday Times (London), nr. 6919 (December 25, 1955), p. 4 ––– (1956a): [Letter to the Editor]. In: The Spectator (London), nr. 6659 (February 10, 1956), p. 182 ––– (1956b): [Letter to the Editor]. In: The Spectator (London), nr. 6662 (March 2, 1956), p. 280 ––– (1956c): ‘The John Gordon Society’. In: The Spectator (London), nr. 6663 (March 9, 1956), p. 309 Havelock Ellis, H. (1926): Études de psychologie sexuelle VI. L’État psychique pendant la grossesse. La Mère et l’Enfant. Trad. par A. van Gennep. Paris, Mercure de France Haydn, H. (1974): Words & Faces. New York & London, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Hollander, J. (1956): ‘The Perilous Magic of Nymphets’. In: Partisan Review (New York), vol. 23, nr. 4 (Fall 1956), pp. 557-560. Repr. in Page (1982), pp. 81-91
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