Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories. The collection was named a book of the year by The Independent of London and The Irish Times, and he's received the Southern Review's annual short fiction award and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, among other distinctions. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he has written essays for Slate.com and All Things Considered, and has been a skateboarder for almost 20 years. To everyone's surprise, not least his own, he is a professor of creative writing at Harvard.
Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This week, All Things Considered is talking with authors about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
Asking a fiction writer to recommend his favorite book is a little like asking a father to pick his favorite child, like asking an adulterer to name his favorite lover. The writer will hem and haw, the father will equivocate, the adulterer will say he loves them all the same, just in different ways. Of course, we're lying. We all have a favorite: She stood "four foot ten in one sock." "She was Lola in slacks. She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning." But in our arms she will always be Lolita.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's immaculate and disturbing masterpiece, is the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert and his tragic love affair with his 12-year-old, bubble-gum popping stepdaughter Dolores "Lolita" Haze. It's a post-war road novel, the odyssey of a venerable European man and a prepubescent American girl bouncing across the United States, trying to outrun the past and find a future that doesn't exist. The prose is by turns passionate and playful, while the narrative is simultaneously lyrical and unsettling and erotic and violent — did I mention that, in addition to being a child molester, Humbert is also a murderer? It's a kind of inverted detective story: You immediately know someone's been killed, but have to wait to find out who. The book, which can be viewed as an allegory for Europe's relationship with America, offers a depiction of love that is as patently original as it is brutally shocking.
More shocking, though, is the reaction the author somehow manages to elicit from his readers: empathy. Readers always read, I think, out of a tremendous curiosity about other human beings, we're looking for another soul on the page, and that's what Nabokov has so fearlessly, so complexly, so gorgeously given us. In a lesser writer's hands, we could easily dismiss Mr. Humbert as a monster, but Nabokov denies us that all-too comfortable option. Even if we would never condone his vain and deadly infatuation, we understand it. We're complicit in his sins, and our complicity is seductive and terrifying. "Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury... look at this tangle of thorns."
To be sure, this novel isn't for the faint of heart, but neither should prospective readers retreat to any kind of moral high ground. Nabokov, in fact, threads an unexpected and affirming emotional serenity through his portrait of obsession. His enigmatic narrator leaves us in spellbound rapture. Because for all of its linguistic pyrotechnics — as Humbert confesses, "you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style" — and for all its controversial subject matter, Lolita is one of the most beautiful love stories you'll ever read. It may be one of the only love stories you'll ever read. This is the most thrilling and beautiful and most deeply disturbing aspect of the novel — and it's what most persuasively recommends the book — that in addition to finding Humbert's soul on the page, we also find, like it or not, a little of our own.
When the book was first published 50 years ago, it was considered by some to be obscene, to others a masterpiece of fiction. Over the course of five decades, the "masterpiece" vote has won out, more or less — but even two generations later, there's still a lot of debate.
Fans of the book say the racy nature of the plot is secondary to the true art of the words. It's written in the voice of a man driven to murder by his urge to love and control the young girl. Nabokov's prose alone can seduce readers into seeing the man's otherwise outrageous and criminal point of view.
Nabokov, who fled persecution in Russia and in Nazi Europe, was a professor of Russian literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. when he wrote Lolita, and many of the places described in the book are easily recognizable by residents today.
The author did a tremendous amount of research to get the details of American life right. "He would do things like travel on the buses around Ithaca and record phrases, in a little notebook, from young girls that he heard coming back from school," says Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd.
The germ of Lolita was created in 1939 — a short story, in Russian, about a man who marries a woman to get to her daughter. It was not well received, but the idea never left him. A decade later, Nabokov took up the story again in America. And again, some of his friends were horrified.
The book was rejected by five American publishers, who feared they'd be prosecuted on obscenity charges. It was first published in France by Olympia Press, which put out some serious books — and lots of pornography.
Nabokov didn't know that — he was just relieved someone agreed to publish his book. And so Lolita debuted, clad in a plain green cover, in Paris, on Sept. 15, 1955. It was published in America three years later and was an immediate hit.
Within a year after the U.S. debut of Lolita, Nabokov left Cornell. He had earned enough money from the book that he could afford to stop teaching and write full-time, and he spent the rest of his life in Montreux, Switzerland. Lolita has so far sold 50 million copies; it has been translated into dozens of languages.