'Lolita' Turns 50, Part 2

'Lolita' Audio, Video Extras

The novel Lolita has spawned controversy, contempt, devotion and sales in the millions for at least two generations. In the second of a two-part series, Madeleine Brand explores how Vladimir Nabokov's groundbreaking novel about forbidden desire has rippled out into American culture.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

"Lolita" is no longer a fresh young thing. The book is 50 years old today. Vladimir Nabokov's groundbreaking novel was first published September 15th, 1955, in France. Three years later, it was published here in the US, and since then "Lolita" has become part of the language defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as `a precociously seductive girl.' With the second of her reports on "Lolita's" lasting legacy, here's DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

Nabokov may not have agreed with that definition of `Lolita'--a precociously seductive girl--simply because it's too simple. Here's actor Jeremy Irons reading from the opening pages of the novel in a Random House recording.

(Soundbite of audiobook recording of "Lolita")

Mr. JEREMY IRONS: (Reading) `She was low, plain low in the morning, standing 4'10" in one sock. She was Lola(ph) in slacks, she was Dolly(ph) at school, she was Dolores on the dotted line, but in my arms, she was always Lolita.'

Ms. AZAR NAFISI (Author, "Reading Lolita in Tehran"): The name `Lolita' itself has so many connotations.

BRAND: Azar Nafisi is the author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran."

Ms. NAFISI: Because her name is not Lolita; her real name is Dolores, which as you know in Latin means `dolor.' So her real name is associated with sorrow and with anguish and with innocence. While Lolita becomes a sort of lightheaded, seductive and airy name, the Lolita of our novel is both of these at the same time. And in our culture here today, we only associate it with one aspect of that little girl, and the crassest interpretation of her.

BRAND: The Long Island Lolita, Britney Spears, The Olsen Twins and Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 movie, "Lolita."

(Soundbite of "Lolita")

Unidentified Man #1: "Lolita."

Unidentified Woman #1: "Lolita."

Unidentified Man #2: "Lolita"? Huh.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: How did they ever make a movie of "Lolita"?

Unidentified Woman #1: How did they ever...

Unidentified Man #3: A movie of...

Unidentified Woman #2: How did they ever...

BRAND: But the question really became: `How do you translate Nabokov's book into a movie?' Years later, Kubrick admitted you don't. He said the film was his only failure because the book was just too good to adapt for the screen. Kubrick had optioned "Lolita" shortly after it was published here in the US. When it arrived in bookstores in 1958, "Lolita" was immediately embraced. The fears that it would be censored or censured never materialized, says retired English Professor M.H. Abrams, who taught with Nabokov at Cornell University in the 1950s.

Professor M.H. ABRAMS (Retired; Cornell University): It took off like a kite, as I remember it. The first reviews were ecstatic, and it's been praised more highly ever since.

BRAND: When "Lolita" was published, Abrams lived a few blocks away from Nabokov in Ithaca, New York. One day he saw Nabokov standing outside his house, so Abrams called out saying he just read a nice review of "Lolita" by the eminent literary critic and Nabokov rival Edmund Wilson.

Prof. ABRAMS: He looked at it and then he was kind of suspicious and he said, `What did Edmund say?' And I said, `Oh, he was immensely complimentary. He said that it was the finest novel published by someone who is not a native speaker of English since Joseph Conrad.' And without a moment's hesitation, Nabokov said, `The comparison is not just.' I said, `Why not?' He said, `Conrad never published novels in his native Polish.' He had obviously thought of the comparison himself and had already placed himself on a higher level than Conrad.

BRAND: Within a year after "Lolita's" American debut, Nabokov left Cornell. He had earned enough money from the book that he could afford to stop teaching and write full-time.

Prof. ABRAMS: We didn't appreciate his genius. It's clear. No one did. That he belongs up there with Joyce and Proust and the great novelists of the century became evident only after he'd left here.

BRAND: Nabokov went on to write the screenplay for Kubrick's movie. He was in much demand as a speaker where he would read his poetry, including this crowd-pleaser, a poem that Humbert Humbert writes after Lolita leaves him.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. VLADIMIR NABOKOV (Author, "Lolita"): (Reading) `Wanted, wanted, Dolores Haze. Hair: blond; lips: scarlet; age: 5,300 days; profession: none or starlet. Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze? Why are you hiding, darling? I talk in a daze, I walk in a maze. "I cannot get out," said the starling.'

BRAND: Nabokov spent the rest of his life in Montreux, Switzerland. His former student-turned-English Professor Alfred Appel visited Nabokov there to get his input for the annotated "Lolita" Appel was writing.

Professor ALFRED APPEL (Former Nabokov Student): I told this to Nabokov once and he said, `This was better than getting a good review in any literary magazine.' A big kind of ox of a fellow who sat in the back of the room with a baseball cap on always, he came up after a class in which I had read a passage when Humbert describes Colorado and the kind of mirages you'd get, the miraculous effects on the highways in the very hottest times of the summer. And this big guy comes up and he says to me, `That's the most beautiful thing I've ever read.' He said, `That reminds me of trips I took with my father when I was a child.' And he says, `I'm going to keep this book and I know I'm going to read this passage a couple of times a year for the rest of my life.' And Nabokov just looked at me, and he couldn't talk.

BRAND: Nabokov's novel paints a picture of a boundless America; physically beautiful, yet callow and crass. The book is always working on many levels, perhaps, most importantly, Nabokov has created unforgettable characters. Humbert Humbert is complicated and contradictory. He's not just a monster. He's not just a pedophile. He's an artist too. Just as Lolita is not just a brat and not just a precociously seductive girl.

Ms. NAFISI: There's a very beautiful scene when Humbert hears Lolita telling her friend the worst thing about dying is how alone you are.

BRAND: Author Azar Nafisi.

Ms. NAFISI: And he says, `I didn't know that my little girl had a garden and a twilight in her mind. I didn't know about this aspect of hers,' and he keeps missing that. And in order to be able to rape Lolita every single night, he has to miss that aspect of her. This is what tyrants do.

BRAND: At the end of the book, Humbert finds Lolita married and pregnant at 17, and he realizes when parked on top of a hill listening to children play in the valley below that he has stolen Lolita's childhood.

(Soundbite of audiobook recording of "Lolita")

Mr. IRONS: (Reading) `I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.'

BRAND: Azar Nafisi believes Nabokov, who fled persecution in Russia and in Nazi Europe, was writing about the sanctity of personal freedom. Humbert literally and figuratively writes Lolita's story. He takes away her right to create her own life and her own future.

Ms. NAFISI: Nabokov used to say, `All beauty's anguish because all beauty must die.' So we can't prevent death, but we make it eternal, and we make beauty eternal through writing about it, painting it, putting it into music. That is the only power we have against death, to write and to paint and to imagine.

BRAND: "Lolita" the book has sold 50 million copies and has been translated into dozens of languages. Its immortality is assured. Madeleine Brand, NPR News.

CHADWICK: And you can see a scene from the 1961 movie, the one where Humbert Humbert meets Lolita for the first time. There's that and much more about the book's 50th anniversary at our Web site, npr.org.

More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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