50 Years Later, 'Lolita' Still Seduces Readers When Lolita was first published 50 years ago, it was considered by some to be obscene, to others a masterpiece of ficition. But more than 50 million copies later, the book and its beautiful, tragic prose continues to lure new generations of readers.
NPR logo 50 Years Later, 'Lolita' Still Seduces Readers

Part 1: Creating a Literary Classic

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

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

(Soundbite of audiobook recording of "Lolita")

Mr. JEREMY IRONS: (Reading) `Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul.'

CHADWICK: That is the opening line of Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita," as read by the actor Jeremy Irons on a Random House recording. "Lolita" is the story of a 37-year-old man's emotional and sexual love affair with a 12-year-old girl. "Lolita" the book itself is now middle-aged; it was first published 50 years ago tomorrow. In the first of two stories, DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand reports on how "Lolita" became one of the masterpieces of modern fiction.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

Sure, the material is racy; it's the hook, if you will. But what's kept readers sticking around for the last half-century is the writing. Listen to the next line.

(Soundbite of audiobook recording of "Lolita")

Mr. IRONS: (Reading) `Lolita. The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the pallet to the tap at three on the teeth. Lo-li-ta.'

BRAND: But just as we're basking in the warm glow of this imagery and alliteration, this literary art, the rug is pulled out from under us.

(Soundbite of audiobook recording of "Lolita")

Mr. IRONS: (Reading) `You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.'

BRAND: Our narrator isn't Vladimir Nabokov; it's Nabokov's creation Humbert Humbert, an eloquent, urbane and handsome European professor who seduces--no, rapes a 12-year-old girl. Humbert is writing his memoir in prison after killing his rival Clare Quilty, who took Lolita away from him. Humbert's memoir is an elaborate explanation and justification of what he's done, and early on, through his sophisticated writing, he seduces the reader into being on his side.

(Soundbite of audiobook recording of "Lolita")

Mr. IRONS: (Reading) `A normal man given a group photograph of schoolgirls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creator of infinite melancholy with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a supervoluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine. Oh, how you have to cringe and hide in order to discern at once by ineffable signs the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate. For little deadly demon among the wholesome children, she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.'

Mr. DREW WEBB(ph) (Student, Cornell University): I definitely could identify a lot with Humbert Humbert's feeling of despair and love, how it's almost that he can't really have her. And I could easily understand how bad he wanted Lolita and how not only society looked down upon it because of her age, but also she never really reciprocated that love.

BRAND: That's Drew Webb. He's a Cornell University sophomore taking a class on famous authors who taught at Cornell in Ithaca, New York. Nabokov was one of them. He was hired as a Russian literature professor in 1948. And in the summers he had off, Nabokov and his wife Vera would leave Ithaca and travel across the United States. Vera would drive; they stayed in motels after long days exploring America and researching butterflies. Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd.

Mr. BRIAN BOYD (Nabokov Biographer): By this stage, he'd been working as a lepidopterist, a curator of butterflies and moths, at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. And he'd gotten used to working, as many scientists did, on small index cards. And he began to find that this was a very flexible way of writing small sections of a novel partly because he didn't write a novel from start to finish. He spent several months conceiving it in his head and then could write any section at any point and then just slot the cards in the right order. So he would take a little batch of cards out to the car and wind up the windows so that he wasn't bothered by the traffic noise and just sit there composing "Lolita" on a car seat, which is a wonderful image.

BRAND: When Nabokov returned to Ithaca to teach, he lived in various homes while their owners, other professors, were on sabbatical. He wasn't making much money, so it was a good way to live well. One house he lived in is here, on a steep hill near the campus. Russian studies Professor Gavriel Shapiro is Cornell's resident Nabokov expert, and he says Nabokov lived in what he called this dreadfully drafty dacha for about two years.

Professor GAVRIEL SHAPIRO (Cornell University): This house, according to Nabokov himself, served as the prototype for the Ramsdale House in Lolita.

BRAND: The house where Humbert Humbert came to live with Lolita and her mother.

Prof. SHAPIRO: Another interesting legend that goes with this house, at some point, Nabokov apparently was dissatisfied with the way his work on "Lolita" was going and he was taking his index cards to the incinerator and he was (unintelligible) in time before he disposed of them.

BRAND: While Nabokov was in Ithaca, he did a tremendous amount of research to get the details of American life right. After all, says his biographer Brian Boyd, Nabokov was a Russian emigre and English was his second language.

Mr. BOYD: So he read books on adolescents and guides to controlling your teen-age daughters and teen magazines. And he was really not a low-culture person, so this was all research; it wasn't his standard range of reading. And he would also do things like travel on the buses around Ithaca and record phrases in a little notebook from young girls he heard coming back from school.

BRAND: The germ of "Lolita" was created in 1939 when Nabokov wrote a short story in Russian called "The Enchanter" about a man who marries a woman to get to her daughter. It was not well-received, and Nabokov's friends convinced him to abandon it. But the idea never left him and a decade later, Nabokov took up the story again in America, and again some of his friends were horrified. His closest friend, the man who brought him to the Cornell faculty, Morris Bishop, was afraid the book would damage Cornell's reputation. Nabokov considered publishing anonymously, also afraid of what could happen to Cornell, but he decided against it. Here is a letter Nabokov wrote Morris Bishop as read by Cornell's curator of rare books and manuscripts Katherine Reagan.

Ms. KATHERINE REAGAN (Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Cornell University): (Reading) `Frankly, I'm not much concerned with the irate paterfamilias'--referring to Cornell. `I know that "Lolita" is my best book so far. I calmly lean on my conviction that it is a serious work of art and that no court could prove it to be lewd and libertine.'

BRAND: The book had just been published in France and rejected by five American publishers who were afraid they'd be prosecuted on obscenity charges. The French publisher was 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 September 15th, 1955.

Mr. ALFRED APPEL (Former Nabokov Student): I was on the Left Bank and I wandered into a dusty, quaint old bookstore.

BRAND: Alfred Appel was one of Nabokov's students at Cornell before being drafted for the Korean War in 1956.

Mr. APPEL: I did a double-, maybe triple-take because there was a book called "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov, my professor. And in the matching green Olympia covers, on the left side was a book called "Until She Screams" and on the right side of the "Lolita" was a book called "The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe." So I bought the middle book, "Lolita," and took it back to the barracks. Someone wanted to read my dirty book, but couldn't get through the first sentence and threw it down, said it was `goddamn literature.' And I read it and I was just astonished 'cause it was a great book I thought immediately.

BRAND: The English novelist Graham Greene agreed, and he put it on his list of the best books of 1955. That prompted an outcry by a conservative newspaper in London, which called the book `sheer, unrestrained pornography.' The ensuing controversy brought "Lolita" international attention and finally three years later, in 1958, it came out in America. Publishers saw what a salacious topic could do for book sales.

Tomorrow, the reaction to "Lolita" after it's published in the US, and why it's regarded as one of the best books ever written in the English language.

Unidentified Man: We didn't appreciate his genius. It's clear. No one did. It was in retrospect only that we realized what we lost after he'd gone.

BRAND: Madeleine Brand, NPR News.

CHADWICK: And there's more on "Lolita" at our Web site, npr.org.

I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY.

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