Publishing Lolita

Photograph by Carl Mydans / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

I have expressed before my deep admiration for Vladimir Nabokov, one of the truly great writers and one of the truly great subjects for literary discussion. I tend to read anything about him that I come across, and so it was no surprise that I was attracted to read Stacy Schiff’s piece in the New Yorker entitled Vera Nabokov was the first and greatest champion of Lolita.

For anyone interested in the literature of the 20th century, this is an essential trip down memory lane, capturing the difficulties of publishing a book such as Lolita in Eisenhower’s America, and the reaction to it once published.

The heroine of Schiff’s article is Nabokov’s wife Vera, who at least once saved the manuscript from the flames and who it was who suggested, finally, publishing the book in Paris.

“It was Véra who thought, days after the fifth rejection, to pursue publication abroad. Might her husband’s longtime French agent, she wondered, be interested in a novel that could not be published in America, for reasons of “straitlaced morality”? The manuscript was of an “extreme originality,” a category that in the Nabokov household tended to overlap with outlandish perversity. Véra begged for a speedy reply.”

After Graham Greene had proclaimed Lolita to be one of the best three books of the year, American publishers crawled over each other to publish in the States. At the event to celebrate its publication by Putnam (and after), it was Vera who stood “as the fire wall between Vladimir Nabokov and Humbert Humbert.”

“The New York Post took pains to observe that the author was accompanied to cocktails by “his wife, Véra, a slender, fair-skinned, white-haired woman in no way reminiscent of Lolita.” At that reception, as elsewhere, admirers told Véra that they had not expected Nabokov to show up with his wife of thirty-three years. “Yes,” she replied, smiling, unflappable. “It’s the main reason why I’m here … Véra’s presence kept the fiction in place, and Humbert’s monstrosity at bay. For the next few years, the words “who looks nothing like Lolita” obligatorily attached themselves to her name. She served as her husband’s badge of honor, his moral camouflage. She provided a comforting bit of misdirection. An accessory to the crime, Véra looked every inch the snowy-haired alibi.”

Schiff writes well about the book’s reception and its place in the canon of modern literature and Vera Nabokov’s role. She concludes:

“The long-suffering wife who stands at her husband’s side, lending moral cover, reliably serves to blot out another woman’s agony. Véra did just the opposite. She alone emphasized Lolita’s plight from the start. In interviews, among her husband’s colleagues, with family members, she stressed Lolita’s “complete loneliness in the whole world.” She had not a single surviving relative! Reviewers searched for morals, justifications, explanations. What they inevitably failed to notice, Véra complained, was “the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous Humbert Humbert, and her heartrending courage all along.” They forgot that “ ‘the horrid little brat’ Lolita was essentially very good indeed.” 

Well worth the read (and so is Lolita if you haven’t done so already).

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