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Literature

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
1955

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's serio-comic portrait of small-town America, is published in 1955 in France by the Olympia Press. It has been rejected by four American publishers who are terrified of its subject: the lustful obsession of a middle-aged man for his 12-year-old stepdaughter. British novelist Graham Greene's praise of Lolita as "greatest book of the year" thrusts the work into the limelight, and it is banned, first in Great Britain and then in France, where it stays off the shelves for two years.

In 1958, Putnam's publishes Lolita in America, and its notoriety ensures its an instant success, selling more than 100,000 copies in its first three weeks. Lolita is both vilified and lauded, called a brilliantly written work of comic genius by some and vile pornography by others. In spite of its ornate prose and punning style, it holds at number one on the best seller list for six months and stays on the list for a year.

In the coming decades, Lolita's style and its precise portrayal of the banality of postwar America accords it the status of a masterpiece. The book is taught in college, analyzed in academic dissertations, and featured in critical appreciations by such novelists as Martin Amis and Amy Tan. In 1998, a board of distinguished writers convened by Random House's Modern Library series selects the 100 best novels of the 20th century. Lolita is number four.


"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns."


"How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty. And I was such a thoughtful friend, such a passionate father, such a good pediatrician, attending to all the wants of my little auburn brunette's body! My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys. On especially tropical afternoons, in the sticky closeness of the siesta, I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap. There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove."


Two passages from Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1958, novel.


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