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Vintage review: even in 1958, 'Lolita' was esthetic bliss

November 15, 2009 |  7:25 am

Nabokov_portrait This week, we review "The Original of Laura," the last book written -- partially written, anyway -- by Vladimir Nabokov. This unfinished work may provide "some precious insight into Nabokov's compositional methods," our reviewer James Marcus writes, but it isn't a novel as complete or as polished as his other books.

Now Nabokov is recognized as a master novelist; his greatest accomplishment, "Lolita," frequently tops best-of lists. Even in the moment, it was possible to see that with "Lolita," Nabokov had written something extraordinary. It was, at least, for LA Times books editor Robert R. Kirsch, who reviewed "Lolita" on August 31, 1958. The review, in its entirety, follows.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Esthetic Bliss in Satirical Novel

In a postscript to his novel "Lolita" (Putnam, $5) Vladimir Nabokov answers the question which teachers of literature are apt to ask: What is the author's purpose? he says, "Now, I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to write a book has no other purpose than to get rid of the book and who, when asked to explain its origin and growth, has to rely on such ancient terms as Interreaction of Inspiration and Combination -- which I admit, sounds like a conjurer explaining by one trick performing another."

The simplest part of the matter is that he had to write the book because it would not allow itself to remain unwritten.  Books have such a away with serious and dedicated authors, a life and almost will of their own. "Once or twice," he writes, "I was on the point of burning the unfinished draft... when I was stopped by the thought that the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life."

Why, you may ask, does a writer feel it necessary to explain a book? There are so many novels being publish which are never explained, are in fact unexplainable. The answer lies in the publishing history of "Lolita." Nabokov, a professor of European literature at Cornell, an amateur lepidopterist and a writer of unique style and talent, offered the manuscript of "Lolita" to four American publishers, who were so shocked by it that they would not publish it. The novel deals with a middle-aged European man who has an obsessive love for nubile, pre-adolescents, whom he calls "nymphets." Very likely behind their reasoning was the haunting possibility of litigations and bans. They just didn't want to take a chance. This would have been understandable had one of them not suggested to the author that he turn Lolita "into a 12-year-old lad and have him seduced by Humbert, a farmer, amidst gaunt and arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, 'realistic' sentences ('He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess.)." Nabokov refused. the book was publishing in France in a two-volume paperback. American customs authorities, displaying unusual literary taste, allowed the book to be imported to the United States where it was promptly sold under the counter at black market prices. The matter came under discussion in the Anchor Review and other publications and ultimately Putnam's decided to publish an American edition. 

Word-of-mouth reports hinted that "Lolita" was hot stuff and the implication was that the book was a high-class "Peyton Place." Nothing could be farther from the actual fact. "Lolita" is not a lewd book and if it arouses any prurient interest in anybody, I will be very much surprised. Those who are seeing thrills would be well advised to go elsewhere to those novels which have no other purpose than the collection of sexual scenes bathed in cliched lust.

What you will find in "Lolita" are other pleasures and other sadnesses. If you like Fielding, Smollett and Sterne, if the comic novel of the 18th century appeals to you, you are in for a treat. "Lolita" is a small masterpiece, an almost perfect comic novel, a rare thing in these days when we have lost sight of the purgative and pleasurable effects of comedy and when tragedy has become the small and poverty-stricken province of southern effetes and New England housewives.

Whether intended or not, "Lolita" is savage satire on inadequacy of 'psychological realism.'

Far from celebrating perversion, this novel somehow communicates the utter hopelessness and bitterness of it. And not the least through the irony of Humbert Humbert's mixture of blindness and lucid vision about his obsession. He is an intelligent and gifted man but he is also a disabled man and his cleverness, his puns, his play on words, his ability to fly in the depths does not in the end save him.

From the foreword, bu a fictitious PhD who gratuitiously provides the rationalization (which even Samuel Richardson used) that reading about these things should make "parents, social workers and educators -- apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a better world," to the end, "the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord," the reader is bemused by that sense of esthetic bliss which great works provide. Whether intended or not, it is a savage satire on the inadequacy of "psychological realism." There is  no lack of insight in "Lolita" but it is enhanced by its relationship to all else in the world and by implication, the cosmos.

Photo: Vladimir Nabokov. Credit: International Portrait Gallery

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