Today in Literary History – August 18, 1958 – Nabokov’s Lolita is first published in the US 60 years ago today

Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial masterpiece Lolita was first published in the United States sixty years ago today, on August 18, 1958. It had originally been published in Paris in 1955 by Olympia Press (which specialized in “erotica”) in two error-ridden volumes. It would not be be published in the UK until 1959.

The novel’s plot, the infatuation and corruption of a prepubescent girl by an older man, all but guaranteed that it would be the target of censorship at that time.

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Nabokov’s manuscript was turned down by many leading American publishers — Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday — because of their justifiable fears of the costs of having to defend the novel in court. By 1958, smuggled copies of the Olympia Press volumes had reached the US and the UK (despite being banned there).

G.P. Putnam & Sons took a calculated risk and published Lolita amid great publicity. It went through three printings in as many days and sold over 100,000 copies in its first three weeks, making it one of the fastest selling novels in US publishing history up to that time. It received both scathing and ecstatic reviews.

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The novel is presented as a manuscript written by a European academic who has recently died in an American prison hospital. He uses the pseudonym Humbert Humbert and tells the story of his “seduction” of a young girl and his murder of her mother so that he could have her all to himself.

The girl’s name is Dolores Haze, known to Humbert as Lolita.

The famous opening lines of Humbert’s “confession” show the humour and wordplay Nabokov employs throughout the book: ““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. … 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”

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Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film version of Lolita

I’ve read Lolita twice (both times admiring the first half more than the latter) and look forward to reading it again and again, learning more each time.

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