Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, about an academic named Humbert Humbert who falls in love with a little girl, was published in the United States for the first time on this day in 1957. It had already been reviewed in The Nation by fiction writer George P. Elliott more than a year earlier.
Lolita was published in English two years ago in Paris, but it has not yet come out in this country…. I suppose our publishers are afraid that Lolita would bring them lawsuits for being pornographic and immoral. And pornographers would, I am sure, find it fairly satisfactory for their lewd fantasies. But only fairly satisfactory, for, like Ulysses before it, Lolita by high art transmutes persons, motives and actions which in ordinary life are considered indecent, into objects of delight, compassion and contemplation. Lolita will turn no reasonable citizen into a pornographer; the indecency in it, like the crime, is always seen with a clarity which does not encourage the fabricating of fantasies….
The book’s chief offense, I guess, is that it presents a sexual pervert as a man to be known and pitied, a man of some essential dignity. Its other offense, perhaps as great, is that it satirizes in delighted detail our adman pandering to childishness, ease, vulgarity, titillation, mindlessness. Yet Lolita is not primarily a satire but a comedy of the exuberant Rabelaisian sort. It is superabundant in verbal energy (Nabokov’s command over American idiom is a marvel greater even than Conrad’s over literary English) and it heaps details of our daily life before us until it forces our wonder even more than our repugnance. It preserves that strange doubleness of comedy which creates in many a discomfort they resist…for you identify with, feel familiar with, see yourself in, a character whom you at the same time know to have performed abominable deeds. It transmutes, as only a great book could, this diseased man and this banal girl into people whom we know so well that they becomes others—not symbols, not types of Man, not aspects of ourselves, but persons towards whom we are permitted and encouraged and at last obliged to exercise our highest charity.
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