She was once a russet girl-child “smelling of orchards in nymphetland.” Today she’s a social and linguistic cliché: “Lolita. n. [after title character in Nabokov’s novel Lolita] a pubescent girl who is sexually precocious,” as Webster’s coyly informs us. From the obsession with Lindsay Lohan and the Olsen twins in laddie magazines like Maxim to the teen temptress who comes on to Bill Murray in Jim Jarmusch’s recent film Broken Flowers, Lolitas have become a ubiquitous–even banal–feature of American culture. And they come, of course, in endless colors and contours.
But whatever happened to that ur-nymphet who catapulted Nabokov into literary history? By a curious twist of fate, 50-year-old Lolita seems decidedly less consumable than her mainstream siblings, and she continues to foment considerable angst and trouble. To read Lolita, after all, is to enter the mind of a man irresistibly drawn to little girls, or “nymphets,” as he prefers to call them. At the beginning of the novel, Humbert Humbert, sitting on a park bench, stares at a cluster of “perfect little beauties”: “Ah, leave me alone in my pubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me forever. Never grow up.” Sunk deep in the fancies of his netherworld, Humbert lures the reader into his damp thicket of words. American readers in particular have long felt guilty about loving Lolita, and they have searched in vain for its moral lessons.
Nabokov was 56 years old when Lolita was published in September 1955, two years after he had completed the manuscript. He knew that she would be his “time bomb.” Three little syllables that rocked the literary establishment. As soon as Jason Epstein, then a young editor at Doubleday, read the manuscript, he declared that Nabokov had written Swann’s Way as though he were James Joyce. Epstein, however, promptly turned down the manuscript, citing its “outlandish perverseness.” According to Nabokov’s biographer, Brian Boyd, four other American publishers followed suit in the course of 1954. They feared a scandal, obscenity trials, even prison. And Nabokov sarcastically outlined his own account of Lolita‘s misadventures in his magnificent 1956 afterword, “On a Book Entitled Lolita”: “The four American publishers, W, X, Y, Z, who in turn were offered the typescript and had their readers glance at it, were shocked by Lolita to a degree…not expected.” Publisher Z remarked that if he printed the book, both the writer and he would go to jail. Nabokov wasn’t surprised, since he knew his tale of an affair between a middle-aged man and a barely pubescent girl explored one of the three “utterly taboo” themes in American publishing. (The two others were “A Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.”)