"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul." So begins one of the most notorious novels of the 20th century: Nabokov's Lolita
. More literary than erotic, it was first published in an edition of 5,000 copies by the Olympia Press in Paris in 1955. (Not surprisingly, the Olympia Press was the successor of the Obelisk Press, the first publisher of Henry Miller.)
Edmund Wilson, the leading critic of his time and a friend of Nabokov's, called the book "repulsive." Graham Greene read the Olympia Press edition and listed Lolita as one of the three best books of the year in an article in the London Times. As Erica Jong wrote in a 1988 New York Times article about Lolita: "Graham Greene saw literature and language where others had seen only perversion and pornography."
Nabokov finished the manuscript of Lolita in the spring of 1954, in Ashland, Oregon, where he and his wife were spending time butterfly hunting. An accomplished lepidopterist, the genus Nabokovia is named after him in honor of his contributions to entomology. G. P. Putnam's Sons did publish the book in America; perhaps the Graham Greene recommendation made them eager, even though it was widely thought that the publisher of Lolita would end up in court on obscenity charges.
"Publisher Z," writes Nabokov in the essay "On a Book Entitled Lolita," "said that if he printed Lolita, he and I would go to jail." He also writes:
No writer in a free country should be expected to bother about the exact demarcation between the sensuous and the sensual; this is preposterous; I can only admire but cannot emulate the accuracy of judgment of those who pose the fair young mammals photographed in magazines where the general neckline is just low enough to provoke a past master's chuckle and just high enough not to make a postmaster frown.
Jong reminds her NYT readers that in 1955, "Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley's Lover could not be purchased at your local bookstore. A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins was as close as we got to literary sex education."
Fifty-five years have passed since Lolita first seduced the reading public. The tale of the tragic passion that consumes Humbert Humbert continues to influence readers and writers around the globe. "Lolita is famous, not I," Nabokov supposedly said to an interviewer. What reader today does not know the name Vladimir Nabokov? Many fewer people know the real name of Nabokov's character Lolita. Fittingly, her name was Dolores, which is Spanish for pain.