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Books: The Lolita Case

5 minute read

At a book-author lunch in Manhattan not long ago, Vladimir Nabokov faced a formidable force of 1,000 literature-loving women, and when it was announced that, as a feature of the lunch, one of them had won an autographed copy of Lolita, the excited “ooooh” could be heard all the way to Larchmont. Few novels have stirred up so much critical controversy as Nabokov’s account of a middle-aged psychopath’s passion for a gum-chewing, teenage “nymphet” (TIME, Sept. 1).

Frederic Babcock, editor of the Chicago Tribune’s Magazine of Books, proclaimed: “Lolita is pornography, and we do not plan to review it.” Other abstainers: the Christian Science Monitor and the Baltimore Sunpapers. But most publications did brace themselves to review the book, and attacks were vehement. The Providence Journal was tempted, but resisted: “After wading along with a kind of fascinated horror through 140,000 words, most readers will probably become bored . . . at times downright sickened . . .” The New York World Telegram’s Leslie Hanscom fumed that “there were moments . . . when my whole instinct was to land a Babbitt’s righteous punch on the super-civilized nose of the author . . . The novel has a tone which says that, if you cannot swallow its exquisitely distilled sewage with a good appetite, then you’d better go back where you belong and read Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook.”

Damns & Praise. There was much applause, although not all critics seemed sure of what they were clapping about. The Atlantic’s Charles Rolo: “One of the funniest of the serious novels I have ever read.” Although the Jesuit weekly America was sternly critical, Thomas Molnar cheered in the liberal Catholic weekly, Commonweal: “It has been said that this book has a high literary value; it has much more; a style, an individuality, a brilliance which may yet create a tradition in American letters.” Said The New Yorker: “The special class of satire to which ‘Lolita’ belongs is small but select, and Mr. Nabokov has produced one of its finest examples.”

Critic Lionel Trilling praised the book, speculated about its satirical intent: “To what end is a girl-child taught . . . to consider the brightness and fragrance of her hair, and the shape of her body, and her look of readiness for adventure? Why, what other end than that she shall be a really capable airline hostess?” In Esquire, Dorothy Parker succumbed to Nabokov’s charms before the reader’s eyes: “Lolita is a fine book, a distinguished book—all right, then—a great book.”

Split Personalities. Lolita’s atmosphere of mental illness seems pervasive, and at least three publications developed schizoid tendencies from reading the book. The New York Herald Tribune sprouted two critical heads with contradictory views: in the Sunday book magazine, Gene Baro praised “a notable consistency and artistic force,” but in a daily review John K. Hutchens decided that Lolita “is not, I think, a distinguished work.” In the New York Times Sunday book section Novelist Elizabeth Janeway praised Lolita at length (“One of the funniest and one of the saddest books that will be published this year”), but in a daily Times review, Orville Prescott contradicted her: “There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull . . .The second is that it is repulsive.”

The New Republic contracted the most visible case of split personality. Critic Conrad Brenner extolled the book for four pages, ended: “Vladimir Nabokov is an artist of the first rank, a writer in the great tradition . . . Lolita is probably the best fiction to come out of this country . . . since Faulkner’s burst in the ’30s. [Nabokov] may be the most important writer now going in this country.” But later, the New Republic used a lead editorial to call Lolita an “obscene chronicle of murder and a child’s destruction,” somberly explained “what obliges us to differ with our own reviewer.” It is “the real Lolitas who exist in darkness throughout their lives,” ignored by book critics but “known to social workers and mental institutions.”

The most unlikely follower in the wake of Lolita is not a literary critic but a superannuated (27) nymphet named Rosemary Ridgewell, a tall (5 ft. 8 in.), slithery-blithery onetime Latin Quarter showgirl who wears a gold swizzle stick around her neck and a bubbly smile on her face. Well may she bubble; 17 months ago she “discovered” Lolita when she read excerpts in the Anchor Review and told an acquaintance about it. The acquaintance, now her fast friend: Walter Minton, presidentof Putnam’s. Minton decided to publish the book, now has a major bestseller on his hands, and Scout Ridgewell has her cut (under a standing offer from Putnam’s of a percentage for anyone who discovers “salable” book properties). She is getting the equivalent of 10% of author’s royalties for the first year, plus 10% of the publisher’s share of subsidiary rights for two years.

Odd part of the matter: the New York publishing world—which is small to the point of claustrophobia—knew all about Lolita. It had been published (in English) by Paris’ Olympia Press, had been reviewed in the U.S. (TIME, March 18, 1957), but had not found a U.S. firm willing to take a chance on it. But Bookman Minton says he was not aware of Lolita until Reader Ridgewell brought it to his attention. Said Rosemary, happily swizzling a vodka on the rocks: “I thought Nabokov had a very interesting way of writing, very, you know—crystalline?”

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