Published:  12:50 AM, 21 September 2017

Vladimir Nabokov's America

Vladimir Nabokov's America

On February 3, 1954, Vladimir Nabokov wrote to James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions, "Would you be interested in publishing a time bomb that I have just finished putting together? It is a novel of 459 typewritten pages." The novel was 'Lolita,' the tale of a middle-aged pedophile's sexual exploitation of a twelve-year-old girl, and Nabokov's description proved accurate.

The book would not find an American publisher for almost five years, after threats of banning the book and imprisoning its author and publisher had abated. When 'Lolita' finally did appear in America, in November, 1958, it indeed detonated like a time-delayed explosive: it drew an outraged review by the lead critic of the Times, Orville Prescott, who called it "repulsive …highbrow pornography," and became an instant best-seller, breaking the record for one-week sales set by 'Gone with the Wind.' More importantly, it secured for Nabokov, over time, a reputation as a master of English prose second only to Joyce.

In his foreword to 'Lolita,' Nabokov, impersonating the sociologist John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., writes that "a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come more or less as a shocking surprise." The book remains shocking almost sixty years later, and not only because of its subject matter. At least as surprising is the fact that the novel, so assured in its evocation of the minutiae of mid-century, middle-class America, so accurate in its reproduction of the cadences of American speech-from Lolita's twanging teen slang to Charlotte Haze's suburban book-club elegancies and Headmistress Pratt's progressive-education claptrap-was written by a Russian émigré who had been in the country only a handful of years.

Nabokov arrived on these shores, penniless and without prospects, in 1941, at the age of forty, having only begun writing in English shortly before his flight from Europe. How could a book so thoroughly-so definingly-American have arisen under such unpropitious circumstances and from so seemingly unlikely a source?

Outward appearances to the contrary, many of the elements for 'Lolita' were already in place by the time Nabokov arrived in America. Born into an aristocratic Russian family, he had fled St. Petersburg at the age of eighteen (losing a fortune of a hundred and forty million dollars to the Bolsheviks), and eventually settled in Berlin, where, through the 1920s and most of the 1930s, he produced a series of novels which proved him to be a singularly chameleonic writer, uncannily able to adopt the nuances of whatever background he lit upon.

In 'King, Queen, Knave' he wrote from the intimate perspectives of, respectively, a wealthy Berlin businessman, his lubricious wife, and their gawky, unsavory nephew; in 'Laughter in the Dark' he ventriloquized a German art historian, a vicious German sadist-cartoonist, and their shared teen-aged fräulein; and in 'Despair' he donned, flawlessly, the personality of an absurdly deranged Russian-German chocolate manufacturer and murderer.

In these early novels, as in 'Lolita,' Nabokov demonstrated an attraction to sexually scandalous subjects, and a penchant for disturbed and obsessive first-person narrators. (Hermann Hermann, the deluded protagonist of 'Despair,' is a direct precursor of Humbert Humbert.) That these books were written in Russian was, in some respects, incidental, since Nabokov, having learned English as a small child and spent four years at Cambridge, knew the language virtually as well as he knew Russian.

But as the author Robert Roper points out in a new biography, "Nabokov in America: On the Road to 'Lolita,' " Nabokov's first seven years in the United States were also crucial to his developing the audacity and American-style effrontery that would allow him, in the summer of 1948, to sit down and begin writing the especially daring provocation that is 'Lolita.' Before he even officially set foot on U.S. soil, Nabokov and his adoptive country were unusually simpatico.

Despite his later scowling gravitas, the Russian author was, as Roper points out, a perpetual child, playful and provocative, high-spirited and spontaneous-qualities central to the tone and turn of mind of 'Lolita.' When he arrived at U.S. customs, with his wife Vera and their four-year-old son, Dmitri, on the last boat out of Nazi-occupied France (as a Jew, Vera was in special danger), Nabokov had an auspicious encounter with a U.S. border official, who, upon inspecting the family's luggage, saw a pair of boxing gloves.

The official and another border guard pulled on the gloves and began playfully sparring. In his book "Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years," the biographer Brian Boyd writes that, "as Nabokov retold the story decades later, still enchanted by America's easygoing, good-natured atmosphere, he repeated with delight: 'Where would that happen? Where would that happen?'

Nabokov's delight, and good luck, continued in this magical new land. Though arriving without money or firm prospects for employment, he soon got a temporary post teaching comparative literature at Wellesley; in 1948, he ascended to a full professorship at Cornell, where he taught Russian Literature. This was the first financial security Nabokov had known since losing his inheritance in the Russian Revolution.

During his two decades of exile in Europe, he had lived in virtual poverty, supporting himself and his family, barely, by teaching private lessons in tennis, languages, and boxing. Roper-who is a novelist himself, and clearly understands how the state of a writer's wallet can affect her work-emphasizes that it was in large part the newfound financial security Nabokov found in America that allowed him the peace of mind to tackle a project like 'Lolita,' which stood little chance of actually getting published.

'Lolita' was not, however, Nabokov's first attempt to write a story about a pedophile who, enamored of a particular twelve-year-old girl, marries her mother to be closer to his love object-and who finds the girl in his clutches after the mother's untimely death. His first attempt, a short novella called "The Enchanter," was written in Russian shortly before his move to America. That novella, published posthumously, in 1986, by Vera and Dmitri Nabokov, shows just how important the atmosphere of America was to making 'Lolita' the great work it is.

Where 'The Enchanter' is curiously dour, featureless, and vague, 'Lolita' is a great, rollicking encyclopedia teeming with specific details of Nabokov's adoptive country, sweeping into its embrace the entire American geography, from East to West, North to South, in Humbert's zig-zagging car journeys with his under-aged sex slave (journeys that follow the same route as the decidedly more sedate butterfly-hunting trips that Nabokov made each summer with his wife).

Much of the novel's energy derives from the love-hate relationship Nabokov had with America's postwar culture of crap TV shows, bad westerns, squawking jukeboxes-the invigorating trash that informs the story of a cultured European's sexual obsession with an American bobby-soxer who is, as Humbert calls her, the "ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster."

Nabokov always refused the label of satirist, and it would be an oversimplification to say that 'Lolita' merely skewers the materialism of fifties America; throughout the book, there is a sense of hypnotized wonder and delight at the happy consumerism of the country and its inhabitants, and Nabokov took over joy at clipping and cataloguing examples of that consumerism, which he carefully worked into the very texture of 'Lolita.' Alfred Appel, Jr., in his superb book 'The Annotated Lolita,' reprinted the Viyella robe ad alluded to by Humbert, who says that he bears a strong resemblance to the ad's dark-haired male model.

As in a fairy tale, the great commercial success of that novel restored to Nabokov, at nearly the age of sixty, the fortune he'd lost in his teens. And that same success led, ultimately, to the author's permanent removal from America. In 1961, he and Vera went to live in the Montreux Palace Hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, where Nabokov devoted himself full time to writing. He told interviewers that he and Vera fully intended to return to America. Owing to the encroachments of age, and the pull of family (Dmitri lived in nearby Italy), they never did. But until his death in 1977, at the age of seventy-eight, Nabokov continued to refer to himself as an American writer.

The writer is a journalist. The write-up has also appeared on

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