In 1955, Vladimir Nabokov‘s novel Lolita was published, in a small edition by an obscure French publisher with a penchant for pornography. Graham Greene pronounced it one of the three best books published that year, and “Hurricane Lolita” (as the Nabokovs referred to the intense publicity) gathered strength and swept over the Nabokov family, living at the time in Ithaca, New York.
The colossal fame and recognition had been a long time coming: the Nabokovs (Vladimir, his wife Véra, and son Dmitri) had spent the last few decades in near-poverty, travelling one step ahead of the Second World War (Véra was proudly and vociferously Jewish) and the Russian Revolution (both the Nabokovs’ aristocratic lives had gone up in smoke). Dmitri, when asked where his home was, answered that he hadn’t one — just “little houses by the side of the road.”
Lolita was composed between 1949 and 1953 (a novella featuring similar themes was written in 1939, and real-life incidents also contributed, perhaps), and is a road novel both literally and fictionally: the endless trip that Humbert Humbert drags Dolores Haze on to avoid awkward questions is the same trip the Nabokovs themselves took, Vera driving, Nabokov writing, the two of them catching butterflies along the way.
Once the novel hit the bestseller lists in America, the Nabokovs realized that this meant the end of their peripatetic life, and they settled in a hotel in Switzerland for the rest of their lives. Thanks can be — and presumably were — given to the formidable Véra who had twice rescued the manuscript from being tossed into a fire, as Nabokov wrestled with the book and realized that it might make him not so much famous as infamous.
During the Sixties Nabokov was in high demand as a speaker (his presentation and reading skills honed by years of teaching literature at Wellesley and Cornell), and this LP captures Nabokov luxuriating in the acclaim both Véra and himself thought rightfully his. As with most examples of authors recording their own work, it’s a dramatically flat reading, Nabokov treading sonorously through his own text in his French-inflected English. (You can hear Nabokov reading excerpts from Pale Fire as well as Lolita with sparkling animation as the result of an appreciative audience being present courtesy of the New York Times.)
The portion of Lolita read here consists of Humbert’s final confontation with the mysterious Clare Quilty (memorably brought to the screen in rather inflated fashion by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s film), who has managed to wrest Lo away from Humbert’s cloying embrace. Thanks Sluggo for encoding this LP for me.
- Lolita: Part Two, Chapter 35
- The Ballad of Longwood Glen
- Lines Written in Oregon
- On Translating “Eugene Onegin”
- An Evening of Russian Poetry
- The Swift
- The Discovery
Update: I’ve been alerted to a two-part video interview with Nabokov and Lionel Trilling about Lolita.
Update again: Nabokov’s unpublished novel-in-progress The Original of Laura is due to be published by Random House in November! I’m conflicted about this as it’s being done against his wishes, and posthumous novels are rarely satisfying, but second-rate Nabokov is better than most fiction, so …