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Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg,
Russia, on April 23, 1899, into a family with a long history of
public service and scholarship. After the Russian Revolution of
1917, Nabokov and his family went into exile in England. Trilingual
in Russian, English, and French from an early age, Nabokov earned
an honors degree in Slavic and Romance languages from Trinity College,
Cambridge, in 1922. He embarked upon a literary career, writing
primarily in Russian. Among his notable early works was a Russian
translation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
In 1925, Nabokov married Vera Slonim, and in 1934 their only child, Dmitri,
was born. The Nabokovs lived in both Germany and France before emigrating
to the United States in 1940, where Nabokov taught literature courses
at Wellesley and Cornell Universities. The move to America also
inspired Nabokov to begin writing in English.
By 1955, Nabokov had already published a number of novels
but had yet to create his masterpiece Lolita, which
Nabokov began writing in 1949. It was originally rejected by no
fewer than four American publishers, who found the story of a middle-aged
professor’s lust for his preteen stepdaughter too inflammatory for
publication. Undaunted, Nabokov persisted, and Lolita was
eventually published in France in 1955 by the marginally reputable
Olympia Press. Though it was condemned in some corners as scandalous trash, Lolita became
an underground literary sensation in France. Driven by the growing
critical acclaim for the book, Putnam published an American edition
of the novel in 1958. Some countries deemed Lolita obscene
and banned it, but the novel became a best seller in the United
States, despite its controversial subject matter.
In its frank discussions of forbidden desire and sexuality, Lolita was
revolutionary for its time. Though such writers as D. H. Lawrence
and James Joyce had written about sexuality at the turn of the century,
and though the evolution of psychology had brought the themes of
sexuality and repression to the forefront of popular culture, no
book had so explicitly expplored the darker elements of sex and
desire. Nabokov was not a proponent of Freudian psychology, but
he could not ignore its impact on literature or on the study of
human emotion. In Lolita, he attempts to subvert
the traditional views of sexuality and psychology while pretending
to pay homage to them.
Lolita also represents a classic example
of postmodern literature. Postmodernism arose in the early years
of the twentieth century and represented, in part, a move away from
the notion that a novel should tell a realistic story from an objective
perspective. Postmodern writers are primarily interested in writing
that evokes the fragmentary nature of experience and the complexity
of language. Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Lolita,
narrates the novel from a highly subjective point of view, and he
uses rich, sophisticated language to do so. Lolita contains
a vast variety of linguistic devices, including puns, multilingual
expressions, artistic allusions, word patterns, and references to
other works. These devices followed from the then-popular idea that
a novel was not a fixed work of literature, but rather a more fluid,
organic creation that was interconnected with other media. Humbert’s
elegant and sinuous prose, however, conceals a subversive intent.
The beauty and intensity of the language allow readers to remain
sympathetic to the pedophile protagonist and compel them to read
further, despite the numerous distressing events within the novel.
Though Lolita is a fictional memoir,
Nabokov actually shared many personality traits with his protagonist
Humbert Humbert. Both men were highly educated, academically oriented
European exiles who made their homes in America, and both possessed
a compelling gift for language. However, unlike the pedophiliac,
delusional Humbert, Nabokov was a devoted family man who lived a quiet,
scholarly existence. Because of Lolita’s success
as a novel and as a film, Nabokov had the funds to retire to Switzerland
in 1960 and devote himself exclusively to writing until his death
in 1977. A prolific author, Nabokov’s other notable works include Speak, Memory:
An Autobiography Revisited (1951), Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962),
and Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). Nabokov
also developed talents and hobbies besides writing. His passion
for lepidoptera, the study of butterflies, earned him a position
with the Museum of Natural History in New York. He was also a skilled
chess player, a creator of Russian crosswords, and an avid tennis
Lolita was twice adapted for film. Stanley
Kubrick directed the first adaptation, starring James Mason, Sue
Lyons, and Peter Sellers, in 1962. Nabokov himself worked on the
script, and the controversial film, though generally well received,
garnered criticism for being too darkly comical on the subject of
pedophilia. Lolita was adapted for film again in
1997, by director Adrian Lyne, and starred Jeremy Irons, Dominique
Swain, and Frank Langella. The movie stirred up controversy once
again, this time for its sex scenes between Irons and the underage
Swain. After some difficulty finding an American distributor, Lyne
released the movie to mixed reviews. While elements of Lolita lend
themselves to film, and though the novel explicitly recognizes film
as an influence, neither film fully captures the complicated mix
of acrobatic language, black comedy, and tender romantic sentiment
for which the novel had become famous. The novel has numerous references—from
crude, lowbrow puns to highly obscure scholarly references—and it
encompasses a vast array of human emotion—from tragic to comic.
None of these elements come through as effectively on screen as
they do in the book itself.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Lolita!