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 player.
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.