- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Lolita was 12 when Vladimir Nabokov brought her to life as the obsession of her stepfather, a middle-aged man who calls her “light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin. My soul. … Lo. Lee. Ta.”

After three generations, readers remain relentlessly drawn to Mr. Nabokov’s opening lines — more poetry than prose. They remain equally repelled by Humbert Humbert, a child molester who essentially held his stepdaughter captive; he is as despicable today as he was in 1955.

“Lolita,” a deceptively thin volume, has sold 50 million copies. Vintage Books already has sold all 50,000 copies of a new, special 50th anniversary edition it released this month.

“Lolita” and “nymphet” — another word Mr. Nabokov coined — have worked their way into the lexicon. Two movie versions, first by Stanley Kubrick in 1962 starring James Mason and later by Adrian Lyne in 1997 starring Jeremy Irons, have coaxed millions into theaters. Iranian author Azar Nafisi says her own contemporary best-seller, “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books,” was inspired in part by Mr. Nabokov, and “Gothic Lolita” is all the rage among teenage fans of Japanese anime.

How is it that a pedophile protagonist remains sympathetic enough to draw audiences? Why does this backward fairy tale — Prince Charming as a monster — endure?

Literary critics say the explanation is simple: art.

“No one respected language more than Nabokov,” says Stephen Parker, a student of the author’s at Cornell University in the late 1950s who founded the Nabokov Society at the University of Kansas.

Mr. Parker says the Russian-born Mr. Nabokov, who made his fortune with “Lolita,” was less concerned about teaching a lesson in morality than he was in creating a long-lasting work of art.

“Get beyond the story, the entertainment and get into what was more important,” Mr. Parker says. “That’s the case with ‘Lolita.’ The reason it’s such a great work is because it has such great depth. … It’s endlessly revealing. And that’s what the finest fiction should be.”

Mr. Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, 71, who lives in Montreux, Switzerland, and for years served as his father’s translator, exchanged e-mails with Associated Press about “Lolita.”

“A work of art, not its subject, remains eternally powerful,” he wrote. “The book exists on several levels, and in it there coexist many themes: poetry, humor, tragedy, love. Perhaps its most moving quality is that it is not black-and-white.”

While Vladimir Nabokov began writing “Lolita” in the late 1940s, he completed much of it at his Ithaca, N.Y., home while teaching at Cornell. It’s the story of Humbert, a pedophile who is obsessed with his young stepdaughter and essentially kidnaps her, traveling across the country and holding her sexually captive. She eventually leaves him for another man, and Humbert goes to prison for murder.

Mr. Nabokov knew it would be controversial. At the time, he planned to publish the novel using a pseudonym to ensure it wouldn’t sully Cornell’s reputation.

In December 1953, he delivered the 450-page manuscript to Viking Press in New York. He was told it was brilliant but that any publisher who accepted it risked being fined or jailed. Rejections from five American publishers followed.

Then “Lolita” made its way to Paris, to Maurice Girodias, founder and owner of Olympia Press. Mr. Girodias’ father had published Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” in the 1930s. Following in his father’s footsteps and eager to make money, the younger Girodias published English-language pornography, books that had been censored elsewhere.

Ignorant of Mr. Girodias’ sketchy reputation, Mr. Nabokov signed a contract and even agreed to publish it under his own name. “Lolita” came out in Paris in September 1955.

Almost no one took notice at first; it was neither reviewed nor advertised until novelist Graham Greene named it one of the three best books of 1955 in the Christmas issue of London’s Sunday Times.

By 1956, the book was banned in France. (That ban was overturned two years later.) “Lolita” was published in the United States in August 1958 and immediately drew rave reviews from writers Dorothy Parker, William Styron and others. It became the first book since “Gone With the Wind” to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.

The book got “extraordinary publicity” and was “an enormous best-seller” that made Mr. Nabokov’s colleagues at Cornell immensely jealous, says Mr. Parker, who teaches Slavic languages and literature at the University of Kansas.

Far from being banned from publication in the United States as Mr. Nabokov had feared, the author earned a fortune from “Lolita.” He quit teaching, moved to Switzerland and returned to full-time writing, publishing several other novels and short stories, although none as popular as “Lolita.”

Mr. Nabokov died in 1977.

Miss Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” sounds breathless when she says “Lolita” is one of the world’s great works of art because it reaches the emotions many people hold deep inside.

“What frightens or disturbs us in ‘Lolita’ has something to do with us,” she says.

“It opens our eyes to ourselves and our worlds. Everyone should read it for the pure joy.”

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