On this day in 1958, the first American edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was published. In the summer of 1950, Nabokov had so despaired of ever finishing his story that he tried to burn the manuscript in his backyard incinerator. His wife caught him and talked him into persevering; two and a half years later, Lolita was ready for the publishers, though most publishers were not ready for it. Some thought the novel brilliant, but all thought it was outrageous, sure to bring fines or endless litigation. There was interest from Olympia, the French company that specialized in scandal books and smut. Nabokov was from aristocratic Russian stock and Cambridge educated; he also regarded Lolita as a “highly moral” book, and among his best. But Olympia’s was the only offer, and they signed Nabokov to a cut-rate deal.
Because of its Olympia Press origins, the first edition of Lolita was neither advertised nor reviewed when it came out in the summer of ’55. But then Graham Greene picked Lolita as one of the three best books of the year, and another British reviewer, in outraged response to Greene, described the book as “unrestrained pornography.” From these first sparks a complicated, international fire of controversy and censorship arose: governments in Britain, France, and the U.S. ruled and counter-ruled on the novel’s admissibility; reviewers who thought the book smut and the author a degenerate sparred with those who thought it high art and thought Nabokov misunderstood, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. And with underground copies of the Olympia edition selling briskly in the States at $20 each, the big-name publishers were now lining up.
In his diary, Nabokov derisively dubbed these events “Hurricane Lolita,” but for any author it was a perfect storm. Within four days of publication in the U.S. the book was into a third printing; by September 13th it had become the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks; by the end of September, it was #1 on the bestseller lists. By the time Nabokov appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1962, it seemed that the only one who hadn’t read the book was Groucho Marx, who quipped, “I plan to put off reading Lolita for six years, until she’s eighteen.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.