Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
In 1955, one of the most beautiful and controversial works in English would be published. Called “repulsive,” “disgusting,” “revolting,” and “corrupt,” the book was written by a professor at Cornell who taught a class on Masterpieces of European Fiction.
The professor, Vladimir Nabokov, had published a few books previously in America, but all were financial failures. Fearful that the publication of Lolita would get him fired from his Cornell position, Nabokov first sent the manuscript out secretly to friends in American publishing, calling it his “time bomb.”
One publisher after another rejected the manuscript. The Viking Press explained, “we would all go to jail if the thing were published.” Another publisher claimed:
[We] feel that it is literature of the highest order and that it ought to be published but we are both worried about possible repercussions both for the publisher and the author.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of these rejections was the approval of the editors who read the manuscript. Although reactions were mixed, many of these initial readers recognized Lolita’s literary value. One editor, Jason Epstein, even resigned from Doubleday largely on account of the company’s refusal to publish the novel.
But this was an era when censorship and the qualifications for obscenity in literature were still being defined. According to Edward de Grazia*, “Not until June 1959 did the Supreme Court make it clear that a work could not be banned for its sexual immorality.” Also noteworthy is the context of McCarthyism during these years, which brought on a slew of prosecutions of publishers and writers.
Nabokov was well aware of these difficulties. In his early correspondence he insisted the work be published under a pseudonym, and even worried about sending the manuscript to publishers in the mail, afraid the US Postal Service would catch it in an inspection before it was even published.
The solution? Send one of the best books written in English to be published in France.
Two years earlier a small publishing house called the Olympia Press had been formed. Nabokov had been referred to its owner Maurice Girodias, who was thrilled to take on the project.
The Olympia Press had quickly gained a reputation for publishing dirty books, so-called “dbs,” but often with somewhat “literary” content. Girodias took pride in his extremely clever business model: he hired many literary writers who were struggling for money to churn out essentially pornographic works, which put food on their tables while they slaved away on their real masterpieces.
Nabokov was actually unaware of the reputation of this new press, which he discovered only later and with much dismay. He wanted Lolita to succeed on its literary merits, not become a bestseller because of scandal:
Lolita is a serious book with a serious purpose. I hope the public will accept it as such.
That said, Nabokov was becoming desperate. Looking back he wondered if he would have made the deal with Girondias had he known the publisher’s reputation. “Alas, I probably would, though less cheerfully.”
In all fairness, Girondias really did have an eye for excellent work that others called “obscene” and “unpublishable.” He was also the first publisher of some works by Henry Miller, a number of Samuel Beckett’s English works, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Said Girondias of Lolita:
I sensed that Lolita would become the one great modern work of art to demonstrate once and for all the futility of moral censorship…
Before the book was published in Paris in 1955, Nabokov eventually did come around to putting his name on the cover. Unsurprisingly, a number of friends and associates have since stepped forward to claim they had nudged him into the idea. Regardless, Nabokov seemed ready to take the risk with Cornell. According to his son Dmitri, “And of course, once the book was out, Cornell became proud of Lolita.”
The publication in 5000 copies by the Olympia Press, in its characteristic green wrappers, sold out quite quickly. In fact, the bibliographic point to determine the first issue of the book is the price of “Francs: 900” on the back wrapper. Brisk sales convinced Girondias early on to raise the price to 1200 francs, which he changed with a sticker on the wrapper. It is one of the few masterpieces of the 20th century that was first published in a “softcover” format.
Lolita was viewed as comical to some, tragic to some, and obscene to others. Nabokov naturally disagreed with this last category of readers, explaining that “Lolita is a tragedy…the tragic and the obscene exclude one another.” A contemporary review from the New York Times captures the dual nature of this book that changed modern literature:
The first time I read Lolita [in an abridged format] I thought it was one of the funniest books I’d ever come on…The second time I read it, uncut, I thought it was one of the saddest.
*I am indebted to Edward de Grazia’s book Girls Lean Back Everywhere for a large portion of the source material used in this post. If this story and the history of 20th century literary censorship interest you, I highly recommend this work.