From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"In Lolita there is a genuine enrichment of our common stock of temptations. It is as if Vladimir Nabokov had brought into our field of vision what lay at the far edge (in Balzac’s La Rabouilleuse, for instance) or what had been kept carefully implausible through disproportion (Alice in Wonderland)." --"Night Words: High Pornography and Human Privacy" (1965), George Steiner
Lolita (1955) is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The novel was first written in English and published in 1955 in Paris by Olympia Press, later translated by the author into Russian and published in 1958 in New York. The novel is both internationally famous for its innovative style and infamous for its controversial subject: the book's narrator and protagonist Humbert Humbert becoming sexually obsessed with a twelve-year-old girl named Dolores Haze.
After its publication, the novel attained a classic status, becoming one of the best known and most controversial examples of 20th century literature. The name "Lolita" has entered pop culture to describe a sexually precocious young girl.
Publication and reception
Due to its subject matter, Nabokov was unable to find an American publisher for Lolita. After four refused, he finally resorted to the Olympia Press in Paris, September 1955. Although the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, there were no substantial reviews. Eventually, at the end of 1955, Graham Greene, in an interview with the (London) Times, called it one of the best novels of 1955. This statement provoked a response from the (London) Sunday Express, whose editor called it "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography." British Customs officers were then instructed by a panicked Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. In December 1956 the French followed suit and the Minister of the Interior banned Lolita (the ban lasted for two years). Its eventual British publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson caused a scandal which contributed to the end of the political career of one of the publishers, Nigel Nicolson.
By complete contrast, American officials were initially nervous, but the first American edition was issued without problems by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1958, and was a bestseller, the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in the first three weeks of publication.
Today, it is considered by many to be one of the finest novels written in the 20th century. In 1998, it was named the fourth greatest English language novel of the 20th century by the Modern Library. Nabokov rated the book highly himself. In an interview for BBC Television in 1962 he said,
Lolita is a special favourite of mine. It was my most difficult book — the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.
Two years later, in 1964's interview for Playboy, he said,
I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle —its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look. Of course she completely eclipsed my other works —at least those I wrote in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, my short stories, my book of recollections; but I cannot grudge her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet.
At the same year, in the interview for Life, Nabokov was asked, "Which of your writings has pleased you most?" He answered,
I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow —perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.