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Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd sets the record straight on 'The Real Lolita'

Vladimir Nabokov. Photo/Getty Images

Did Vladimir Nabokov “pilfer” the story of a real-life US child-abduction case for his novel Lolita as Sarah Weinman’s new book claims? Brian Boyd sets out to disprove the theory and skewer the many lurid misreadings of the literary classic.

The real Lolita has always been hard to see, even if Humbert Humbert, Lolita’s narrator, presents her as his passionate focus from his first word: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins,” to his last, “the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita”. She has been buried under a mountain of misconstruction, to which Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World has added another flank, though certainly no new peak.

Lolita’s fate has been dramatic from the first. Overwhelmed by the challenge of writing from the point of view of a paedophile he abhorred, and about a young American girl when he knew none firsthand, Vladimir Nabokov twice took his manuscript towards the incinerator. His famously devoted wife, Véra, had to counsel him out of jettisoning what he later called “my most difficult book”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

On its 1958 publication in the US, Lolita became the fastest seller since Gone with the Wind, and went on to sell more than 60 million copies in dozens of languages – including Russian, into which Nabokov himself translated it. The novel was first published, in English, in Paris, in 1955, after Nabokov, despite his literary renown, could find no US publisher ready to touch it. And, despite France’s reputation for sexual openness in fiction, its English edition was banned there in 1956, unbanned after a court challenge, then re-banned in the month the American version topped the US bestseller lists (it was also banned in New Zealand, in 1959).

In 1999, Lolita was voted the greatest novel of the 20th century by American editors and critics, but because the poll was organised by the Modern Library, the American publisher of Ulysses, the results were fudged so as to hide that Ulysses had not won.

Lolita has been made into two films, Stanley Kubrick’s (1962), an A- in my rating, and Adrian Lyne’s (1997), which gets a B-. However, both are in the C- range as adaptations of the novel. It has also been made into many stage versions, an opera, a musical and Lo’s Diary, a wretched prose retelling from Lolita’s point of view, imagined without a glimmer of Nabokov’s insight. It’s even been made into a conceptual-art carpet by artist Barbara Bloom, and a fashion accessory, the “Lolita handbag”, which actress Natalie Portman carried at the Black Swan premiere. Lolita style fads, which had little to do with the novel, its heroine or each other, swept France in the early 1960s and Japan in the 1990s-2000s.

The Lolita fashion subculture in Japan. Photo/Getty Images
Many great novels, from Madame Bovary to Ulysses, caused a scandal when first published. Only Lolita became more scandalous and, for many, harder to read as child sexual abuse moved from being a taboo subject to the focus of appalled public attention and even, from the 1980s, hysteria and moral panic. Now, after the glaring evidence of male sexual predation and harassment in the Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein cases, and similar cases exposed by the #MeToo movement, how can we read Lolita, how should we see Lolita?

The answer is, as Nabokov wrote it, if we read carefully enough. Not as Humbert Humbert narrates it. And definitely not as males used to male privilege read it. The distinguished critic and novelist Lionel Trilling summarised the novel in a 1958 review and added: “We have come virtually to condone the violation … I was plainly not able to muster up the note of moral outrage … Humbert is perfectly willing to say that he is a monster; we find ourselves less and less eager to agree with him.” A few months later, another distinguished novelist, Robertson Davies, wrote that the book’s theme “is not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child”.

But, look at the novel. Lolita has indeed tried out sex, not quite aware of what it means, at summer camp, and does suggest to Humbert, knowing his interest in her, that they “play the game that she and Charlie had played”. But Humbert had already tried to drug-rape her (the drug had not worked), and had withheld from her the fact that her mother had been killed, so that her upset at the news could not keep him from his goal. He whisked her rapidly across America to elude detection, he terrorised her with the thought of reform school or prison, he manipulated her constantly to keep her emotionally dependent and sexually available.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov. Photo/Alamy

Even Humbert, as manipulative of his readers as of the women in his life – his first wife, his second (Lolita’s mother), Lolita herself – comes to deplore his own manipulativeness and his robbing Lolita of her childhood. Yet readers as sophisticated as Trilling and Davies fail to read the evidence Nabokov presents within his novel. That only shows both how pervasive has been the male attitude that desire, sufficiently intense, is warrant for sexual predation, and why the #MeToo movement has been so much needed and so slow coming.

In the novel, a good reader should be able to see what Véra Nabokov saw, and what she lamented so few readers did see: the real Lolita. “I wish someone would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence upon the monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along, culminating in that squalid but essentially pure and healthy marriage,” she wrote. “They all miss the fact that the ‘horrid little brat’ Lolita is essentially very good indeed – or she would not have straightened out after being crushed so terribly, and found a decent life …”

In a far better book than Weinman’s, Graham Vickers, in Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov’s Little Girl All Over Again (2008), ends his main text with Véra’s 1958 reflection, and shows how the real Lolita disappeared even more as her name spread in popular culture: “All too often Lolita got bad press, even before her name became every third-rate tabloid editor’s sluttish embodiment of female teenage libido and every huckster’s instant insurance for sexing up the shabbiest trinket.”

Weinman’s “real Lolita” is Sally Horner, an 11-year-old abducted in 1948 by Frank La Salle and kept as his sexual partner as he decamped ever further west across the US to escape police pursuit. Befriended by a suspicious neighbour, Horner was emboldened to call home for help and was promptly rescued after 21 months of captivity.

Humbert mentions the case when, after Lolita escapes him, he returns to the town where he first met her. The mother of a classmate of Lolita’s “attacked me with a fake smile, all aglow with evil curiosity. (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank La Salle, a 50-year-old mechanic, had done to 11-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?)”.

Nabokov had learnt of the case just weeks earlier than the fictional date of this scene, in a newspaper report of Horner’s death, at 15, in an unrelated road accident. He took notes from the brief newspaper story, which also recorded her earlier fate as “the cross-country slave” of a “middle-aged morals offender” branded by the judge who sentenced him as a “moral leper” – all phrases Nabokov used at different points of the novel.

Weinman tries to claim that “much of the novel’s structure” depends on the Horner case, which Nabokov “pilfered” or “strip-mined”. But the evidence of Lolita and its composition refute this.

Newspaper report about the abduction of Sally Horner.

Humbert marries Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, for access to her daughter. That was already the stratagem the paedophile anti-hero of the 1939 Russian novella The Enchanter used to access the daughter in Nabokov’s first attempt at imagining this story, which he soon realised did not warrant publishing. Horner, however, fell into La Salle’s clutches because he saw her shoplifting. He posed as an FBI officer and made her return to her solo mother and tell her she was being taken to Atlantic City by the father of a school friend. La Salle phoned the mother, as arranged, to elaborate the lie, and she, happy to have her daughter enjoy the holiday she could not afford to provide, took her to the intercity bus and her doom.

Horner was freed from a trailer park in San Jose after her neighbour induced her to confess that La Salle was not her father and that he forced her to stay with him. Lolita is freed by – she elopes with – Clare Quilty, the writer of a school play she was to star in. Quilty knows that she knows he has a taste for young girls, and he knows she has been caught in Humbert’s sexual web.

Quilty forms part of a series of allusions to Edgar Allan Poe (who married his cousin Virginia Clemm when she was 13) that permeate the novel, combining detective stories such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue; the theme of doppelgängers (William Wilson); Gothic horror (The Fall of the House of Usher); and cryptic clues (The Gold Bug).

By late 1946, Nabokov had decided to take up his abandoned paedophile story and transpose it to America. By at least early 1947, he was calling it The Kingdom by the Sea, an echo of a line from Poe’s poem Annabel Lee that forms a major motif at the beginning of Lolita.


Nabokov, in other words, seems to have had not only the old core of the story, but also most of his elaborate design for reshaping and Americanising it, in place more than a year before Horner was abducted, more than three years before she was found and more than five years before he came across the newspaper report of her death. He always planned his novels minutely before starting to write. In the case of Lolita, other writing, teaching, and research at Wellesley, Cornell and Harvard slowed his progress on the novel, but by August 1952, when he recorded Horner’s fate, he was four years into a novel that took him five years to write.

Weinman complains that Nabokov suppressed the part Horner’s case played in his novel, when she and others before her would not have known of the case had Lolita not mentioned it. She complains that Nabokov denied his dependence on real-life cases, when he actually insisted on the research in psychological journals and case histories he needed for his novel.

Nabokov had already constructed the fictional Lolita from multiple sources in literature, life, libraries and imagination when he encountered the Horner case. The Lolita he formed, the real Lolita – not the “fast little article” into which careless readers, or others still remoter from the book, deformed her – stands for all the real cases he knew, including, eventually, Sally Horner’s, and for the many he knew went unknown.

THE REAL LOLITA: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World, by Sarah Weinman (Hachette, $35).

This article was first published in the March 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.