Reality is a very subjective affair.—Nabokov (Strong Opinions 10)
Vladimir Nabokov has called Lolita, whose manuscript he almost chucked into an incinerator once in 1950 and again in 1951, his "special favorite" (Strong Opinions 15) and said that of all his works he had "the most affection" for it (Appel, Interview 44). It was the only English novel he valued enough to translate into Russian, which he did in 1967. But when it first came out in Paris (1955), New York (1958), and London (1959), it certainly did not look like many reviewers agreed with him. Although it headed up to the top of the bestseller list and stayed there for a year, and although—contrary to the impression one has reading more recent Nabokov criticism, which tends to overemphasize Lolita's being turned down by four American publishers only to be picked up by Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press in Paris, known for its publication of Jean Genet and pornography—John Hollander, Howard Nemerov, Lionel Trilling, and Kingsley Amis, among others, gave it strong positive reviews, many were less than impressed by what they read, and many were downright hostile. Granville Hicks in the Saturday Review, for example, said Lolita was "not one of the more memorable novels" (38), and Robert Hatch [End Page 115] in Nation said it was "not a very inventive book—beyond the initial audacity" (563). E. F. Walbridge in Library Journal thought "thousands of library patrons conditioned to near-incest by 'Peyton Place' may take this book in stride. However, better read before buying. Although the writer prides himself on using no obscene words, he succeeds only too well conveying his meaning without them" (2183), which is almost glowing compared to what Orville Prescott thought in The New York Times. He said "there are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worth any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive"—which has affinities with what Riley Hughes wrote in Catholic World: "[the] very subject makes it a book to which grave objection must be raised. . . . As a study of unnatural infatuation, of a man and mind obsessed, it might be said to have a certain clinical authority. But the aura of evil, the implications of a decadence universally accepted and shared—this is a romp which does not amuse" (72).
At least part of what all these negative—and strangely charming—reviews may be responding to is the pulse of the fantastic that beats at the heart of Lolita, and to fantasy's general tendency on a thematic stratum to present a culture with the very forces it must repress in order to remain successful and functioning. One of the dark strengths of fantasy is that it presents a culture with that which it cannot stand, possibilities of alternative universes, possibilities of taboo—in Lolita indications of incest, sadism, masochism, murder, nympholepsy, and so forth. That is, as Roger Caillois comments in Au Coeur du Fantastique, "the fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality" (qtd. in Todorov 26). It becomes a mode of narrative illegality which is, as Hélène Cixous notices, "a subtle invitation to transgression" (200, my translation). In other words, the theme of the fantastic is an exploration of the limits of civilization, which along the way dismembers humanist and religious sanctions concerning what is "proper," "decent," "acceptable," and so on in order to interrogate them, to place them under erasure.
Now I do not mean to suggest by this that Lolita is a work of pure fantasy. As Kathryn Hume convincingly argues, there probably is no such beast. At the root of Western culture a bias has arisen that tends to separate literature along a mimetic-fantastic axis. Plato banished the fantastic from his Republic. Aristotle decided to judge that good literature was that which best mimed reality. Because of this, in many texts the fantastic has been placed almost out of sight, just in the corners of the reader's vision...