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Nabokov Studies 9.1 (2005) xiii-xvi

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From the Editor

Lolita at 50
"'Those who thought it pornographic knew only the title"

In December of 1956 the offices of Olympia Press were raided by the Parisian police, and the raid resulted in an injunction against the selling of twenty-five Olympia titles, Lolita among them. The complaint had been lodged by British Embassy officials who wished to spare their citizens the embarrassment of having copies of the snot-green two-volume Travelers Series Lolita confiscated by British Customs. Olympia responded by publishing an anti-censorship pamphlet, "L'Affaire Lolita," and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic joined the fray. Preparing the American public for the US publication of Lolita and reflecting on the already turbulent aftermath of Lolita's 1955 publication in France, Alfred Alvarez offered the readers of Partisan Review this snide mixture of hyperbole, consolation, and prophecy:

I doubt if any book since the King James Bible has been more eagerly awaited and so avidly discussed. … It has been brought up by the M.P.s in the House of Commons and by the police in Bow Street Station; by critics, lawyers, aficionados of all banned books, defenders of public morality and by the usual letter-writing cranks. … Even the gutter press has been on to it. … When the thing is finally published in the spring—if despite all the goings on it is published, it will almost certainly be an anti-climax. It would take a work a good deal more substantial than poor Lolita to stand the strain.

Though editorial perversity makes it rather thrilling to imagine handling letters to the editor crafted by "the usual letter-writing cranks," detailing their reactions to the publication of the King James Bible, especially its early books, it may be more mundane but far more prudent to observe that "poor [End Page xiii] Lolita" and has not only withstood the initial strain but has aged rather well, remaining, in both annotated and unannotated versions, a good deal in print and the canon, on the syllabus and the screen. Although it took Lolita a few years to become an international bestseller, it was in fact published in 1955 and thus has been around for a round half-century, not quite the Biblical span but certainly worthy of being the subject and focus of this volume of Nabokov Studies.

Before it was ever published in the US, Lolita may have already been parodied by Dorothy Parker in the August 27, 1955 issue of The New Yorker, but despite its "banned-in-Paris" baggage it was found unobjectionable by the Collector of Customs in New York City. Before it had been taught, Lolita was annotated not once but twice, by Carl Proffer and Alfred Appel, Jr., both projects reaching completion within Nabokov's lifetime. And there has always been something scholarly about Lolita. Robert Hatch identified that something as a cleverness "of a kind that particularly appeals to the literary professional. The mock trappings of scholarship make him chuckle, the gay skating on the thinnest of 'good taste' rouses his admiration, and I fear that Humbert Humbert talks a prissy lingo that some professors would be pleased to emulate" (Nation, 30 August 1958: 97).

Yes, Hatch's fears were justified. Scholars, prissy and otherwise, have been very attentive to Lolita. Much ink, though hardly any of it emulative, has been devoted to the relations between the book's aesthetics and its erotics, Nabokov's extraordinary formal achievement pursued through a seemingly perverse methodology, a pursuit that made even thinner the already thin line separating literature and pornography. "To describe such a perversion with the pervert's enthusiasm without being disgusting is impossible," protested Orville Prescott in a New York Times review ("Books of the Times," New York Times, 18 August: 1958: 17). Charges of disgust and pornography continue to be further parsed into pedophilia, incest, rape, and child abuse, pushing the world of Lolita towards the one we live in. Kennedy and Kauffman, for example. Such charges in turn are fended off by a redefinition...


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