Nabokov’s experience with Olympia was an unhappy one, largely because of the many mistakes introduced into the text, and he would not find proper peace until Lolita was finally (and at significant cost) cleared for publication in 1958 by Putnam.
Nabokov said he conjured up the germ of the novel—a cultured European gentleman’s pedophilic passion for a 12-year-old girl resulting in a madcap, satiric cross-country excursion—“late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris, at a time when I was laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia.” At that point it was a short story set in Europe, written in his first language, Russian.
But with days to go before the end of fifth grade, Sally was looking for a ticket to the ruling class, far removed from the babies below her at Northeast School in Camden, New Jersey. On the afternoon of June 13, 1948, she had no idea a simple act of shoplifting would destroy her life.
Once inside, she reached for the first notebook she could find on the gleaming white nickel counter.
Nabokov, however, gives the reader a number of clues to the literary disconnect, the most important being the parenthetical.
It works brilliantly early on in Lolita, when Humbert describes the death of his mother—“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three”—or when he sights Dolores Haze in the company of her own mother, Charlotte, for the first time: “And, as if I were the fairy-tale nurse of some little princess (lost, kidnaped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the king and his hounds), I recognized the tiny dark-brown mole on her side.” The unbracketed narrative is what Humbert wants us to see; the asides reveal what is really inside his mind.
Not pleased with the story, however, he destroyed it.
For six weeks, Ella Horner thought nothing was amiss—she believed her daughter was on summer vacation with friends. Something woke up inside Ella’s mind: she’d been duped, her daughter snatched away not with violence, but with sweet-talking stealth.That five-cent notebook didn’t just alter Sally Horner’s own life, though: it reverberated throughout the culture, and in the process, irrevocably changed the course of 20th-century literature.*Vladimir Nabokov’s 1956 essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita” was an essay he never intended to write.He disdained literal mapping of nonfiction to fiction, as well as the search for moral meaning: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”The essay exists because, by then, Nabokov felt he had to explain himself—that he was a novelist, not a purveyor of smut.If it went the way they normally handled thieving youths, he told her, Sally would be bound for the reformatory. It was a lucky break he caught her and not some other agent, the man said. She’d have to convince her mother he was the father of two school friends, inviting her to a seashore vacation.Sally didn’t know that much about reform school, but what she knew was not good. If she agreed to report to him from time to time, he would let her go. He would take care of the rest with a phone call and a convincing appearance at the Camden bus depot.