Archive for August 26th, 2010

No rejection letter will ever seem quite that bad again

Thursday, August 26th, 2010
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Wonder what the first edition goes for...

Here is news that will cheer writers everywhere.  This is a December 1953 review of the then-unpublished Lolita manuscript:

“It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation…. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

Five leading publishers rejected the manuscript:  Doubleday; Farrar, Straus; New Directions; Simon & Schuster; and Viking.  When it was finally published, 55 years ago next month, John Gordon of the Sunday Express denounced it as “about the filthiest book I’ve ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography.”  This, about a book that is curiously sexless — where the porn is largely projected onto the book by the mind of the reader.  But that’s okay.  Dorothy Parker described the pretentious Humbert Humbert as a man of “taste and culture.”  The book would seem to be a Rorschach test — or perhaps a mirror.

The quotations above are the latest gleanings from the Library of America’s new blog, Reader’s Almanac. We’ve written about R.S. Gwynn‘s theory that Pale Fire‘s John Shade is actually poet Yvor Winters here.  And I’ve written about the bruited link between Humbert Humbert and the founder of Stanford’s Slavic Department, Henry Lanz over here.

I still think one of the best opinions of the book was offered in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003): “This is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed her. The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.”

Elizabeth Janeway expressed something of the same idea when the book came out:

“Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh 3/4 which is the eternal and universal nature of passion. … As for its pornographic content, I can think of few volumes more likely to quench the flames of lust than this exact and immediate description of its consequences.”

My neighbor Vladimir Nabokov himself recognized the consequences, while reflecting on the work that pleased him most:

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.