Still controversial after all these years


Commemorating Lolita’s 50th with Kubrick and conversation

Asked to weigh in on the literary donnybrook that erupted over Nabokov’s salacious 1958 novel, comedian Groucho Marx quipped, “I’ve put off reading ‘Lolita’ for six years, till she’s 18.”

Fifty years after its stateside publication, the book still courts controversy. Although widely esteemed as one of the preeminent English language novels, some cultural watchdogs deem it unsafe for general consumption. (Query “Lolita” on AOL Search and a child-safety setting blocks any responses.)

To commemorate the anniversary, on September 27 the New School hosts a day-long symposium entitled “Lolita in America.” Editor Fred Hills, Ellen Pifer (editor of “Lolita, a Casebook”), Nina Khrushcheva (author of “Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics”) and others panelists will delve into the book’s social impact, and its enduring ability to inflame critics and admirers alike.

After American publishers turned it down, the novel was first published in 1955, in Paris – in English. A year later, the French banned it when the British consulate registered multiple complaints that easily corrupted English tourists were stuffing their suitcases with copies of the volume and distributing it back home.

Meanwhile, sympathetic critics like Dorothy Parker were paving the way for the first U.S. printing. She extolled the work as great and gleefully poked fun at a British columnist who called the novel “sheer unrestrained pornography.”

When G.P. Putnam finally published “Lolita” in the U.S. in ’58, more than 100,000 copies sold in one week, the first book to do so since “Gone with the Wind.” Obviously, a novel by an obscure Russian lecturer would not have gone flying off the shelves on its literary merits alone. The love line of the story is a particularly challenging one, about an affair between a middle-aged man and his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Some of the sexual passages are still startling despite being wrapped in metaphor and obfuscated detail.

Fred Hills, Nabokov’s last editor, explained that the author understood that the novel would be received “as highly shocking.”

As it turned out, the success of “Lolita” made Nabokov an instant celebrity and he was commissioned by Stanley Kubrick to write the screenplay, which Kubrick eventually jettisoned in favor of his own, although Nabokov is given the screen credit.

The resulting film was a black comedy that shared little with the novel except its three main characters: Delores Haze (Lolita), Humbert Humbert, and playwright and fellow pedophile, Clare Quilty. Indeed, the movie’s tagline was “How did they ever make a film about Lolita?” Kubrick’s Lolita is a 14-year-old vamp, more bored delinquent than the swan-necked nymphet who consumes Humbert in the book. Far from being a creature completely unlike her mother – a “fat cow” to Humbert – Sue Lyon’s Lolita is like a miniature version of her frumpy mom, played by Shelley Winters.

Peter Sellers is justly remembered for his turn as Quilty. The great comic actor plays him as a giggling madman scheming to secure the object of his infatuation. Although Quilty and Humbert share a penchant for young girls, Quilty lacks his rival’s agonizing conscience, telling the reader that “Humbert Humbert tried to be good.” Sellers also portrays a psycho-babbling German psychiatrist – a character absent from the book – whom the viewer might mistake for a figment of Humbert’s paranoia.

Relying on whispered euphemisms, double entendres and fade-outs to convey the nature of Humbert and Lolita’s relationship, Kubrick replaces Nabokov’s subtle wordplay with puns (for instance, Lolita’s summer camp – Camp Q in the book – is named “Camp Climax.”) Psychoanalytic visual gags, like the Coke bottle from which Lolita constantly drinks, also figure prominently in the film, which must have disconcerted the Russian writer, who famously loathed Freud, calling him “that Viennese quack.”

Kubrick later admitted that if he knew how drastically the Hollywood production code would effect the telling of the story, he “probably wouldn’t have made the film.” Given the director’s intimate knowledge of the movie industry, this statement seems odd.

“Lolita,” in all its iterations, might be thought of as a Rorschach test of relative cultural norms. When director Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake (unable to secure U.S. distribution) was released in Europe, the French were unimpressed, and the Italians were so enthusiastic the novel became a bestseller there. Conservative British columnists (some things never change) tried to get it banned.

Panelist Nina Khrushcheva, who teaches “Lolita” at the New School, wrote in an email that “the eternal mystery and charm [of Lolita] is that she is both innocent and responsible, which makes her infinitely human.” But “Lolita” is more than just an evocation of a precociously sexual pre-teen. As Nabokov told his Cornell students about another finely-wrought piece of naturalism firmly in the canon: “[t]he girl Emma Bovary never existed: Madame Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a little girl.” Lolita, a name now synonymous with “young seductress,” has achieved a similar immortality.

Lolita in America, a symposium commemorating the 50th anniversary of Lolita’s publication in the U.S., concludes with a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s eponymous 1962 film. Sept. 27. Free. Reservations are required by Sept. 21. Email lolitaconference@newschool.edu to register. (212) 229-5353. For a complete list of speakers, visit newschool.edu/lolitaconference.

“Visualizing Lolita,” an exhibition of works by Parsons students, will be held at its Illustration Dept., 2 W. 13th St. (at 5th Ave.), 8th Floor, from Sept. 24-Oct. 26. These works represent the artists’ responses to the characters and themes of Nabokov’s novel.