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Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

24 SEPTEMBER, 2014

A Lolitigation Lament: Nabokov on Censorship and Solidarity

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“Could you visualize LOLITA as a little paperback being offered for sale on the newstands?”

Vladimir Nabokov was a man of strong opinions — whether about the necessary qualities of a great storyteller or the nature of inspiration or the attributes of a good reader — but nowhere more so than when it came to defending his greatest work against censorship.

When Lolita was first published in Europe in September of 1955, its first printing of 5,000 copies flew off the shelves, but the book remained largely under the radar of the literary establishment. It wasn’t until December of that year that Graham Greene catapulted it into public attention by declaring it one of the year’s three best books in a piece for London’s Sunday Times. And because rivaling publications thrive on provocation and at the heart of all cultural controversy is a powerfully charged battery of approval and disapproval, the editor of London’s Sunday Express went vocally against Greene, calling the novel “sheer unrestrained pornography” and “the filthiest book I have ever read.” The controversy stirred frantic alarm at the UK Home Office, which instructed customs agents to begin confiscating all copies of the book entering the United Kingdom. A few months later, France’s Minister of the Interior banned novel. The original publisher, Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, who had convinced Nabokov not to publish the book under a pseudonym, faced legal trouble on account of the book. Nabokov responded with equal parts concern and indignation.

In a letter to Girodias from early March of 1957, found in the unfailingly absorbing Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940–1977 (public library), Nabokov wryly scoffs at what he called the “lolitigation” surrounding his book:

My moral defense of the book is the book itself. I do not feel under any obligation to do more… On the ethical plane, it is of supreme indifference to me what opinion French, British or any other courts, magistrates, or philistine readers in general, may have of my book. However, I appreciate your difficulties.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Jamie Keenan from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

But Nabokov knew such idealism bordering on moral arrogance would hurt the book’s odds of reaching commercial success in the long run. Burned by Lolita‘s European reception, he was determined to protect it from a similar fate in America. (A few months later, he would write in another letter to Girodias: “I am positive that LOLITA is the best thing I have written so far.”) This required a highly strategic approach to timing, allegiances, and literary ideals.

Nabokov had his eye set on Doubleday as the best American publisher for the book he took such pride in. “Nothing in the world would please me better than to have Doubleday bring out LOLITA,” he wrote to Doubleday editor and publisher Jason Epstein earlier the same day, before sending his “lolitigation” lament to Girodias.

Meanwhile, Nabokov was being courted by McDowell, the New York publishing firm founded by the prominent financial analyst Prince Ivan Sergeyevich Obolensky. When he saw that Doubleday was dragging its feet, Nabokov wrote to Epstein — whether as political goading or in earnest, or some combination of the two — of Obolensky’s competing offer:

My reaction to it is not a matter of principle but a matter of money. I am not particularly impressed by his firm but I cannot afford to miss the opportunity of not missing the opportunity to sell the book.

And yet ten days later, he sent Obolensky a polite rejection, along with a lengthy justification for declining his offer:

I have given much thought to the plans you suggested for LOLITA and have consulted several friends whose opinion I value. I have also been in touch with my publisher in Paris. The unanimous opinion is that this is not the right moment to publish LOLITA in the United States. I am terribly sorry to disappoint you. Here are a few reasons against publication:

  1. Everybody seems convinced that LOLITA would be banned if it were to be published now, without further preparation. Even if you are willing to assume the costs of a legal fight which may run into 50.000 or 60.000 dollars, you may eventually lose the case, and then LOLITA would be lost irretrievably.
  2. Should the book get into trouble, the NY. Times would at once refuse to advertise it, and every important publication in the country would follow suit. Nor would the Post Office let you announce the book directly through the mails if the legal action were begun under a federal statute.
  3. When you suggested that you would get in touch with a reprint house it became clear to me that you did not realize all the implications of this case. Could you visualize LOLITA as a little paperback being offered for sale on the newstands? [sic]

Let me repeat that I am terribly sorry that this will be a disappointment to you. But I have become convinced that the publication has to be put off at least until I see how the Anchor Review fares, how the Paris litigation is settled, and what decision the Supreme Court takes in some similar cases now before it.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Michael Bierut from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

To make matters even more complicated, Girodias kept pressing to publish the book in America under his own European imprint. Nabokov, determined to land at Doubleday, wrote to Girodias on May 14, weighing the many factors at play regarding potential censorship in America:

Dear Mr. Girodias,

You know as well as I do that publishing LOLITA in the US under your own imprint would mean asking for trouble. Nor can you fail to realize that a second-rate publisher would be no use since he would not be able to defend the book. Some ten years ago Doubleday spent more than $60000 on the defense of HECATE COUNTY by Edmund Wilson. Costs have gone up since then and are beyond the means of a second-rate publisher.

Since you know all this, and also know that we have here all sorts of Watch and Ward Societies, Catholic Legions of Decency, etc., and that, moreover, every post master in the country can start censorship trouble, I feel sure that you do not seriously contemplate the course of action you suggest in your letter.

But Nabokov’s most poignant point, from the same letter to Girodias, has to do with the question of solidarity against censorship — the idea that a publisher must not only be an author’s commercial vendor, but also his or her greatest champion and unconditional comrade in creative idealism. Nabokov writes:

Whoever publishes LOLITA here will have to agree to defend it, at his own expense, and to carry this defense through the courts as far as the Supreme Court, if necessary.

By August, the situation worsens and the Nabokov’s evocation of the Supreme Court suddenly stops seeming like bombast. He writes again to Girodias:

The situation here is extremely delicate. Doubleday have chosen the passages from LOLITA for the Anchor Review with the help of their lawyers, who in two instances made them change their choice of text. These lawyers have now been consulted as to the prospects of a complete edition; they have advised against it for the present. As you probably know, the Supreme Court has just handed down some very disappointing decisions. Although the cases judged were far removed from LOLITA’s case, the important thing is that the Court did not bother with the definition of the term “obscenity”, and did not take any measures against local censorship. This means that any small-town postmaster can set in motion the machine of censorship, starting the case on its way from Court to Court, until it reached the Supreme Court, which probably (though by no means certainly) would exonerate my book.

If Nabokov’s mention of the postmaster-censor sounds like a throwaway remark of exaggeration, it is anything but. Local censorship would go on to plague America for decades, the most famous example perhaps being the story of Ursula Nordstrom’s brilliantly feisty letter to a school librarian, who had decided to burn Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen as an act of censorship merely because it depicted a little boy without pants.

He goes on to reject Girodias’s offer, revisiting the notion of solidarity in the face of censorship and citing it as a major reason for his decision:

An important consideration is, too, that Doubleday think of me as of one of “their” authors. They have acquired two more books from me, and will do more than any other publisher to “push” LOLITA, which would be as much to your advantage as to mine (or theirs). For all these reasons I am sorry that you so resolutely rejected their offer.

Urging Girodias to consider an agreement with Doubleday, he adds:

I am positive that LOLITA is the best thing I have written so far; I shall be always grateful to you for having published it. It would be an awful shame if some false move prevented you and me from enjoying some profit from it.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Henry Sene Yee from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

At the end, Doubleday didn’t come through — likely in large part out of fear of what the kind of solidarity Nabokov demanded would cost them if an obscenity lawsuit indeed resulted from the publication. The publisher willing to offer such solidarity was ultimately G.P. Putnam’s Sons, currently owned by Penguin Group, who published the American edition of Lolita in August of 1958. Already into its third printing within days, it became the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its initial three weeks on the market. Despite Nabokov’s fears of censorship, or perhaps precisely because of his elaborate strategizing to prevent it, there were no official government sanctions.

Then again, such is the nature of capitalism — commercial success automatically grants moral approval.

Complement the always opinionated, always pleasurable Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters with the celebrated author on literature and life in a rare 1969 BBC interview and his recommendation for the six short stories everyone must read, then revisit other literary icons on censorship.

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22 APRIL, 2014

Happy Birthday, Nabokov: A BBC Documentary on Lolita and Life

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“Though he never returned, Russia never really left him, either.”

Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) is one of the most influential writers in modern history, no doubt in large part due to his strong opinions on literature and the creative process. In the 2010 BBC documentary How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, writer and broadcaster Stephen Smith traces Nabokov’s trail to attempt cracking open the mind that gave us Lolita. The film begins with one of the author’s classic rants and goes on to explore the artistry and psychology behind his legendary novel, complete with a necessary pronunciation guide to Nabokov’s name. (Yes, you’re probably saying it wrong.)

Complement with Nabokov on inspiration and what makes a good reader, the curious tale of his American immigration troubles, some gorgeous graphic reimaginings of Lolita, and this rare BBC interview, in which the beloved author discusses literature and life.

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21 FEBRUARY, 2014

Vladimir Nabokov on Writing, Reading, and the Three Qualities a Great Storyteller Must Have

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“Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”

“Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself,” Umberto Eco observed in his magnificent atlas of imaginary places. Indeed, our capacity for self-delusion is one of the most inescapable fundamentals of the human condition, and nowhere do we engage it more willingly and more voraciously than in the art and artifice of storytelling.

In the same 1948 lecture that gave us Vladimir Nabokov’s 10 criteria for a good reader, found in his altogether fantastic Lectures on Literature (UK; public library), the celebrated author and sage of literature examines the heart of storytelling:

Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.

Vladimir Nabokov by William Claxton, 1963

He considers this essential role of deception in storytelling, adding to famous writers’ wisdom on truth vs. fiction and observing, as young Virginia Woolf did, that all art simply imitates nature:

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

Going back for a moment to our wolf-crying woodland little woolly fellow, we may put it this way: the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story. When he perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire. But he was the little magician. He was the inventor.

What’s especially interesting is that Nabokov likens the writer to an inventor, since the trifecta of qualities he goes on to outline as necessary for the great writer — not that different from young Susan Sontag’s list of the four people a great writer must be — are just as necessary for any great entrepreneur:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.

Indeed, as important to the success of literature as the great writer is the wise reader, whom Nabokov characterizes by a mindset that blends the receptivity of art with the critical thinking of science:

The best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgment will temper the intuitive heat. If, however, a would-be reader is utterly devoid of passion and patience — of an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience — he will hardly enjoy great literature.

Lectures on Literature is a wealth of wisdom in its entirety. Also see Nabokov on the six short stories everyone should read, then revisit famous writers’ collected insights on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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