Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 23, 1899, into a family with a long history of public service and scholarship. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nabokov and his family went into exile in England. Trilingual in Russian, English, and French from an early age, Nabokov earned an honors degree in Slavic and Romance languages from Trinity College,Cambridge, in 1922. He embarked upon a literary career, writing primarily in Russian. Among his notable early works was a Russian translation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In 1925, Nabokov married Vera Slonim, and in 1934 their only child, Dmitri, was born. The Nabokovs lived in both Germany and France before emigrating to the United States in 1940, where Nabokov taught literaturecourses at Wellesley and Cornell Universities. The move to America also inspired Nabokov to begin writing in English.
By 1955, Nabokov had already published a number of novels but had yet to create his masterpiece Lolita, which Nabokov began writing in 1949. It was originally rejected by no fewer than four American publishers, who found the story of a middle-aged professor’s lust for his preteenstepdaughter too inflammatory for publication. Undaunted, Nabokov persisted, and Lolita was eventually published in France in 1955 by the marginally reputable Olympia Press. Though it was condemned in some corners as scandalous trash, Lolita became an underground literary sensation in France. Driven by the growing critical acclaim for the book, Putnam published an American edition of the novel in 1958.Some countries deemed Lolita obscene and banned it, but the novel became a best seller in the United States, despite its controversial subject matter.
In its frank discussions of forbidden desire and sexuality, Lolita was revolutionary for its time. Though such writers as D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce had written about sexuality at the turn of the century, and though the evolution ofpsychology had brought the themes of sexuality and repression to the forefront of popular culture, no book had so explicitly expplored the darker elements of sex and desire. Nabokov was not a proponent of Freudian psychology, but he could not ignore its impact on literature or on the study of human emotion. In Lolita, he attempts to subvert the traditional views of sexuality and psychology while pretendingto pay homage to them.
Lolita also represents a classic example of postmodern literature. Postmodernism arose in the early years of the twentieth century and represented, in part, a move away from the notion that a novel should tell a realistic story from an objective perspective. Postmodern writers are primarily interested in writing that evokes the fragmentary nature of experience and thecomplexity of language. Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Lolita, narrates the novel from a highly subjective point of view, and he uses rich, sophisticated language to do so. Lolita contains a vast variety of linguistic devices, including puns, multilingual expressions, artistic allusions, word patterns, and references to other works. These devices followed from the then-popular idea that a novelwas not a fixed work of literature, but rather a more fluid, organic creation that was interconnected with other media. Humbert’s elegant and sinuous prose, however, conceals a subversive intent. The beauty and intensity of the language allow readers to remain sympathetic to the pedophile protagonist and compel them to read further, despite the numerous distressing events within the novel.
ThoughLolita is a fictional memoir, Nabokov actually shared many personality traits with his protagonist Humbert Humbert. Both men were highly educated, academically oriented European exiles who made their homes in America, and both possessed a compelling gift for language. However, unlike the pedophiliac, delusional Humbert, Nabokov was a devoted family man who lived a quiet, scholarly existence....