The Poerotic Novel: Nabokov's Lolita and Ada
Like Madame Bovary and Ulysses, Lolita was confronted with institutional censorship. After submitting his manuscript to four American publishers with no success, Nabokov agreed to allow a Paris publisher he had never heard of, Olympia Press, to bring out his novel. Maurice Girodias, the director of Olympia Press, like his father Jack Kahane who had brought out Tropic of Cancer and many pornographic books as well, had already published Becketts Watt and translations of de Sade, Bataille and Genet; he had also brought out a number of pornographic books, among them Helen and Desire, Lust, The Whip Angels, and the translation of Histoire dO.61
The novel might never have drawn the censors attention had not Graham Greene selected it as one of the three best books of the year in the 1955 Christmas issue of the Sunday Times. Immediately, John Gordon, the editor of the very popular Sunday Express, took Graham Greene to task in a bitter article which really marked the beginning of the Affaire Lolita: "Without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read, wrote Gordon. Sheer unrestrained pornography Anyone who published it or sold it here would certainly go to prison. I am sure the Sunday Times would approve, even though it abhors censorship as much as I do.62 Gordon had obviously had little contact with real pornographic literature. The ensuing polemic between Greene and Gordon unfortunately drew the British Home Offices attention to the book; the customs were ordered to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom, and pressure was put on the French Minister of the Interior, Maurice Bokanowski (a buffoon who seems to come straight out of Nabokowski), to suppress the novel. This was happening in a climate of Entente Cordiale, France and Britain being then involved in the Suez crisis. On 20 December 1956, the Journal Officiel announced the Ministers decision to prohibit the sale and circulation of this novel along with twenty-four others published in English by the Olympia Press; of the twenty-five titles, the French press retained only Lolita which immediately became a cause célèbre.
Let us examine the legal aspect of this suppression which did not properly constitute a condemnation of the book since there had been no trial. The Ministers decision was based on the law of 29 July 1881 on the freedom of the press and also on the decree of 6 May 1939 concerning the control of the foreign press. The procedure adopted in this case had therefore nothing in common with that applied to de Sades novels: it was not originated by the Commission Spéciale, which, in such cases, only gave its ethical opinion before the case could be tried by the Tribunal Correctionnel, but took the form of a police action.
This suppression put the Olympia Press in a difficult position financially. Girodias decided to take his case before the Tribunal Administratif whose main task is to protect French citizens against abuses committed by the administration. He campaigned mostly in favor of Lolita, which was clearly much easier to defend on artistic grounds than many of the other works, and wrote a little book entitled LAffaire Lolita whose sub-title, Défense de lécrivain, somewhat betrays his bad faith: Girodias was not so much trying to defend Nabokov, of course, as his own publishing house.
In his chapter on censorship, Girodias stressed the fact that the Minister of the Interior had suppressed books on the list, like Donleavys The Ginger Man or Harriss My Life and Loves, which had been authorized in England and were circulating freely in translation in France.63 He also made a brief history of censorship and its various manifestations in the Western world since Antiquity, mentioning by the way that the American Customs had withheld two copies of Lolita but had not deemed it necessary to ban the book. He acknowledged the fact that Humberts sexual practices were actionable but he claimed that the book was not: this book depicts odious practices, and its hero belongs to a category of sexual maniacs whom Society has the best possible reasons to prosecute. And yet, this book has an undeniable artistic quality. The subject is not fortuitous, nor replaceable: it is this subject precisely, and none other, which inspired the author to write this work whose originality and greatness was readily acknowledged by many authoritative critics.64 Girodias, like John Ray and most critics, admitted that he was caught in a double bind: his defense, which tended to be confused at the end, was not legally tenable, and he knew it, hence his reference to another authority, that of the literati. He also used another argument against censorship which Charles Rembar was going to invoke ten years later, explaining that obscenity was a perverse effect of censorship.65 His logic was somewhat faulty in the circumstances: if censorship had suddenly disappeared, and with it obscenity, he would have gone out of business. This argument betrays his bad faith: he knew that pornography would not disappear so easily and was merely struggling to keep his publishing house afloat.
Girodias also gathered a number of interesting documents to back his case: a letter from the President of the National Union of Publishers, J. Rodolphe-Rousseau, declaring that it was not possible for his union to intervene in such a case,66 without saying why; a letter from the American Customs stating that the novel had been released; the text of the decree of 6 May 1939; a letter from Jean Lemanissier, counsel at the Conseil dEtat, warning the Minister of the Interior against suppressing the books published by Girodias; the Ministers answer, via the Prefect, stating that there was no ground for canceling the decision concerning the suppression of the said publications;67 then a long article by Daniel Bécourt, counsel at the tribunal, entitled Loutrage aux moeurs [Affront against public decency].
Bécourt carefully reexamines the two legal texts invoked by the Minister to suppress the books, and shows that neither of them applies to this case: first, they concerned publications with political overtones and not pornographic works, and, second, they did not say anything about books but meant to regulate the circulation, the distribution, or the sale in France of newspapers or periodical or non-periodical publications, written in a foreign language.68 Bécourt insists that books are never mentioned in this enumeration of the objects [moyens] punished by the law, and he claims that it was the Minister of the Interior who had asked that it be dropped from the list in a project dating from 1930.69 Both texts openly refer to the press, either French or foreign. The suppression of a book, as he explains, could not be decided unless the Commission Spéciale had first rendered its report; and he takes this opportunity to give the composition of that Commission in which there was only one representative of the authors, as against many legal experts, some of them representing the Minister of Education, and members of associations defending public morality and the family.70 In France, therefore, the men of letters did not carry as much legal weight in cases involving sexually explicit books as they did in either England or the United States; the aforementioned trial of de Sades works and of their publisher, Pauvert, had made this amply clear. Considering its composition, the said Commission, if it had been consulted, would probably have recommended the suppression of the book.
In his article, Bécourt also tries to define the affront against public decency. The law did not provide a definition for this affront but it prescribed that the offense against religious morality be disregarded and that only obscenity be retained.71 Yet, after 1920, it was immorality and not obscenity which was condemned in most cases; and immorality, says Bécourt, implies a reference to rules which continue to assert themselves, no matter what evolution the social mores can undergo.72 And these rules, he goes on, are not dictated by the law, but most of the time by a Church. He tries to show, without insisting overmuch, that, despite the separation between Church and State, Christian morality continues to be enforced by the political authority in France. He does not deny the fact that children and adolescents must be protected, but he maintains that society should at the same time give them a healthy education which will constitute their best protection. For, what is the use of shielding from temptations those who enter life where evil is everywhere without teaching them not to be hurt by them. A pot of jam locked up in a cupboard whets a persons greed whereas the same person would scorn it readily if it was within his reach.73 The defense counsel in the Madame Bovary trial had used this same argument, obviously tainted with bad faith. Here, Bécourt is defending an ultra-liberal thesis; he claims that the law has nothing to do where only morality must reign. He probably self-censors himself in the circumstances: he was obviously tempted to say: where only religious morality must reign.74 The whole trial developed in an atmosphere of bitter antagonism between sectarian Catholics and sectarian anticlericals typical of the 50s.
Girodiass little book ends with a series of appendices, among them the report written by the Commission Spéciale about such sexually explicit books as Apollinaires Les Onze mille verges or Les Poésies libres, or about books by de Sade and Genet. Girodias quotes Raymond Poincaré who, at the time that he was a Minister, had been asked what distinction he made between pornography and obscenity: A pornographic book, he said, is a clumsily composed book, a badly written book, whereas obscenity is a form of realism whose coarseness is liable to hurt peoples good taste. But since good taste is a matter which is private to each of us, there are as many tastes as there are readers, which makes it impossible to accept obscenity as a count of indictment.75 This argument is insufficiently developed, yet it is apparently very close to that developed by the English and American literati who, after the early 30s, tried to put an end to any kind of censorship against sexually explicit books. This brief historical survey about international censorship at the end of Girodiass little book contains a number of legal documents and newspaper articles coming mostly from the United States and England.
Strangely, Nabokov declined to help Girodias, though the latter claimed to be defending the interest of the authors. By then, he was aware of Girodiass reputation as a publisher of mostly pornographic books; in a letter to Jason Epstein written on 20 February 1957, he said:
I am rather loath of exposing myself in the company of The Olympia Press. But I am also rather at a loss to find a point of view from which to consider the whole thing.The arguments put forward by Nabokov are interesting though not totally consistent: he was refusing to back Girodias to avoid being considered as a pornographic author and because he was afraid to hurt his reputation at Cornell where he was teaching; however, he acknowledged that he should perhaps help Girodias who, after all, had brought out the novel, though it was perhaps no longer necessary to do so since, despite the suppression of the book in its English version, Gallimard, under Queneaus advice, was about to publish a translation of the novel made by Girodiass own brother, Eric Kahane.
One must also point out that, at the time, Nabokov was in conflict with Girodias about copyrights: according to American legislation, he was going to lose all his rights on the book for the United States (and Girodias with him) if the book were not published in the United States within five years of its first publication in Paris.77 The stakes were tremendous, considering the huge success of the 1958 American edition of Lolita.78 Any help he could bring to Girodias in this struggle for the release of the book could be used against him by his American publisher, Putnams, who was about to bring out that edition. It was not the first time in history that questions of copyrights and censorship were intimately linked, as I have indicated in Textual Communication. Girodias was officially fighting against French censorship and in favor of the author and his moral right, but in fact he was using this trial to protect his commercial rights upon the book and the twenty-four others which had been suppressed at the same time. He never confuses the two issues in the detailed report he provides in the second volume of Une Journée sur la terre subtitled Les Jardins déros. Nabokov signed the contract with Putnams only three days before the Tribunal Administratifs decision to release Lolita and the other books. In Les Jardins déros, Girodias comments: Three days before, on 11 February 1958, a telegram from Walter Minton [the director of Putnams] informed me: Nabokov has signed contract. Which more than ever emphasized the magic role of Lolita, a symbolic book, the emblematic book of a period of transition and transformation.79
To be sure, there are two texts by Nabokov, in French translation, in LAffaire Lolita, an extract from the novel and an article published earlier in the Antioch Review, On a Book Entitled Lolita. In this article that I have examined elsewhere,80 he presented a defense of the book which curiously echoed that put forward by John Ray, the author of the foreword. This article has been reprinted at the end of the novel ever since, like the proceedings of the trials reproduced at the end of Madame Bovary. For his defense, Nabokov did not invoke legal arguments but literary ones: 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.81 As he put it at the time in a letter to Girodias:
My moral defense of the book is the book itself. I do not feel under any obligation to do more. However, I went further and wrote the essay on Lolita, a copy of which is now in your hands. 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.82Nabokov was absolutely sure of being morally and poetically right and of having impeccably good taste. The novels problems with justice only strengthened his convictions, particularly as more and more famous writers were speaking out in favor of it.
However, he had had his doubts about the novel earlier on. In September 1953, that is two years before its first publication, he uncannily mentioned, in a letter to Katharine A. White of the New Yorker, this enormous, mysterious, heartbreaking novel which he was in the process of completing after five years of monstrous misgivings and diabolical labors.83 In a letter to Edmund Wilson written the following year, he acknowledged the sensual dimension of the novel but insisted upon its artistic quality: I consider this novel to be my best thing in English, and though the theme and situation are decidedly sensuous, its art is pure and its fun riotous.84 Incidentally, the entire paragraph from which this quotation is taken is bracketed and marked in the margin: all this is a secret. A year after the publication of the book in Paris, he tried to vindicate it in a letter to his friend and colleague Morris Bishop who had got him appointed at Cornell:
I know that Lolita is my best book so far. I calmly lean on my conviction that it is a serious work of art, and that no court could prove it to be lewd and libertine. All categories grade, of course, into one another: a comedy of manners written by a fine poet may have its lewd side; but Lolita is a tragedy. Pornography is not a an image plucked out of context; pornography is an attitude and an intention. The tragic and the obscene exclude each other.85Nabokov probably meant that obscenity, in such a case, is redeemed by the tragic elements and is not the raison dêtre of the book, merely an instrument. Like Flaubert before him, he insisted upon the purity of his intentions but the syllogism he constructed is somewhat lame since he uses a different word in his premise and his conclusion (pornography and obscenity) in order to demonstrate that there is no vulgarity in his novel. He resumed the same line of defense with Pascal Covici a few weeks later: As a friend and one of the few people who have read the book, you will, I am sure, slap down such rumormongers as contend that the book is pornographic. I know that Lolita is my best book so far. Calmly I lean on my conviction that it is a serious work of art and that no court could prove it to be lewd and libertine.86
He was right to think so: the Tribunal Administratif to which counsel Lemanissier had presented the dossier prepared by Girodias decided on 14 January 1958 that the suppression of the twenty-five incriminated books, among them Lolita, was illegal. The tribunal recognized the legitimacy of Maurice Girodiass arguments such as they were presented in LAffaire Lolita. In his autobiography, Les Jardins déros, Girodiassummarizes his main argumentsthe first one concerning the principle of equality before the law, and the second one the intended audience, and he comments: the decision to suppress the books, in its very wording, concerned only the English version of the said books, which implied therefore that the French version of the same books could be published with impunity by another publisher. If the purpose of the law was to protect the French population against pernicious books, then the proscription was exactly contrary to the intended purpose.87 Both arguments were legally founded. In the letter in which he announced to Nabokov that he had won, Girodias lamented the fact that the tribunal had refused to distinguish between books and periodicals, and he summarized the arguments presented by the governments commissioner, M. Allais, who recognized that our plea was founded, and even condemned the very principle of censorship: but he also tried to demonstrate that, even though the Ministers decision had to be considered as abusive in the case where the said books would be immoral, it would be another story if one considered that the presence and existence of the same books allegedly immoral were eventually liable to create public disorder!88 For the government, therefore, it was not immorality proper which was at stake but the threat such books could constitute against public order.
The tribunal rejected this distinction: taking into consideration the arguments presented by Girodias, it declared that the government had abused its authority and canceled the Ministers order, thereby authorizing the free circulation of Lolita and of the other books. Yet, the book was again suppressed the following year, after De Gaulles return to power. This time, Girodias sued the Minister of the Interior for doing violence to the sacrosanct principle of equality, and he claimed one hundred million Francs in damages.89 The Minister preferred to negotiate with Girodias and lifted the ban against the book for good.
Nabokov never said anything against censorship concerning sex. In an interview published in Playboy in 1964, he explained that he was not interested in sex proper: Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitudeall this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.90 This pompous declaration is somewhat tainted with bad faith, of course. What he meant, I think, was that he refused to use sex as an easy means of identification between readers, narrators and characters, but rather as a poetic challenge. He did not hesitate to show his contempt for Humbert, on the other hand: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear touching. That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl.91 He obviously idealizes Lolita, as Flaubert did his petite femme, but he is too hard on Humbert whose devouring passion he has taken so much pain to describe; the tragic element of the novel does not concern only Lolita but also Humbert, both as a narrator-poet and as a protagonist. Nabokov tries too hard to vilify Humbert and to distance himself from him. In answer to an interviewers question about the cruelty and perversity of some of his characters, he once said:
Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty beastly, but I really dont care, they are outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral façadedemons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out. Actually, Im a mild old gentleman who loathes cruelty.92The poetic image he uses may contain Nabokovs most open confession as to the dialectic relation existing between himself and Humbert: Im not like him, he seems to say, but I could have been, as I sense within myself desires which, if not kept on a leash, could have led me to commit similar crimes. In all these declarations, he tries to show that he is endowed with a strong moral sense and does not confuse his chimeras with reality.
One would like to be able to confront the finished novel with the manuscripts in order to find out how and where he self-censored himself in the process of writing, how he settled the conflicts between his erotic and esthetic desires. Unfortunately, these manuscripts, which he had nearly burnt before the book was published, have disappeared, apparently for good. There remain only ninety-four index cards filled with preparatory notes which can be consulted at the Library of Congress.93 These cards still present some interest for the present study: more than half of them concern the anatomical description of the nymphet, her physiological evolution (that of her pilosity, of her breasts, of her menstruations, etc.) but also her psychological make-up, the legislation concerning sexual commerce between an adult and a young girl, and the evocation of some notorious abductions of minors mentioned in the press. Nabokov gathered material on all these subjects by reading books like Basic Body Measurements of School Age Children, A Treatise on the American Law of Guardianship, Child Marriages or Havelock Elliss Studies in the Psychology of Sex, or scientific journals like Society for Research in Child Development Monographs or University High School Journal. He also consulted more popular magazines, like Miss America, Movie Love, Movie Teen etc., to get better acquainted with girls tastes and fantasies, and also with their special type of discourse; most of the teenage slang in the novel was apparently gleaned from those magazines. There are also quotations from Renaissance French poets: Ronsard (the famous line about la vermeillette fente), Remy Belleau (un petit feutré de mousse délicate, /tracé sur le milieu dun fillet descarlatte), which appear in the text of the novel.94
These cards clearly show that Nabokov was, in a way, trying to explore this continent which he knew practically nothing aboutthe twelve-year-old girl at the time when she begins to discover her sexuality. The novel imperfectly reflects this preparatory research: it is considerably less precise on everything concerning the nymphets body and her physiological evolution than one would expect from reading these cards. What remains is the phantasmal residue which surfaces, often very poetically, everywhere in the novel. Self-censorship obviously worked, but the traces of the authors erotic and esthetic desires remain and are perfectly identifiable. The tragic dimension of the novel, like that of Madame Bovary, precisely derives from this difficult struggle undertaken by the author to transmute the erotic into the poetic, and to conceal the least avowable part of his desires.
It is tempting, after all these remarks, to adopt a Freudian interpretation of Nabokovs novels. His contempt for Freud and psychoanalysis would even seem to justify this approach. In the prefaces to the English translations of his Russian novels, he repeatedly claims that the Viennese delegation has not been invited. In an interview on French television in 1975, he derided Freud and said he considered him as a comic author: I appreciate Freud immensely, as a comic author mainly. The explanations he gives of his patients emotions and dreams is unbelievably grotesque; it is even better to read him in the original. I dont understand how people can take him seriously. So, please, lets stop talking about him.95 Elsewhere, he inveighed against William Woodin Rowe who, in 1971, had written a book with a strong psychoanalytic slant entitled Nabokov's Deceptive World: What I object to is Mr. Rowes manipulating my most innocent words so as to introduce sexual symbols into them. The notion of symbol itself has always been abhorrent to me.96 He simply accused Rowe of having imposed his fantasies upon the novels.
Nabokovs interdict as worded in this attack against Rowe must be taken into consideration in the present context: it is a point of resistance which invites the reader to remain very close to the text and to avoid any systematic application of an interpretative grid; it is also a powerful challenge to our analytical and interpretative ability. The critics long balked at transgressing this interdict, and it was only after Nabokovs death that there began to appear such psychoanalytical studies as Geoffrey Greens Freud and Nabokov (1988). In his lectures on Dostoevski, Nabokov tries to disregard the Freudian interpretation with a clumsy Be it as it may which badly conceals his embarrassment.97 And then he classifies Dostoevskis characters by the categories of mental illnesses by which they are affected.98 He refused, however, that his own critics should use psychoanalysis to study his books.
Yet, it is tempting to see in a poem he wrote in 1928, Lilith, the primal fantasy which was at the origin of the myth of the nymphet:
Let me in!I shouted, noticing with horrorWe are very far here from the idyllic scenes described above. Is it an adolescents fantasy or a childs traumatic experience? It is impossible to say. The authors desires and frustration seem to show openly through the thin poetic fabric. The intense anxiety inherent to sex which all these images of imprisonment or exclusion betray can only be the authors very own since it reappears in many of the novels, from King, Queen, Knave to Look at the Harlequins! No matter what Nabokov said to the contrary, he always entertained a tragic view of sex which surfaces in the network of many equivocal images examined earlier, and which is displayed openly in Lilith. This girl, who, according to tradition, was Adams first wife, can be considered as the mythical representation of this anxiety designated by the author himself.
The Freudian critic may be tempted to utter a triumphant exclamation at this point if only to rid himself of the intense anxiety generated by these at once subtle and perverse poerotic works, imagining somewhat naïvely that, having identified the authors desire, he is again in the one-up position. I personally feel a great deal less triumphant, because this discovery does not in the least provide the key to Nabokovs text. It only confirms what I already knew, namely that the author is a desiring subject, just like the reader. Psychoanalytic criticism of this kind is a sophisticated form of biographical and historical criticism; whereas traditional criticism claimed to recover the authors intention and to identify the models for the story, the characters, the images, psychoanalytic criticism makes it possible to identify the authors most secret desires which he would have been unable to articulate since they belong to his unconscious. The influence of the Freudian or Lacanian doxa is such, though, that the practitioners of this critical method tend all too readily to make an arbitrary selection of such excerpts that will fit their theory but to overlook the rest. Such a criticism grants more importance to the author than do structuralism or deconstructionism, no matter what its representatives say to the contrary. In the case of Nabokov, such criticism is utterly unable to assess the poetic richness of the language, the tragic intensity of the stories. It is a kind of censorship in its own way, claiming rights which are totally extravagant.
This study of Lolita and Ada has made it possible to analyze the complex mechanisms of censorship and self-censorship. Each participant in the textual exchange has an important stakenot only the author and the reader, of course, but also the publisher, the censor, the critic, the psychoanalyst. To censor does not simply mean to prohibit or to silence: each participant wants to impose his law upon the text and to claim his authority or its financial rights upon it. When Maurice Girodias asked for 75% of the copyrights on the future editions, he was simply trying to supplant Nabokov, as if, by publishing this apparently unpublishable novel, he considered himself as its inventor. In a letter written on 26 January 1959, Nabokov finally told him: I wrote Lolita. 100
61. Patrick J. Kearney has published an annotated bibliography of the Olympia Press, The Paris Olympia Press (London: Black Spring Press, 1987).
62. Quoted by Boyd in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, p. 295.
63. L'Affaire Lolita (Paris: Olympia Press, 1957), p. 55.
64. Ibid., p. 62.
65. Ibid., p. 63.
66. Ibid., p. 65.
67. Ibid., p. 71.
68. It is the very wording of the decree of May 1939 signed by Lebrun, Daladier and Sarraut. Ibid., p. 68.
69. Ibid., p. 78.
70. Ibid., p. 81.
71. Ibid., p. 83.
73. Ibid., p. 84.
75. Ibid., p. 92-93.
76. Selected Letters, p. 203.
77. Letter to Girodias of 5 March 1958. Selected Letters, p. 208.
78. It was apparently the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies within the first three weeks of publication. Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, p. 365.
79. Une journée; sur la terre: Les jardins d'éros (Paris: Editions de la Différence, 1990), p. 371-372.
80. Textual Communication, pp. 85-6.
81. The Annotated Lolita, pp. 316-7.
82. Selected Letters, p. 210.
83. Ibid., p. 140.
84. The Nabokov-Wilson Letters (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1980), p. 285.
85. Selecter Letters, p. 184.
86. Ibid., p. 185.
87. Les Jardins d'éros, p. 371.
88. Letter from Maurice Girodias to Monsieur et Madame Nabokov, 15 January 1958. Copy provided by Mrs. L. Schirman Lubetzki, Nabokov's lawyer.
89. Les Jardins d'éros, p. 446.
90. Strong Opinions, p. 23.
91. Ibid., p. 94.
92. Ibid., p. 19.
93. Access to the Nabokov Papers is restricted. I here thank Dmitri Nabokov for allowing me to study them.
94. The Annotated Lolita, p.49.
95. Interview with Bernard Pivot, on Antenne 2.
96. Strong Opinions, p. 304.
97. Lectures on Russian Literature (London: Picador, 1983), p. 99.
98. Ibid., p. 107.
99. Poems and Problems (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), p. 55.
100. Selected Letters, p. 277.
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