by Suellen Stringer-Hye
Jean and Alexander Heard Library
Vanderbilt University

Pornography, the First Amendment, and Lolita,---it all comes round again...

On October 17, Joan E. Bertin, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece discussed the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 in its relation to Adrian Lyne's as of then famously unreleased film version of Lolita. Bertin denounces the Childhood Pornography Prevention Act stating that this will not effectively stop sexual abuse and exploitation. She complains that:

...even if a movie like "Lolita" was filmed with an adult body double, it apparently would be prohibited if it contains simulated sexual conduct that appears to involve a minor. If you recall, that's what "Lolita" is about: a man's sexual obsession with a pubescent girl.
Seconding this viewpoint, The Economist ran an anonymous article called "Self-appointed Censors" in the October 11, issue. The author uses "Lolita's" distribution woes to frame a discussion about censorship.
IN MOST western democracies, state censorship of publishing and the arts has, thankfully, more or less disappeared. But there is a subtler threat to freedom of artistic expression that liberals, in the old fashioned sense, ought to be worried about. This is the claim heard more and more from shocked or offended groups to a special say, even a veto, over what books are published or what art is shown.
On the other side of the argument, a December 30, New York Times article reported that a German group that campaigns against pedophilia called for a ban on screenings of the new film version of ''Lolita". The group, Kim Initiative, denounced the film as ''an attempt to promote pedophilia."

Norman Podhoretz , an early protege of Lionel Trilling, and a champion of neo-conservativism in his long tenure as editor of Commentary, in and April 1997 Commentary article entitled "Lolita, My mother-in-law, the Marquis de Sade, and Larry Flint" blames Nabokov for positioning Lolita at the precipice of unbridled pederasty. Excerpts from this article appear below. Full text can be found at:

NOT LONG ago, the Library of America put out a beautiful new three-volume edition of the novels and memoirs of Vladimir Nabokov, and I decided to seize upon it as a convenient occasion for reacquainting myself with his work. Which explains why I happened to be reading Lolita on the very day a story by Nina Bernstein appeared on the front page of the New York Times that cast a horrifying new light on Nabokov's masterpiece. It also brought memories to the surface that had long been buried, and simultaneously forced me into rethinking a number of questions I had up till then considered fairly well resolved. As I was going through this difficult process, I was given a few more pushes by Milos Forman's movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and two recently published books, Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge and Rochelle Gurstein's The Repeal of Reticence. By the time I was through, my peace of mind had been so disturbed that I was left wishing that those old memories and those settled questions had been allowed to remain in their contentedly slumberous state.
Podhertz makes comments such as these:
But as I have now come to understand on rereading Nabokov in the new Library of America edition, there was something less admirable that went along with his linguistic genius and that he also had in common with Joyce: a contempt for his audience. I realize this is a very harsh charge, but how else can one honestly describe the attitude implicit in a style so in love with itself that it often loses sight of what it is supposed to be conveying, and so aesthetically narcissistic that it intransigently refuses to make any concessions whatsoever to the reader, even to the point of often requiring an editor's footnotes to decipher the pyrotechnical wordplay in which it so mischievously indulges?

The very brilliance of his language, the very sharpness of his wit, the very artfulness of his treatment all help to shatter the taboo and thereby to rob pedophilia of its horror. In other words, in aestheticizing the hideous, Nabokov as I can now clearly see-comes very close to prettifying it.

Worse yet, he comes very close to excusing it.

However preposterous Podhoretz's accusations, many in the film industry may be afraid that release of Lyne's film in the US will trigger a wave of pedophilia for which they or their interests will be considered responsible. And who can say this is not true? A casual search on the internet for "Lolita" delivers two index screens of hard-core porn sites before ever a mention of Nabokov or his novel appears. The subtle indictment of the "Lolita" mentality that is a part of the book's complexity is lost on the non-readers who traffic these sites.

In the November 1996 interview I conducted with Stephen Schiff, the sceenwriter for Lyne's "Lolita", we did not discuss the current difficulties in finding a distributor. When I recently asked him about the above situation, he commented,

What, precisely, do the fears of a movie's causing a "wave of pedophilia" amount to? Does someone really believe that a viewer of "Lolita" might sit in the movie theatre, watching the deterioration of Humbert's life, and say to himself, "Huh! Pedophilia! Never thought of that! Think I'll try it!"?

That, as absurd as it sounds, is nevertheless the tenor of the public terror. It is not, of course, the tenor of the studios' terror. What they fear is something more bottom-line: picketers, boycotts, stockholder revolts, small-town sheriffs confiscating prints and jailing everyone involved, etc. Those fears seem infinitely more reasonable to me than the bogeyman of a "wave of pedophilia," but they are still not reason enough to keep this movie off American screens.

In the meantime, many articles discussing the film from both "first amendment" and "artistic" viewpoints have surfaced. Below is a quick list of some of the most notable appearing after 9/1/97 (recent articles mentioned on NABOKV-L not included).
Richard Covington, "Lolita Makes The European Rounds" Los Angeles Times, January 20, 1998, p. 1.

John Blades, "A Look at Lolita," Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1998, p. 12,

Liz Smith, "The Woes of Lolita," Newsday, November 11, 1997, p.A15.

Anonymous, "Pedophilia is Taboo, But Incest Seems Accepted," Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL), October 2, 1997, p. 5E.

Derek Malcolm, "Pass The Popcorn; Bah! Humbert!" The Guardian (London) September 25, 1997, p. T8.

Celestine Bohlen, "A New 'Lolita' Stalls in Europe; Hollywood Snubs Remake of the Tale of an Adolescent Siren," New York Times September 23, 1997, p. 1.

Derek Malcolm, "Lolita Back In The Limelight," The Guardian (London), September 22, 1997, p. 20.

Anonymous, "Babylon can be a hard sell," Economist October 11, 1997, p. 108

Jack Kroll, "Lolita's Fatal Attraction," Newsweek October 6, 1997, p. 72.

John Leonard, "The New Puritanism," Nation Nov 24, 1997 p. 11

Rachel Abramowitz, "How do you solve a problem like Lolita?" Premiere p. 80.

Sergei and Homosexuality

In Berlin, Charting Gay Art's Struggle to Emerge

An August 3, 1997 article in the New York Times by Michael Ratcliffe describes an exhibit held in Berlin at the Academy of Arts to celebrate 100 years of the international gay movement. Comprised of 1,000 paintings, drawings, photographs, documents and books the exhibit sought to express the exuberance of "...a homosexual culture that has become global in the last years of this century."

Vladimir Nabokov's gay brother, Sergei, about whom he writes with bewildered remorse in his memoirs, died of exhaustion in the concentration camp at Neuengamme. We look with new eyes at the 1918 photograph of five Nabokov siblings: not first, as before, at the supercool, pale-browed genius of 19 on the left, but at Sergei, an intense, owlish adolescent in Yalta school uniform and pince-nez. They don't even look related. (Their father had been a leading liberal campaigner for sexual reforms in St. Petersburg in the 1890's.) The Gestapo warrant for Sergei's arrest is also here; the Nazis kept everything.
Jakob and Jewel: VN and Popular Culture

Two musicians, Jewel and Jakob Dylan have recently been characterized in the popular press by their taste for Nabokov. Gerri Hirshey in a June 12, 1997 article called "Jakob's Ladder" describes this scenario,

"Disco sucks!" bellows a husky partisan in a Bruins jersey. A lacy, burgundy-colored bra floats onstage. Then - thunk! - a yellowed, dogeared paperback of Lolita lands at the scuffed toes of Jakob's black brogans. He looks puzzled, a bit concerned. How could anyone out there guess his fondness for Nabokov ? Could they possibly know that he can read a page of the old reprobate's lush prose and see a half-dozen songs fly out of it? Round midnight, sitting in the darkened back lounge of the Wallflowers' rolling bus, Jakob Dylan will wonder aloud: "Where are they getting their information? How?"
In "The Shaping of Jewel" which appeared on July 21,1997, in Time, Howard Chua-Eoan depicts the rock singer as,
The street-smart optimism of pop's new goddess rises from a life of near poverty in Alaska and San Diego. Her metaphors can be equine. She has said she is not a workhorse, not a racehorse, but a show horse. She brings up a fictional character who looked "impossibly sad, like a horse's eyes." It is a quote, she says, from Nabokov, and she pronounces the novelist's name correctly, with the stress on the second syllable, exactly as exacting old Vladimir used to instruct his readers. He might have been able to appreciate this latest of pop goddesses, this star of the Lilith Fair. After all, it was a Nabokov character who said that while he was capable of loving Eve, "it was Lilith he longed for." Jewel's is a fey, insidious charm, equal parts worldly and naive, where flaws--the crooked nose and crooked teeth she is so proud of--only betray an uncommon beauty. Then there is the improbable match of slender youth and that voice--an astonishingly versatile instrument ranging from soul-shattering yodels to the most eloquent of whispers to arch Cole Porter-ish recitative.
Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, recently in the news due to the novel commonly publicized as his last, is compared to Nabokov in this excerpt from an article "Vonnegut's last laugh: A talk with America's greatest living Saab dealer" in the October 7, Village Voice.

However unlikely it sounds-plenty, right?-I also think Vonnegut and Nabokov have things in common. No, not everything: Vonnegut, I love. Nabokov, I revere. But they're both the products of lost paradises, which reverberate in their work with a nostalgia unmarred by self-pity. Nabokov's idyllic, cushy Russian youth has the advantage of sounding like paradise; Vonnegut's was prewar Indianapolis, which doesn't. His parents didn't have a happy adulthood: his mother finally killed herself not long before Kurt was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Even so, he's one of the few American writers to have had a happy childhood, which was also a privileged one, until his prosperous family went bust in the Depression.
Stolen Books

As reported in the December 7, 1997 New York Times p. 3, in order to protect books that are regularly stolen, Tower Records created a behind-the-counter placard that reads : ''Tower's Most Wanted,'' and features sinister-looking photos and the names of the authors of these books. Hot authors are Jack Keruoac, Charles Bukowski, Albert Camus, Paul Auster, Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Henry Miller and Jim Thompson. Keeping this good company is, of course, Vladimir Nabokov.

Citywide, the hottest books are, Junkie by William S. Burroughs, On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov . In addition, anything by Charles Bukowski has to be nailed down.
The article, far from denouncing thievery decides,
Perhaps people shouldn't be so concerned by all this theft. There are those who say that the taste reflected by the thieves is the taste not of Americans in general, but simply of those who steal. And there is some good news. At least there are people left who still want to read.
Young Girls

In the March 1997 Los Angeles Magazine, Lawrence Weschler makes an interesting comparison between Gidget and Lolita in an article called "From Hitler to Hollywood". The article traces the fortunes and fates of German emigres who landed in Hollywood after WWII.

IN THE MID 1950s, A GERMAN emigre writer named Frederick Kohner watched, mystified, as his Americanized teenage daughter learned to surf on Malibu Beach. Kohner decided to write a fictionalized account of his daughter's exploits, deploying as the book's title the nickname she had acquired at the beach: Gidget. Around the same time, a Russian emigre named Nabokov living in Ithaca, New York, published astory about another American teenager called Lolita. Both books concerned girls coming of age, both were quintessentially American, and both were by émigrés.

In the December 20 -27th British Medical Journal Frans Meulenberg profiles literary incidents of psoriasis along with the true life occurences that inspired them. He discusses in detail John Updike's bouts with the disease and the manifestation of them in several of his works. He also states,

Vladimir Nabokov concealed his psoriasis. For example, in the collection of interviews with Nabokov the term psoriasis is never used. In February 1937 Nabokov suffered a bad attack. On 15 May of that year he somewhat pathetically wrote to his wife, Vera: "I continue with the radiation treatments every day and am pretty much cured. You know-now I can tell you frankly-the indescribable torments I endured in February, before these treatments, drove me to the border of suicide-a border I was not authorised to cross because I had you in my luggage." His biographer mentions only one more exacerbation of psoriasis after that, which occurred in the late 1960s when the strain of writing the novel Ada fell from Nabokov's shoulders.

Whereas Updike has written about psoriasis at length, Nabokov devotes one page to the disease, in the novel Ada. He mentions "a spectacular skin disease that had been portrayed recently by a famous American novelist in his Chiron and described in side-splitting style by a co-sufferer who wrote essays for a London weekly." The two patients with psoriasis in Ada exchange notes with tips: "Mercury!" or "Hohensonne works wonders." Other pieces of advice are found in a one volume encyclopaedia, and involve taking hot baths at least twice a month and avoiding spices.

The article concludes with this insight:
Psoriasis functions as a metaphor for the creative process. Psoriasis is the result of the implosion of the artist, and the novels on psoriasis cultivate the idea that the psoriasis plaque is the Achilles heel of the introvert individualist, the artist who looks upon the world as a guardsman from the ivory tower of his psoriasis. His salvation is a make believe world or an entirely private world: the imagined past or the world of art.
Letters to the Editor

The Nation
New York
Dec 22, 1997

I was sad to see in John Leonard's sprightly article on Lolita ["The New Puritanism," Nov. 24] that he picked up the canard that William Styron floated (and apologized to me for later) that Farrar Straus had turned down Lolita. The facts are-and they are so stated in the Nabokov letters-that I offered a contract to Nabokov for his book, and he said he would accept it provided he could use a nom de plume, as he feared he would lose his job at Cornell if he did not disguise himself. All my dealings were directly with him, but also via Elena Wilson, an old friend, and I showed the manuscript to Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy and of course Edmund Wilson. They had mixed reactions. Obviously I told Nabokov that I couldn't do that as we would be asked to defend the book and needed the author to stand with us. That's the story.

Roger W. Straus
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Leonard Replies:

New York City

Canard perhaps, but picked up from Boyd's biography, Volume II: "Meanwhile Edmund Wilson had suggested that Nabokov show Lolita to his current publisher, Farrar Straus. Roger Straus turned the book down and counseled Nabokov against publishing it pseudonymously, for although that might at first safeguard Cornell, it would weaken the book's chances in court." No mention of Straus offering a contract. Similarly: "Viking, Simon and Schuster New Directions, Farrar Straus, and now Doubleday all thought it impossible to publish the book and avoid prosecution. It was high time to look abroad." So much for very long biographies and short selective memories.

John Leonard


Two books of interest to Nabokophiles but not likely to be noted in the usual channels of communication are abstracted below.

Between Heaven and Hell: A Thousand Years of Russia's Artistic Experience. W. Bruce Lincoln. Viking, $34.95 (544p) ISBN 0-679-87568-6

Lincoln investigates the psychological and aesthetic tensions in artists like composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), whom he views as suspended between East and West. Relying heavily on primary sources, he gauges the impact of émigrés like Tsvetaeva, Nabokov , Brodsky and Solzhenitsyn, who developed new forms that merged with artistic currents long suppressed in the Soviet Union to create a new force in Russian life of the post-Soviet era.
Darwin's Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts. Michael Sims. Henry Holt 1997 (508p) ISBN 0-8050-4220-2
This book is a series of essays drawn from the literature of Natural History and Popular Culture and adhering to a daybook format --one essay for each day of the year. 12, June 1948 is entitled "Nabokov's Butterflies" because of the fact that Nabokov's own account of his lifelong fascination with butterflies appeared in the June 12, 1948 issue of the New Yorker. Nabokov also figures in the 17, November 1912 essay, "The Metamorphosis of Franz K". On this day Kafka began writing Die Verwandlung. Darwin's Orchestra is a quirky book of facts and dates, well researched and a lot of fun.

[ previous | index | next ]

Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.