People reading Nabokov’s Lolita for the first time are often baffled by their own reactions. Those who haven’t read it for a while approach it again nervously, as if afraid of what they will learn about their old attitudes or their old selves. It’s not just that the book, the story of the loves, travels, and undoing of Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze, a middle-aged European man and a twelve-year-old American girl, is funnier than it ought to be, and more cruel than we want it to be. Or that Humbert’s tacky charm stretches much further than it has any right to. It’s that we really don’t know where we are: why we are laughing, what to do with our discomfort. There’s also the sense that Lolita, the girl rather than the book, has become part of our language, the name of a condition. But do we know what that condition is?
Nabokov’s Lolita appeared in Paris (in English, published by Olympia Press) in 1955; but then was banned in France in the following year, apparently because of complaints from the British embassy that too many susceptible tourists were buying it and smuggling it home. The ban was lifted three years later. Excerpts from Lolita were printed in the Anchor Review in 1957, but the book was not published in full in the United States until 1958 and in the United Kingdom until 1959. It instantly became a best seller, remaining at the top of the American list for six months, “until displaced,” as Norman Page puts it in Nabokov: The Critical Heritage, from which I take most of these details, “by Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago.”
Meanwhile the book had been much read in its Paris edition, and much discussed. Graham Greene told the readers of the London Sunday Times that it was one of the best books of 1955, while John Gordon of the London Sunday Express found it to be “sheer unrestrained pornography.” When the book finally appeared in the United States, Orville Prescott, in The New York Times, occupied the cultural high ground by craftily placing literary taste before morality, or perhaps confusing the two:
Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.
But then another kind of high ground was occupied by the twenty-one signers of a 1959 letter to the London Times, who were
disturbed by the suggestion that it may yet prove impossible to have an English edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Our opinions of the merit of the book differ widely, but we think it would be deplorable if a book of considerable literary interest, which has been favourably received by critics and widely praised in serious …