Monday, August 11, 2014

Rust and Stardust

All the Vladimir Nabokov novels got a makeover last year, including Lolita, which remains as controversial today as it was when released on an unsuspecting public in 1955.  The first edition came in a plain green cover and was printed in France, since no American publisher would touch the manuscript with a ten foot poll.  The controversy that swirled around the book in France virtually assured it would be a big hit in the States when it was finally made available in 1958.  It also came with a simple cover belying the toxic tale of romance within.  With the success of the novel, Nabokov firmly established himself as an American author and could quit his day job at Cornell.  The interesting thing is that soon afterward he fled the US all together, settling in Montreaux, Switzerland far from the madding crowd.

You either love Lolita or hate the novel, there seems to be very few in between.  The name soon entered into the American lexicon, with just about every precocious "nymphet" since being labeled a "Lolita" who is caught engaging in similar activities.  I suppose what made Lolita so controversial in its time was how Nabokov forced you to take Humbert's point of view, and for many readers that is deeply unsettling.  The language itself is intoxicating further adding to the level of complicity.  Here is Martin Amis sharing his thoughts on the novel.

The book has gone through many manifestations since its initial printing with many covers over the year.  It has sold over 50 million copies in a wide variety of languages.  There is even a book on the many covers of Lolita, as well as an annotated version with introduction and notes by Alfred Apple to held guide you through its intricate narrative.

The movie versions have been largely panned.  Nabokov didn't seem to care much one way or the other about the 1962 film.  He was disappointed by the severe editing of his 400-page script that took place, with James Harris rewriting much of it, not to very good affect.  Kubrick wanted the role of Quilty expanded (to better use Peter Sellers) as well as a number of other changes, largely to get the movie past the censors.  But, perhaps the biggest mistake was casting a voluptuous 16 year-old Sue Lyon in the lead role, which hardly fit the nature of the character.

Dominique Swain looked more the part in the 1997 film by Adrian Lyne, but somehow the film came across as moody and sentimental, even if it was closer in narrative structure to the novel.  Lyne also takes in more of the travel log, as Humbert takes Lo on the road with a rainy atmospheric scene in New Orleans, among other stops on their ill-fated journey.

Brian Boyd provides a historiography as well as analysis of the novel, challenging many of the basic assumptions that surround the book.  Here is an interview with Nabokov from the Paris Review, with several mentions of Lolita and his work on the movie.  However, I think it is best to experience Lolita yourself.

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