Lolita was released in 1955 to largely adulatory reviews. The book was also called “highbrow pornography” in The New York Times, presaging its ambivalent place in the literary canon—a place guaranteed, perhaps, by the morally depraved (if unerringly eloquent) narrator of author Vladimir Nabokov’s invention, Humbert Humbert. Nabokov accused critics of “underestimat[ing] the power of [his] imagination,” and was suspicious of readers who looked for prurient autobiographical clues in his fiction. Here‘s what you need to know about the still-controversial novel.
1. Vladimir Nabokov found inspiration for Lolita in a newspaper article.
Nabokov suggested the novel was inspired by a (still unidentified) newspaper story discussing an ape in captivity who sketched the bars of his own cage. In Nabokov’s rendering, Humbert Humbert is his “baboon … drawing and … redrawing the bars of his cage, the bars between him and what he terms ‘the human herd.’”
2. Lewis Carroll may have inspired Lolita’s narrator.
The novelist also found inspiration in another writer. Nabokov once referred to the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as “Lewis Carroll Carroll, because he was the first Humbert Humbert.” Nabokov’s suspicions centered around Carroll’s photographs, including portraits of nude and partially nude children.
3. An incident involving Charlie Chaplin has been linked to Lolita.
The true nature of Carroll’s relationships with children remains a matter of contention among historians, but there is less dispute regarding the details of another real-life story that has become attached to Lolita. Lillita MacMurray, a.k.a. Lita Grey, was only 16 when she became pregnant by a 35-year-old Charlie Chaplin in a case of untried statutory rape. (At the urging of her family, they got married so he wouldn’t be arrested.) Between the young actress’s name and Nabokov’s familiarity with Chaplin’s work, some have suggested a connection to Lolita—a connection, it should be noted, that Nabokov’s son Dmitri denied.
4. It took Nabokov five years to write Lolita.
According to Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, the author “first had the idea of an older man marrying a woman for access to her young daughter in the mid-1930s.” It went from a paragraph in his novel The Gift to a novella called The Enchanter, published in 1939. By 1946, he’d decided to use the idea as a seed for a full novel. He began writing it in 1948, but it was slow work: He said the novel was one “I would be able to finish in a year if I could completely concentrate on it,” but he was working as a professor to pay the bills, first at Cornell and then at Harvard. Some of the novel was written on a road trip he took with his wife; even when they stayed at a motel, Nabokov would write in the backseat of their Oldsmobile. He wouldn’t finish Lolita until 1953.
5. Notecards were a huge part of Nabokov’s process.
Years before the advent of word processing, Vladimir Nabokov developed his own form of nonlinear writing and editing using a simple technology inspired by his work with butterfly specimens: the index card. As he told The Paris Review, “I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done.” In the case of Lolita, Nabokov’s preparatory cards included notes on firearms, quotes from teen-targeted magazines like Miss America, and even snippets of teenagers’ conversations that the novelist overheard on streetcars.
6. The novel is a love letter to the English language.
Fittingly for a book as aware of the clarifying and obfuscating power of language as Lolita, Nabokov suggested that an entirely different relationship may have given rise to his defining novel. When a critic said that the book could be read as a record of the author’s love affair with the romantic novel. Nabokov countered, perhaps indicating the real love motivating his text, “The substitution ‘English language’ for ‘romantic novel’ would make this elegant formula more correct.”
7. Lolita includes many allusions to Edgar Allan Poe.
According to Professor Alfred Appel, “Poe is referred to more than twenty times in Lolita.” Most strikingly, Humbert’s first teenage love is Annabel Leigh, a clear reference to Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Humbert twists Poe’s language when describing his love taking place in a “princedom by the sea,” but Nabokov’s initially planned to call the novel The Kingdom By The Sea in a direct nod to “Annabel Lee.”
8. It mentions a real-life kidnapping.
In 1948, a mechanic named Frank La Salle spotted 11-year-old Florence Sally Horner shoplifting a notebook from a store in Camden, New Jersey. The 50-year-old told the pre-teen that he was an FBI agent and she had to come with him. They spent nearly two years crisscrossing the country, with La Salle posing as Horner’s father while raping and abusing her behind closed doors. Horner eventually confided in a friend and La Salle was arrested. He was sentenced to as many as 35 years and died in prison. Horner, sadly, was killed in a car crash in 1952.
Some believe the crime inspired Nabokov, who mentions it in Lolita: Humbert asks, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?”
9. The novel was repeatedly rejected by American publishers.
Given the subject matter, it’s probably not surprising that Lolita was turned down by a number of publishers (on this, Nabokov was in good company). One editor, upon reading the manuscript, said, “We would all go to jail if the thing were published.” Even Nabokov was worried about being charged with obscenity for the work (and losing his teaching job), so much so that he was hesitant to send the manuscript out in the mail lest it be intercepted by the USPS. Lolita eventually found a home at the Paris-based Olympia Press—a publishing house with a reputation for publishing “dirty” books, something Nabokov was unaware of—and was published in 1955. The initial print run of 5000 copies sold out. Lolita was finally published in the U.S. in 1958.
10. There’s a hidden reference to Nabokov himself in Lolita.
Though Nabokov initially planned to publish Lolita under a pseudonym, he eventually agreed to publish it under his own name. Even if he had gone with a nom de plum, however, readers probably would have been tipped off to his authorship by Vivian Darkbloom, an author mentioned by Humbert, whose name was an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. Not to mention that, as one editor who turned the novel down told the author, “Your style is so individual that it seems to me absolutely certain that the real authorship would quickly be recognized even if a pseudonym were used.”
11. Lolita was a favorite of Nabokov’s.
While Nabokov called Lolita “my most difficult book” in a 1962 interview, he also acknowledged that the novel was “a special favorite of mine.” He explained to LIFE magazine in 1964 that “of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow—perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived.”
12. He had nothing to do with the film version of Lolita.
In 1962, director Stanley Kubrick adapted Nabokov’s novel into a film. And though his name was in the credits as a writer on the screenplay, Nabokov later claimed Kubrick didn’t use much of what he had written. When he attended a private screening a few days before Lolita’s release, Nabokov realized “that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used,” he wrote in the foreword to his version of the screenplay, published more than a decade after the movie hit screens. “The modifications, the garbling of my best little finds, the omission of entire scenes, the addition of new ones, and all sorts of other changes may not have been sufficient to erase my name from the credit titles but they certainly made the picture as unfaithful to the original script as an American poet’s translation from Rimbaud or Pasternak.”
Even so, he was quick to add that “my present comments should definitely not be construed as reflecting any belated grudge ... When adapting Lolita to the speaking screen [Kubrick] saw my novel in one way, I saw it in another—that’s all, nor can one deny that infinite fidelity may be an author’s ideal but can prove a producer’s ruin.”
At the time, the author told Life, “I greatly admired the film Lolita as a film—but was sorry not to have been given an opportunity to collaborate in its actual making. People who liked my novel said the film was too reticent and incomplete. If, however, all the next pictures based on my books are as charming as Kubrick’s, I shall not grumble too much.” (Quite the compliment from a guy who once told Lolita’s American publisher, “my supreme, and in fact only, interest in these motion picture contracts is money. I don’t give a damn for what they call ‘art.’”)