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Véra Nabokov Was the First and Greatest Champion of “Lolita”

She covered more ground with Humbert Humbert than did any other woman, Lolita included. She had met him in his earliest incarnation, well before the wintry night in Paris when her husband read aloud, to a few intimates, a short story from 1939, written in Russian. The tale of a forty-year-old seducer of pubescent girls began, “How can I come to terms with myself?” For many years, its author wrongly believed that he had destroyed it. She knew his early work to be full of Humbertian prototypes, or at least of middle-aged men who fidget under spells cast by underage girls. She had typed the pages of “The Gift” in which a character proposes a plot by which a man should marry a widow so as to seduce her daughter, “still quite a little girl—you know what I mean—when nothing is formed yet but already she has a way of walking that drives you out of your mind.” Which is not to say that she was remotely prepared for the headlines (“Mrs. Nabokov Is 38 Years Older Than the Nymphet Lolita”) or for the reporter who asked, in 1959, “Were you the model for anyone in ‘Lolita’?”

Meeting with little satisfaction, the reporter changed tack: “Did your husband ask your advice before publishing?” To that question, the answer was simple. “When a masterpiece like ‘Lolita’ enters the world, the only problem is finding a publisher,” Véra Nabokov replied. She acknowledged none of the bruises incurred along the way, nor did she reveal that she had been Humbert Humbert’s greatest champion from the start. As her husband later reconstructed it, he had felt the “first little throb of ‘Lolita’ ” over that Parisian winter. It returned with force just under a decade later, in upstate New York, by which time the idea “had grown in secret the claws and wings of a novel.” The timing was less than ideal. His previous works had all proved “dismal financial flops,” as he said in 1950. He had recently secured an appointment at Cornell University as an associate professor of Russian literature. For the first time in two decades, the couple found themselves in the neighborhood of financial security. If ever there had been a time when Mrs. Nabokov should have discouraged her husband from working on what seemed an unsellable manuscript, it was 1949. As for the least propitious time or place in which to publish a wildly sophisticated novel about a middle-aged man violating a pubescent girl, Eisenhower’s America figured high on the list.

Véra’s position was firm. The level-headed wife of a man in debt to friends for several thousand dollars might have counselled him to turn his attention elsewhere. The mother who had balked at introducing her twelve-year-old son to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”—Véra deemed it “an immoral book that teaches bad behavior and suggests to little boys the idea of taking an interest in little girls too young”—might have been expected to have kept her distance. She had rerouted her husband before: she put her foot down when he had announced a novel about the love lives of a pair of conjoined twins. She would veto a projected collection of his favorite Russian poems. All bets were off where “Lolita” was concerned, however. Véra knew that Vladimir would not rest until the book was out of his system. She suspected that the memory of the unfinished novel would haunt him forever, like an unresolved chess problem. When he lost faith in the manuscript, she did not. An early draft of “Lolita” nearly met its demise, in 1948, when Véra stepped outside to discover her husband feeding pages to a flaming trash can in their back yard in Ithaca. Against his protests, she salvaged what she could from the fire. “We are keeping this,” she declared, stomping on the charred paper, waving off the arsonist. He would later remember her having intervened more than once, when, “beset with technical difficulties and doubts,” he had attempted to incinerate the novel.

It is unclear whether, early on, either Nabokov seriously contemplated publication. Vladimir would later claim that he at no point expected “Lolita” to see the light of day. He called the novel a “timebomb.” In his diary he carefully blacked out his research notes on sexual deviation, on marriage with minors. He mentioned the novel in passing to an editor who proceeded to ignore a series of hints that Nabokov laced into his letters. (Years later, this editor formally rejected the book. In his estimation, its publication amounted to a jail sentence.) The couple knew firsthand of Edmund Wilson’s travails with “Memoirs of Hecate County,” a story collection that was withdrawn from sale and prosecuted for obscenity, in 1946. Wilson’s case had made its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the ban. A novel about “a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult” who has strenuous intercourse with a minor three times before breakfast—“And if I were you, my dear, I would not talk to strangers,” Humbert warns Lolita afterward—will shock for any number of reasons, but in the early nineteen-fifties, it sounded suspiciously like pornography.

The manuscript made its first trip to New York at the end of l953. Too dangerous to entrust to the mails—the Comstock Act made it a crime to distribute obscenity by the post—it travelled with Véra on what amounted to a clandestine mission: she had requested a personal meeting with Vladimir’s editor at The New Yorker, Katharine White, for reasons that she preferred not to divulge in advance. The four-hundred-and-fifty-nine-page manuscript that she carried with her bore neither a return address nor its author’s name. To White, Véra explained that her husband hoped to publish the novel under a pseudonym, exacting a promise that “his incognito be respected.” (White read the pages only much later. She had five granddaughters; the book left her cringing. Moreover, she explained, she did not have a thing for psychopaths.) Soon thereafter, on a highly confidential basis, the manuscript, in the form of two unsigned black binders, began to make the rounds in New York. The first editor to read it, at Viking, advised against publication. He was seconded by Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Doubleday, and Farrar, Straus. It was not without admirers, however. At Doubleday, Jason Epstein recommended against publication but noted that Nabokov had essentially “written ‘Swann’s Way’ as if he had been James Joyce.”

None of these publishers suggested that Nabokov transform Lolita into a boy, or Humbert into a farmer, as he would later assert. But none of them offered to publish the thing either. Nor did anyone, the author of “Lolita” included, think to propose a more artful solution: Why not adopt a female pseudonym? (For all of his prodigious imagination, Nabokov seems never to have pondered how the publication of “Lolita” might have differed had a woman been understood to stand behind Humbert Humbert.) He did cannily attempt to address the danger of prosecution in the novel’s foreword, alluding to Joyce’s difficulties with “Ulysses.” The aphrodisiacal passages, he argued, effectively paved the way to “a moral apotheosis.” All the same, no editor could see the way past a jail sentence in 1954, whether the author put his name on the book or not. A pseudonym, one publisher warned, only raised a red flag. Another argued that, in the case of “Lolita,” a pseudonym was especially useless: Nabokov’s style was too distinctive to be mistaken for that of anyone else.

It was Véra who thought, days after the fifth rejection, to pursue publication abroad. Might her husband’s longtime French agent, she wondered, be interested in a novel that could not be published in America, for reasons of “straitlaced morality”? The manuscript was of an “extreme originality,” a category that in the Nabokov household tended to overlap with outlandish perversity. Véra begged for a speedy reply. The work had occupied her husband for six years, the most recent of which had been a particularly lean one. The couple’s finances were precarious. Nabokov would be clear on that point: publication was as much a matter of necessity as of principle. (In his year on the road, Humbert spends—forget the fur-topped slippers, the topaz ring, the luminous clock, the transparent raincoat, the roller skates—the equivalent of Nabokov’s Cornell salary on food and lodging alone.)

“Lolita” quickly found a home in Paris, with Maurice Girodias, of Olympia Press, the colorful publisher of “The Whip Angels,” “The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe,” and a host of other classics. Girodias had anticipated a “contrived and boring piece of scholarly nonsense” from the Cornell professor. He found himself happily surprised. His only condition was that the author attach his name to the book; out of options, Nabokov agreed. The uncertainty around publication weighed on him. An overseas edition seemed safely distant. With no particular expectation that it would sell—Girodias thought “Lolita” too beautiful and subtle by half—he rushed the novel to print. His instincts proved correct. “Lolita” sold little and was reviewed not at all.

It did produce some qualms. While the long wait for publication was over, Véra suddenly grappled with the fear that the book might cost her husband his job. He was fifty-six years old. One could be dismissed from Cornell for moral turpitude. Certainly the couple’s friends braced for scandal. One colleague estimated Nabokov’s chances of losing his position at sixty per cent; he felt that Nabokov defended the novel as one might one’s difficult child. The subject made friends recoil. (As Nabokov saw it, the novel addressed one of three taboo topics in American literature, the other two being a thriving, multigenerational mixed-race family, and an atheist “who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.”)

It was Graham Greene, naming “Lolita” among the three best books of 1955, in the London Sunday Times, who set the wheels in motion for American publication. At the time that Graham wrote, “Lolita” was available in no English-speaking country; it was making its discreet way out of France in suitcase bottoms. Immediately, publishers began to fall all over the Nabokovs, and Véra fielded the blast of queries. When one publisher asked how her husband had come to know so much about little girls, she explained that he had haunted Ithaca buses and playgrounds until doing so had grown awkward. (She did not mention that he also had a habit of deposing friends’ adolescent daughters, had read “The Subnormal Adolescent Girl,” and had studied the literature on Tampax and Clearasil.) When friends warned her against publication, she countered with the couple’s party line: the novel was in no way “lewd and libertine.” It was a tragedy, and the tragic and the obscene mutually excluded each other. (Véra was no lawyer. The sole defense in an obscenity case was literary or educational merit.) After several failed courtships, a suitor materialized in Putnam’s Walter Minton, who, early in 1958, satisfied all parties, Girodias included.

Minton positioned the novel brilliantly, accenting “Lolita” ’s lurid past while outfitting her in establishment credentials. He launched her from the most respectable of addresses—in August, 1958, he threw what Nabokov would refer to as his coming-out party, at New York’s Harvard Club. Though Véra had had her doubts about Minton, she was impressed by the young publisher’s nimble handling of his guests. The twenty-five journalists in attendance, meanwhile, had as much interest in the distinguished middle-aged woman at Nabokov’s side as they did in the author himself. Véra stood as the fire wall between Vladimir Nabokov and Humbert Humbert. The New York Post took pains to observe that the author was accompanied to cocktails by “his wife, Véra, a slender, fair-skinned, white-haired woman in no way reminiscent of Lolita.” At that reception, as elsewhere, admirers told Véra that they had not expected Nabokov to show up with his wife of thirty-three years. “Yes,” she replied, smiling, unflappable. “It’s the main reason why I’m here.” At her side, her husband chuckled, joking that he had been tempted to hire a child escort for the occasion.

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