BookScapes: The Real Lolita

The Real Lolita, by Sarah Weinman

I’m not a fan of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, although I’ve taught it when it was on a college course book list. If I had to teach it again, I would make The Real Lolita required reading. It puts Nabokov’s book into a newly relevant and important context and raises interesting questions about where and how author’s find their ideas and how books “change” over time.

Weinman’s book is a study of the tragic kidnapping and repeated rapes of Sally Horner, the young girl whose real-life story Nabokov found in the newspapers and “strip-mined” to produce Lolita. And then concealed, in an attempt to enhance his reputation as a literary genius whose imaginative work was created sui generis, independent of real world events.

Weinman also helpfully surveys (for those who don’t know it) the history of Lolita‘s publication. Originally rejected by American publishers because of its scatological content, then published by a smutty European publisher and promptly banned in France, the book brought its scandalous reputation with it when it was finally (1958) published in America. All of this furor, while it increased sales and burnished Nabokov’s literary reputation, encouraged readers (and later adapters) to badly misinterpret the book. “Sixty years on,” Weinman writers, “many readers still don’t see through Humbert Humbert’s vile perversions, and still blame Dolores Haze for her behavior, as if she had the will to resist, and chose not to.”

Personally, I have often wondered how far this misreading is a result of the author’s ill-concealed affection for his witty, urbane character, inviting us to understand and even empathize with Humbert Humbert’s compulsion. Weinman points out that Lolita isn’t Nabokov’s first effort to write about an older man’s sexual desire for a preteen girl. She reviews his earlier writings (some in Russian), pointing out that this was a persistent theme to which he returned throughout his career. Given this, she might have more explicitly linked Nabokov to his point-of-view character, Humbert Humbert, and asked to what extent Nabokov reveals parts of himself through Humbert. But that’s another subject entirely, and Weinman wisely skirts it.

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World is fascinating, revelatory, and readable. Kudos to Sarah Weinman for focusing a spotlight on Sally Horner, whose full story, brief as it is, begs to be told. For me, the book takes on a greater poignancy for appearing in the era of #MeToo, when the likes of Jerry Epstein and his rich and powerful friends are on full view in American courtrooms and in American politics.

A bit of my own Lolita research. On page 177, Weinman speculates that Nabokov, collecting butterflies near Afton, Wyoming, may have read about Sally Horner’s death in a “local newspaper” on August 19, 1952, or in a copy of the New York Times. More likely: he read it on August 20, in the Casper WY Star-Tribune, where it appeared on page 11, the sports page. He copied the text of the AP newswire story almost verbatim onto one of his famous note cards–and saved it. The AP headline: “Victim of Sex Crime Killed in Car Crash.” That would have caught Nabokov’s attention.

The paperback edition of The Real Lolita will be published in the U.S. on September 10, 2019. Weinman says it will include an afterword with information that came in a few weeks before the book’s hardcover publication. I’ll be among the first to read it.

Weinman has a long and deep interest in crime fiction, in women’s issues, and in the intersection of both. If you’re interested in her work, you can keep up with her via her blog, The Crime Lady (both free and paid subscriptions).

30 comments on “BookScapes: The Real Lolita

  1. This is a sad state when a sex-crime magnifies the reputation of a complicated literary writer. and where do I read other Bookscapes?

  2. Add my vote for Bookscapes to be a separate blog. I’ll continue to read all of them, of course. Your request for “what are reading” on FaceBook has become a major source for my To Read list.

  3. I think I would prefer a separate blog for Bookscapes. Either way I am looking forward to reading your reviews!

  4. I find navigation around the internet rather troublesome at times so one place to find everything would be easier.

  5. One blog with linking tabs to Lifescapes and Bookdcapes would work for me!

  6. I “vote” for creating a separate BookScapes tab, but perhaps not as a sub-tab under Blog. Just by itself as LifeScapes is, currently?
    Love the name and of course the wonderful information and insights
    Thank you Susan!

  7. I vote for a separate BookScapes blog. I enjoy reading your book reviews, and am excited you’re going to be doing this here.

  8. I would like one site with links to LifeScapes and BookScapes. On Saturday morning I enjoy quickly seeing what others are reading. I would like the reviews off by themselves to enjoy when time permits.

  9. I vote for one blog. Less clutter in my mailbox and less likely to miss it.

  10. Susan, I’m really good either way! I would subscribe to both blogs. You could also provide links in your blogs to the alternate blog, so nobody misses out on catching up with you.

  11. As a loyal fan of Susan’s books and blogs, I prepfer one location with tabs or links to the various aspects of the site. It’s easier to locate information and just as interesting. I too, am an avid reader of many genre and would love a site other than Goodreads to hear what others have to say.

  12. Enjoyed your review of Sarah Weinman’s book – have never liked Lolita either! I think we share similar reading tastes and am looking forward to more of your book reviews. If you send an email link it doesn’t matter to me if it is a separate blog or not.

  13. Either way you choose to present Bookscapes -great title by the way- I will read both blogs. Reading has been a constant in my life from the day I learned to read and reading about books is almost as good as reading the books themselves! I look forward to more of your reviews,

  14. I would like it all on one website for ease of access with separate tabs. Also if you post a suggested reading list would be great if this was under a separate tab as well. Thank you much.

  15. Everything on one blog please. There is presently too much political email crowding my fun stuff like your blog. I also appreciate that I can find recipes through your same blog. And things like whether it is National Ice Cream Day. Yours is already a many faceted blog, keep going!

  16. Re: “another option.” Actually, Kathleen, that’s what it would be–all on one website, as you suggest. But instead of just a “LifeScapes” tab, there would be a blog tab, with two links on it, one for LifeScapes, the other for BookScapes.

  17. So far it looks like I am in the minority with the opinion that keeping Lifescapes and Bookscapes together will work best for me. Like others here I do read a great deal and subscribe to a variety of blogs. I would be quite comfortable paging through both options from a single link.
    Another option is to have all on one Website, but provide direct a link to the Bookscapes page for those who want to focus on that.
    Whatever you decide, it’s bound to be good reading!

  18. I would enjoy Bookscapes as a seperate blog.I miss things at times because I skim when I am busy. I am also a voraceious reader. I read many genre and move from one to another as my reading needs change. I collected most of your China books and then read most of the series in one grand read. I only slowed down when I needed to find the next book. This last week Jill Shalvis has been my binge read author. I needed a reason to laugh. Jill is good at providing laughter in most of her books. Thanks for the hours of enjoyment and I will watch to see what you deceide.

  19. I’d actually prefer to have everything under one blog. I’m on so many lists already (and currently attempting to cull them), that I end up missing things. You’re an educated, intelligent, well-rounded person with many interests—why not embrace that and just write what you will, when you will, in one place?

  20. Yes, I would like to see a BookScapes blog and think it would best be separate from LifeScapes; but then I wonder if that would divert us from LifeScapes, because we avid readers would seize on BookScapes as soon as it appears.

    Mary Ferrari

  21. I think a separate blog is a good idea, and I love the name you selected. Maybe you could you provide a link from LifeScapes?

  22. I like the idea of a separate column. Bookscapes is a great title. I like hearing your thoughts on the books you read.

  23. If you do create a separate blog, be sure to include lots of subscription links, so we don’t miss out.

  24. Susan, I believe any book is worth thinking about. Let me take that back. “Moby Dick” is my all-time awful book. That’s what I think about it. I grew up on a farm in the middle of Iowa. Each summer my Mom would contact the Iowa
    State Traveling library for books for my sister and me. A big package would arrive with books and a little envelope with return postage. We could keep the books for six weeks I think, but we finished them much sooner. This was in the 40s and early 50s before TV. We were all readers. My Grandpa and my
    Dad had gone to school thru the 8th grade which was common for farm boys then, but they were readers. I feel so lucky to have grown up in a house where books and newspapers were important.

  25. I like the idea of a separate blog on books, and Bookscapes is a fine title for it. Like you I read widely and also regularly reread, all genres except horror and most science fiction. So I would enjoy your thoughts and those of your other readers.

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