Novels are not instruction manuals, and Nabokov’s Lolita is not an immoral book

Nabokov may be one of the Great White Males of literature, but Lolita doesn’t exploit victims of child abuse.

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In recent weeks, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita has resurfaced as a topic of conversation once more, as people of all political persuasions gesture lazily to the book as a “controversial” cultural artefact. One can only imagine how Nabokov, famously averse to press and public prurience, would react to his novel being tokenised in the latest tedious edition of the culture wars.

In The Bookseller, the Jonathan Cape publisher Dan Franklin bemoaned that he could never get Lolita published now: ‘If Lolita was offered to me today, I’d never be able to get it past the acquisition team – a committee of 30-year-olds, who’d say, ‘If you publish this book we will all resign.’’ Franklin asserts this  despite the fact that two of the biggest bestselling novels of the past five years – A Little Life and My Absolute Darling – are literary novels involving child rape and incestuous abuse.

On Twitter, a polarising tweet did the rounds: “What books are automatic red flags for you with people?” a woman asked. “I’ll start: I once called off a date when a dude told me his fave book was Lolita.”

This put me in mind of one of the most annoying conversations of my life, with a humourless French teaching assistant I briefly dated when I was seventeen. He’d asked me for some book recommendations and I lent him a stack which included The End of The Affair and The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene.

“But why would you lend me these when you know I am an atheist?” he asked, smoking at me French-ly and pursing his lips in disappointment. He didn’t understand how anyone could enjoy novels so informed by Catholicism without themselves being a believer. We didn’t last long after that, so turned off was I by the concept of someone only able to understand a novel as an instruction manual, or an affirmation of what they already knew.

I was reminded of him, too, when reading The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman, a book which shares this prosaic desire to leech the nuance and strangeness from art, to render it an explicable thing which can be understood as directly mapped from true life. The book’s full title is The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalised the World, and it aims to shed light on the real story which supposedly inspired Lolita – the abduction of eleven year old Sally Horner in 1948 by the child molestor Frank La Salle. La Salle, like Humbert Humbert, travelled with his abductee, pretending to be her father to evade unwanted attention. There are some other biographical similarities and shared details between the case of Sally Horner and that of Dolores Haze, which Weinman recounts in exhaustive, numbing detail. The book markets itself as a “literary investigation”: it hopes to build a case against Nabokov, proving that he “pilfered” the story of Lolita, and righting what Weinman sees as a historic wrong – the mining of Horner’s life for fiction.

Nabokov's wife Vera, who was also his editor, translator and muse, deeply involved in the creation of his works, balked at a similar accusatory article written about the relationship between Lolita and Sally Horner in the New York Post all the way back in 1963.

“At the time he was writing Lolita he studied a considerable number of case histories”, she wrote, noting that Horner’s case “is also mentioned in the book Lolita”. But she adds, “It did not inspire the book. My husband wonders what importance could possibly be attached to the existence of “real” life of “actual rape abductions” when explaining the existence of an “invented” book.”

Nabokov does indeed name Sally Horner in the text of Lolita. Humbert Humbert asks himself, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” This, one might think, should be enough to pre-emptively discredit attempts to catch Nabokov feigning ignorance of the real life case, or hiding its influence on his novel.

But no matter, Weinman pushes on regardless. I’m sure there was no shortage of publishers seduced by the double whammy of highly marketable true crime and the chance to piggyback on the iconography of Lolita and Nabokov. The farce of trying to build a body of evidence to prove a point which was never hidden or denied becomes increasingly obvious as the book goes on. Weinman’s prose style is often hammy, her comparisons between Sally and Lolita tenuous and tediously drawn, her segues between the two worlds comically strained.

“Unlike Humbert Humbert, there was nothing erudite about Frank La Salle”, one chapter begins. Another ends with several pages engaged in the bizarre attempt to highlight the apparently noteworthy convergence of telephone use in the real-life case and the fiction.

“For Dolores, telephones are the means for her to find freedom from the abuser who has engulfed her life – just as a telephone call was for Sally Horner”, it concludes. Both girls use the telephone to call people, in other words.

The Real Lolita fails in its aim to prove that Nabokov concealed his use of a real-life source and based Lolita around it. But even if it had succeeded, for me it would still be a pointless project. Despite what Weinman implies with her consistently scolding tone, Nabokov did not violate Sally Horner or her memory by using some details of the crimes perpetrated against her in his novel,  nor did he disgrace his art by muddying it with real life. Weinman implies that Nabokov was in some way immoral, both in using Sally’s abduction as inspiration, and for his repeated writing about underage sex in general. This position is made to look simplistic and foolish when Weinman recounts not that Nabokov himself had any such paedophilic predilections, but that he himself was the target of sexual attention from an uncle when he was nine years old.

Weinman’s forensic dissection of an artist’s inspirations is here directed at one of the Great White Males of literature, and used to criticise his supposed exploitation of girls. But this approach is one which threatens women artists far more than men. Women writers, especially those who write about relationships and personal lives, are already subject to demands of accountability. The novelist Jamie Quatro said recently in conversation with Eimear McBride:

“One of the most frustrating things about publishing female narrators who have illicit sex (or any sex) is the assumption, from readers, that I must be writing autobiographically. ‘Did you actually cheat on your husband?’ is a question I’ve been asked in a myriad of ways: ‘How much of your work is drawn from real life?’ ‘Why do you write about infidelity?’ ‘How does your husband feel about your novel?’ etc.”

I have myself written about intensely personal things which really happened in my past, and I’ve written fiction. I’ve written stories which involve both biography and invention to varying degrees. Sometimes people get angry with me when they don’t know immediately which is which. But I don’t have an obligation to inform a reader which part of a fictional story is based on my life or not, what crossover there is with reality. A friend once heard me read a story at an event which he took to be the truth, and upon learning that I had made it up, he frowned and laughed at the same time, suddenly unsure of how to react or what he now thought of it. I loved that: loved to see something shift in him before my eyes, like magic.

If we read something brilliant which is also confusing or uncomfortable because of its relationship to truth, that isn’t a bad thing. Trying to itemise which bits of  “real life” make up a work of art is a fool’s errand. That’s not because art is more important than “real life”. It’s because they are one and the same: bleeding into one another all the time, no explanation necessary.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.