Lolita is a book which both gains and suffers from a reputation for being immoral.
It suffers because many people purchase the book for the wrong reasons. They buy it for the smut. The truth is, there is no smut.
But Lolita gains, too. How so? Works of great literary merit are seldom best sellers – they seldom make it onto the shelf of the average reader. Without its bad reputation, its reputation for wickedness, Lolita would not have gained access to the very people Nabokov intended to stimulate – the great suburban mass.
Of course, many of these readers having searched desperately for the dirty bits to no avail, abandon the attempt. But some are persuaded by the prose, and it is sublime prose, to read on and on.
This audience could not have been reached without the court cases, the press, the banning, the tut-tutting and the general hysteria caused by the book’s plot. At the time, 1955, the Sunday Express editor damned it, calling it “the filthiest book I have ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography.” No wonder it sold well.
But that was in the 1950s, no one would find it offensive now – surely? Penguin Books recently published Lolita in their Popular Penguin range. You know the ones – the retro, orange covered Penguins you find in bookshops and on display in Australia Post Shops. Well, Australia Post had to remove Lolita from the displays, because of customer complaints.
What were they complaining about? Nothing real. Those who have not read Lolita know that Lolita is a book about a grown man having sex with a child. That is enough to damn it. Such logic would have us banning all crime novels, all war novels… and, well, to be on the safe side – all novels. (Really!? Do all novels promote and sanction the acts depicted within them?)
Yes, Lolita is about a grown man’s infatuation with a young girl. But it isn’t a Dummies guide to hebephilia. Lolita is about the damage this infatuation causes. But it is also about unequal relations of every kind and the damage these cause. It is about youth and age. It is about mind and body. About thought and action. It is about the relationship between the new world and the old – Europe and the USA.
When I read Lolita, it is about the relationship between knowledge and ignorance or, put differently, experience and innocence.
I’m not going to deceive you, Lolita is a difficult book. It is many layered, and it is complex. One reading will not do it justice, and you become aware of this as you read it. Nabokov seems to be alerting us to our intellectual deficiencies, pointing out the enormous gaps in our knowledge. He wants us to go off to read, to learn, to become a reader worthy of his book and the questions it raises.
As I said, it is a complex book. It is also an interesting book, a rewarding book. And, for more reasons than the obvious, Lolita is a challenging and disturbing book. It examines many of the preconceptions that uphold the framework of our lives, finds them wanting and asks us to establish better ones. Something we have still yet to do. Which is why, ironically, Lolita can still cause a stir in the local Post Office.
To coincide with the publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s 60th anniversary, a special limited edition of nine classic novels has been produced, all designed by the award-winning advertising agency Fallon with special endpapers commissioned from ground-breaking artists. The endpapers of Lolita have been created by Louisa Scarlet Gray.
Others in this series include: A Suitable Boy, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Sophie’s World, The Color Purple, The Reader, The Siege of Krishnapur, The World According to Garp and The Shadow of the Wind
Other Editions of Lolita Available at Booktopia:
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.