Ever since it was first published in France in 1955, Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov‘s novel about a middle-aged man’s obsession with, and seduction of, a young teenage girl — has, unsurprisingly, courted controversy. The following letter was written by the author in 1956 to a friend named Morris Bishop, and offers in its third paragraph a fantastic glimpse at Nabakov’s reaction to the uproar surrounding his “best book.” Said uproar grew, and within months the novel was banned temporarily in Britain and France.
Transcript follows. Image kindly supplied by Grant F.
6 March 1956
Dear Mr Morris,
It was a pleasure to receive your letter and that drab little view of Nice 1906. Thanks also for depositing the check. We hope to see both of you here. In a few minutes we are setting out for New York, where I shall make to-morrow a recording of “ONEGIN”, Canto One, for the BBC’s Third Program. We plan to be back Thursday night.
I have just learned that Gallimard wants to publish LOLITA. This will give her a respectable address. The book is having some success in London and Paris. Please, cher ami, do read it to the end!
Frankly, I am not much concerned with the “irate Paterfamilias”. That stuffy philistine would be just as upset if he learned that at Cornell I analyse “ULYSSES” before a class of 250 students of both sexes. I know that LOLITA is my best book sofar. I calmly lean on my conviction that it is a serious work of art, and that no court could prove it to be “lewd and libertine”. All categories grade, of course, into one another: a comedy of manners written by a fine poet may have its “lewd” side; but “LOLITA” is a tragedy. “Pornography” is not an image plucked out of context; pornography is an attitude and an intention. The tragic and the obscene exclude each other.
You know all this as well as I do — I am just jotting down these remarks at random because you happened to conjure up the possibility of an attack.
We are both very much interested in Alison’s exhibition. You will have to tell us all about it.
Best love to all three of you.