Lolita Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Before the publication of Lolita, the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov was not widely known in English-speaking literary circles; most of his early work had not yet been translated from Russian. After Lolita was rejected by four American publishers, Nabokov’s French agent sent it to Olympia Press in Paris, which quickly published it. Although Olympia published many controversial works by writers such as Jean Genet, it was notorious for cheap editions of pornographic books, a fact of which Nabokov was ignorant at the time. The novel went virtually unnoticed until novelist Graham Greene praised it in London’s Daily Express. When Putnam published the first American edition in 1958, it became a best seller. Many readers, expecting salacious fun, were disappointed by the book’s lack of overt sexual content and dismayed by its demanding style. Still others attacked it as immoral. Nabokov’s fiction is not for passive readers who resist being drawn into the author’s linguistic games. Lolita is considered one of this highly acclaimed writer’s two greatest novels—Pale Fire (1962) is the other—and a masterpiece of American comic fiction.

Lolita is a highly literary work, filled with allusions to famous and little-known novels, poems, and plays. Many of the allusions are to Edgar Allan Poe, who, at twenty-seven, married his thirteen-year-old cousin. Poe wrote “Annabel Lee” (1849), a poem about a child love dead by the seaside. He also wrote “William Wilson” (1839), a tale of a psychological double, and invented the detective story. Nabokov works these and other allusions to Poe into his novel. There are also many references to Carmen (1845; English translation, 1878), not the Georges Bizet opera but the Prosper Mérimée novella about love, loss, and revenge and an imprisoned narrator. Another strong influence is James Joyce, whose ornate, self-aware, stylistic whimsy is reflected in Lolita. Joyce pioneered heavily allusive fiction, full of word games, and Lolita is full of puns, coinages (such as “nymphet”), neologisms, and foreign, archaic, and unusual words. It also features jokes such as the appearance of Vivian Darkbloom, the letters of whose name may be rearranged, changing one o to an a, to spell Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita is drunk on language; a typical sentence reads, “I spend my doleful days in dumps and dolors.” In his afterword, Nabokov says the novel is about his love affair with the English language.

Lolita can be seen as a parody...

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