Critical Overview

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Lolita's interesting publishing history begins after Nabokov finished the novel in 1954 and submitted it to four American publishers, all of whom rejected it due to its shocking themes. Refusing to make any revisions to the manuscript, Nabokov sent it to Olympia Press in France a company known for publishing pornography. After publication, however, France banned the "obscene" book, which cemented its popularity with underground readers. When tourists brought the book into America and Britain, U.S. Customs agents grudgingly allowed it in, but British officials convinced France to confiscate any remaining copies. In response to these censorship efforts, novelist Graham Greene in a London Times article, declared it to be one of the ten best books of 1955. The controversy surrounding Lolita brought it international attention. As a result, the bans were rescinded and in 1958 this now-notorious novel was published in the United States by G. P. Putnam & Sons. It immediately soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list where it remained for over a year.

The controversial novel earned mixed reviews after its publication in America. Many critics found it to be immoral, including a writer for Kirkus Reviews, who called for the book to be banned, insisting, "That a book like this could be written—published here—sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards.... Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves." A Catholic World reviewer argues that its subject matter "makes it a book to which grave objection must he raised." A writer for Library Journal echoes these criticisms, stating "thousands of library patrons conditioned to near-incest by Peyton Place may take this in stride. However, better read before buying. Although the writer prides himself on using no obscene words, he succeeds only too well in conveying his meaning without them." Orville Prescott in his review in The New York Times finds two reasons to attack the novel: "Lolita," he writes, "is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worthy of any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive."

Several other critics, however, offer their strong support of the novel, dismissing the charges of pornography and praising its artistic presentation of humor and tragedy. New Yorker reviewer Donald Malcolm considers Lolita "an artful modulation of lyricism and jocularity that quickly seduces the reader into something very like willing complicity." In The Annotated Lolita, editor Alfred Appel Jr. declares the book to be "one of the few supremely original novels of the century," while San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Lewis Vogler calls it "an authentic work of art which compels our immediate response." Those who praise the novel, however, sometimes have difficulty with its complexity, a typical characteristic of Nabokov's works. Andrew Field in Nabokov: His Life in Art writes, "Virtually all of the foremost literary critics in the United States and England have written about Nabokov, with enthusiasm often bordering on awe ... but their eloquence, where one wants and would expect explication, betrays the fact that they are at least as ill-at-ease with Nabokov as they are fascinated by him."

Nabokov's literary success continued after the publication of Lolita, which is now widely considered to be one of the outstanding novels of the twentieth century. During the next twenty years he produced works, including Pale Fire, his autobiographical Speak Memory, and Lectures on Literature, that solidified his literary reputation. Most critics would agree with writer Anthony Burgess's conclusion in The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction that Nabokov is "a major force in the contemporary novel."

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