Nabokov in America: The Road to Lolita by Robert Roper

I was an innocent when I first read Lolita by Nabokov, not even old enough to vote. My college professor must have gotten a kick out of my reactions to this novel as I wasn’t much older than Lolita, being as naive as a youngster. I’ll admit that I had never read a book like this before, but I must have brought something to the table as I got an A in the course.

So when I saw this book, I wondered about Nabokov and his motivations. Although I didn’t remember all the details, how could one forget Humbert Humbert. Over the years I have often wondered about the topic of pedophilia. In some cultures older men take young girls as brides, and even in America children as young as fourteen have been wed (though this is not a common practice). Then there are the cases of teachers falling in love with their students. Is this a matter of “she” or “he” (this is not limited to older men and younger girls) finding “the one” – Not a matter of being attracted to all young teens, but that particular boy or girl? I would like to think the passion for another is a deep rooted feeling special for that one person, not an “epidemic” of indiscriminate sex. Yet if it’s true love, the elder should wait or “keep it in their pants” (as we say) until the child is of age, but human nature, or more accurately our animal instincts, kicks in and scandal results.

Robert Roper, an admitted Nabokovian, takes the reader on a detailed journey over the years that Nabokov lived in the United States in “Nabokov in America: The Road to Lolita”. Nabokov led a complex life filled with drama, including his escape from Europe on the last ship out of France before the Nazi occupation, saving the life of his Jewish wife and son.

Born in Russia, Nabokov was also fluent in German, French and English, often creating translations of his own works (as well as of other author’s writings). He actually could read English at the age of four, even before he could decipher his native tongue. Nabokov lived in the US from 1940 to 1960 traveling across the country by car, logging over 200,000 miles throughout the twenty year span. A naturalist who loved the outdoors, Nabokov was an avid butterfly collector, even discovering a new species. He visited numerous national parks throughout America, visiting museums to see and discuss his favorite topic – collecting butterflies and moths (lepidoperology). He even curated the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard where he identified and catalogued their large collection of butterflies.

His financial situation had its ups and downs and the family often lived on the stipends and fellowships he received from places such as the Guggenheim which supported the arts (including literature). Inbetween road trips, Nabokov worked at various universities, such as Wellesly and Cornell, teaching Russian Literature. He was a dynamic professor who brought a unique spin on the topic to his classroom. He also was a popular guest speaker at various locations throughout the country.

It was during these American years that Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, which brought him the fame he knew he deserved. One of Vladimir’s close friends was a pedaphile which could easily have influenced the plot of Lolita, but Nabokov had also been fascinated by this topic while living in Europe and published other works involving pedaphilia prior to this novel. The travels of Humbert Humbert across the United States with his beloved Lolita mirrored the motor trips taken by the Nabokov family over two-lane highways, where they, too, stayed in motels and ate at roadside diners. Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert who marries a widow to get closer to her daughter Lolita. When his wife dies, Humbert kidnaps and flees with his underaged “daughter/lover” to escape his nemesis who is also pursuing the nymphette Lolita.

Once completed the manuscript was extremely difficult to publish due to its sexual content, and ended up being distributed by Olympia in 1955 in England where some considered it to be the best book of the year in spite of its shocking content. It was finally published in the US in 1958. Despite the outrage, this book was so well written it was impossible to dismiss (plus there were no four letter words in it). By September, it was so popular it rose to number one on the New York Times Bestsellers list for seven weeks, selling 100,000+ copies in its first year and millions over the next decade. Stanley Kubrick bought the movie rights for $150,000. Ironically, while under restriction in Britain and France, Lolita was embraced by America. The author referred to this whirlwind of attention as Hurricane Lolita, making the author instantly famous at the age of 59. Other scandalous books of the time were Peyton Place, Catcher in the Rye, and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Despite the adulation from his adopted country, when Vladimir’sy son, Dmitri, went to Italy to study Opera, Nabokov and his wife Vera moved to Switzerland to be close to their only child. Nabokov died there in 1977, visiting the US only twice, in 1962 for the release of the movie and in 1964 to do some readings.

Robert Roper writes in a literary style, analyzing and commenting on Nabokov’s life and works. He includes references to other literary giants of the era (both American and European) as well as Nabokov’s reactions to their works. This book is extremely detailed and well researched full of excerpts from various correspondence and Nabokov’s written works with a special focus on the novel Lolita. Nabokov in America: The Road to Lolita is definitely not for the casual reader, but would be an excellent source for a scholar interested in this topic. The author of this book did quite a bit of name dropping and seemed to exhibit a bit of an ego, but it did not distract from the whole. Four stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.


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