Lecture 7

[The Enchanter (1939 / 1985)]

Vladimir Nabokov:
Lolita (1955)

Point of view

Anthology Texts:

[The Annotated Lolita (1995)]

History of the Ban:

Lolita was denounced as "filth" and "sheer unrestrained pornography" when it was first published. Author Nabokov claimed that Lolita was a comedy and disagreed with those who considered it erotic writing, yet he argued strenuously to have the novel published anonymously in order to protect his career as a professor at Cornell University. American publishers were similarly reticent about an association with the topic, and the novel was promptly refused by many when Nabokov's agent circulated it in 1954. Pascal Covici of Viking Press and Wallace Brockway of Simon and Schuster thought it would strike readers as "pornographic." James Laughlin of New Directions refused the book because “we are worried about possible repercussions both for the publisher and the author" and suggested publication in France. Before giving up, Nabokov sent the manuscript to Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus & Young and to Jason Epstein of Doubleday, who also rejected the manuscript. When the novel failed to find a publisher in the United States, Nabokov's agent took it to Olympia Press in Paris, which published it in two volumes.

After Olympia Press published Lolita in English in 1955, France banned the book in December 1956. The publisher, Maurice Girodias, asked Nabokov for help in fighting the ban, but the author replied, "My moral defense of the book is the book itself." He also wrote an essay entitled "On a Book Entitled Lolita" that was a lengthy justification, later attached to the American edition, in which he claimed that readers who thought the work erotic were misreading his intentions. Rather, Nabokov stated, "That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true. But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions."

Olympia Press won its case in 1957 in the Administrative Tribunal of Paris, and the novel was back on sale in January 1958. When the Fourth Republic fell in May 1958 and General Charles de Gaulle assumed power, the French minister of the interior appealed to the Conseil d'Etat, the highest court in France. By December of that year, the book was again banned in France after the government successfully appealed the initial judgment. No appeal was possible, but the publication of the novel in French by the prestigious French publisher Gallimard in April 1959 gave Olympia Press foundation for a suit. The publisher sued the French government on the basis that the legal principle of equality between French citizens had been violated by the banning of the Olympia Press edition of Lolita and not the Gallimard edition. The English version was placed back on the market in France in September 1959.

British Customs banned the book in 1955, the same year that Graham Greene, in the Sunday Times, nominated Lolita as one of his three favorite books of the year. Greene's article led John Gordon to remark in the Sunday Express: "Without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read. Sheer unrestrained pornography." Several British publishers were eager to bid for the rights to the novel, bur they waited for the enactment of the Obscene Publications Bill in 1959, which would permit literary merit to be taken into account should the hook be placed on trial. They expected prosecution because reviewers were already waging a war against the novel, several stating that the novel should be suppressed in England if it could be proven that "even a single little girl was likely to be seduced as a result of its publication," Conservatives in Parliament urged Nigel Nicholson, a member of Parliament as well as a publisher, not to publish the book, claiming that it would he detrimental to the party image. He lost his next hid for reelection, partly because of Lolita.

In contrast, United States Customs determined in February 1957 that the book was not objectionable and could be admitted into the country. Therefore, the book could not be legally exported from France, but people who smuggled the book out could import it legally into the United States. Despite its admissibility by Customs, United States publishers refused to publish Lolita until G. P. Putnam's Sons took the chance in 1958. A year later, the bans in England and France were lifted and the book was published openly in those countries. In the United States, however, the Cincinnati Public Library banned the book from its shelves after the director observed that "the theme of perversion seems to me obscene."

The novel was also banned in 1959 in Argentina, where government censors claimed that the book reflected moral disintegration. In 1960, the minister of commons in New Zealand banned import of the novel under the Customs Act of 1913 that prohibited importing books deemed "indecent" within the meaning of the Indecent Publications Act of 1910. To fight the ban, the New Zealand Council of Civil Liberties imported six copies of the book and successfully challenged the Supreme Court. Mr. Justice Hutchin delivered the judgment, noting that the book had been written with no pornographic intent and for the educated reader. Basing his decision on the recommendation of a ministry advisory committee that individual orders should be permitted, the justice observed that New Zealand Customs did admit certain books addressed to authorized individuals or intended to be sold to restricted classes. The ban on Lolita in South Africa, instituted in 1974 because of the "perversion theme" of the novel, was lifted in 1982, and the South African Directorate of Publications gave permission for its publication in paperback form.

– Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald & Dawn B. Sova, 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature (New York: Checkmark Books, 1999): 304-06.

Narrative point-of-view [pov]:

• First-person (I-based):

“Call me Ishmael.”
– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

This informs us that a person called Ishmael is going to be telling us the story. He may be the main character, or protagonist, or (like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories) simply a witness to events. They will, however, be confined to what he himself has seen, and to his own interpretations (which may well be mistaken).

• Second-person (You-based):

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.”
– Italo Calvino, Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979)

In this case the narrator and the reader are (in theory, at least) the same person. It’s a rare – and somewhat unrealistic – technique, since people generally don’t address themselves as “you,” but can work in very self-conscious stories, often known as metafictions.

• Third-person (limited):

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo ...

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.”
– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

This is a narrative centred around the experiences of one character, and confined to his or her experiences and perceptions, but actually told by an invisible narrator privy only to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.

• Third-person (omniscient):

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Often known as Eye-of-God narration. This narrator is privy to complete information about all the characters (and events) in a story, rather than just one of them. The accuracy of the account should be nowhere called into question.

• Unreliable Narrator:

“To some extent ALL narrators are unreliable”
Wikipedia online

Sometimes an author intends you to distrust the (generally first-person) narrator of a story. Their account may be biassed for reasons of prejudice, ignorance, or mental instability. If this is the case, the author should clearly signal details to us which conflict with the spin the narrator is giving.

• Choice of Narrative Viewpoint:

If the point of your story is the unreliability of interpretation, it’s best to choose a first-person narrator (common in 20th-century Modernism).

If the point of your story is to portray aspects of the social and physical world around us, then a third-person narrator is better (19th-century Realism).

If the point of your story is the paradoxes inherent in story-telling itself, then an (unreliable) first-person – or second-person – narrator is usual (late 20th-century Postmodernism).

[Dr Frederic Wertham: Seduction of the Inoocent (1954)]

Workshop 7:
Seduction of the Innocent

We'll begin with the book report on Lolita, then move on to do the class exercise in pairs or small groups.

Exercise 7:
Pornography or Moral Tract?

The class will be divided into two teams: pro and contra.

Each team should find evidence to back up their reading: for instance, Lolita's seduction of Humbert in the Enchanted Hunters motel might be seen to offbalance the explicit content of Humbert's diary of observations.

Next week:

Group 2: Book report on Doctor Zhivago due.

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