Even in these sophisticated latter days, “Lolita” still carries a scent of pedophilic scandal. Are we ready for an illustrated version of Nabokov’s classic?
The Folio Society, a small London publisher of fine volumes, has just released a boxed edition with the name spelled out on the cover as Humbert Humbert pronounces it in his opening paragraph: “Lo. Lee. Ta.” Laced sparingly throughout the text are eight, full-page, color images by the artist Federico Infante — which in this context sounds like a Nabokovian pun.
Compared to the 1962 film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, the pictures in this new edition look strikingly gloomy. Cast in darkly weathered rose and orange hues, Infante’s paintings emphasize the pathetic tragedy of Humbert’s attraction to his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores Haze. In one, she’s peering over her glasses with a look of blank despair. In another, we see her leaning against a wall in complete dejection.
But readers of this stately Folio edition are likely to find two editorial addenda more illuminating than the pictures. At the back, the publisher has reprinted Nabokov’s pithy 1957 essay “On a Book Entitled ‘Lolita.’ ” Nabokov confronts objections to his novel with his usual wit: “Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as ‘What is the author’s purpose?’ or still worse ‘What is the guy trying to say?’ ” He goes on to distinguish his work from modern pornographic novels, in which “action has to be limited to the copulation of cliches.”
That distinction initially proved too obscure for the American publishers who rejected his manuscript, and they get skewered here. Nabokov notes that “one reader suggested that his firm might consider publication if I turned my Lolita into a 12-year-old lad and had him seduced by Humbert, a farmer, in a barn, amidst gaunt and arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, ‘realistic’ sentences (‘He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy.’ Etc.).”
At the front of this volume, long-time Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda provides a graceful introduction that outlines the author’s life and articulates the novel’s extraordinary value. While acknowledging that the humor can be “disconcerting,” Dirda asserts, “There’s nothing cheap or meretricious about Nabokov’s ultra-subtle book. Neither graphic descriptions of sexual acts nor blunt obscenities will offend its readers. Here one will find, above all, pleasure in the text, the English language gorgeously employed, aesthetic bliss.”
Allowing himself one winking aside, he notes, “There’s not a flaccid sentence in the entire book.”
When it was finally published in the United States in 1958, “Lolita” sold 100,000 copies in three weeks. Were those buyers rushing to the novel’s quality or its scandal? Probably both, but Dirda says “Lolita” is a book that rewards re-reading: “Nabokov plants clues throughout the text to a hidden plot development that no first-time reader is likely to perceive.”
This elegant new edition, even at $99.95, might just be the light of your life, fire of your loins.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Vladimir Nabokov
Illustrations by Federico Infante
Folio. 366 pp. $99.95