The Real Lolita

Ottawa Magazine - - BY THE BOOK - Sarah Wein­man AU­THOR The Real Lolita: The Kid­nap­ping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scan­dal­ized the World

Fans of true crime will be fas­ci­nated and hor­ri­fied by The Real Lolita: The Kid­nap­ping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scan­dal­ized the

World. It tells the story of 11-yearold Florence Sally Horner [known as Sally], who was ab­ducted by ex-con Frank La Salle in 1948. He drove around the U.S. with Sally, rap­ing her for nearly two years. In this hy­brid book, true crime meets anal­y­sis, ar­gu­ing that Vladimir Nabokov’s fa­mously con­tro­ver­sial book was in­spired by the Horner case. Bar­bara

Sib­bald talks to au­thor Sarah Wein­man, a crime jour­nal­ist, edi­tor, and fic­tion writer who was born and raised in Ot­tawa. Q. If you had read about Sally out­side the con­text of Lolita, would you have put the two to­gether? A. I never knew Sally’s story out­side that con­text. It’s a heart­break­ing and com­pelling story on its own, but know­ing her story got suc­cumbed and sac­ri­ficed for great art, that’s a much deeper and much more com­pli­cated ques­tion than a straight true-crime story. Q. What do you mean by “suc­cumbed and sac­ri­ficed for great art”? A. In Lolita, there is the line late in the novel when Hum­bert Hum­bert [the pro­tag­o­nist] ut­ters, “Had I done to Dolly, what Frank Lasalle [sic], a 50-year-old me­chanic, had done to 11-year-old Sally in 1948?” That showed Nabokov knew about Sally’s story and in­cor­po­rated it in more ways than any­one re­ally reck­oned with at the time. When I say suc­cumbed and

sac­ri­ficed, it’s about ask­ing what re­spon­si­bil­ity does an artist have to re­al­ity, to fic­tion­al­iz­ing peo­ple’s pain? When a novel is based on an ac­tual crime, it should do much more than loosely fic­tion­al­ize it. The novel must stand alone as a work of art that jus­ti­fies us­ing the story for its own pur­poses. Emma Cline’s 2016 novel, The Girls, is based on the 1969 Manson mur­ders, but what makes the book sing is its ex­plo­ration of the in­sid­i­ous na­ture of pa­tri­archy. Q. You write at one point that Nabokov “strip-mined [Sally’s case] to pro­duce the bones of Lolita.” How ex­ten­sive was the in­flu­ence? A. Lolita would have ex­isted if Nabokov had not known about Sally and her story. But the way in which Lolita ex­isted would not. By that, I mean we know for sure that he knew about Sally’s death be­cause there’s a note­card in his ar­chives which re­copies the piece in the New York Times on Au­gust 20 of 1952 about her death. Many of the de­tails in that note­card are di­rectly in­cor­po­rated into Lolita. La Salle was sen­tenced to 30 to 35 years, which Hum­bert even­tu­ally will be sen­tenced to. There are phys­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the fic­tional Dolores and the real-life Sally. Their ages are com­pa­ra­ble. Know­ing Sally’s story gave him a way for­ward in terms of the plot — and he worked at a much more fever­ish rate be­tween Au­gust of 1952 and De­cem­ber of 1953, when he fin­ished his first draft. Q. That doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean he used the case as scaf­fold­ing or was greatly in­spired by it. A. It’s art: it’s about ar­chi­tec­ture and struc­ture. The fact of hav­ing a par­al­lel cross-coun­try story helped flesh out the sec­ond half of the book. I never want to lose sight that Sally is this key com­po­nent and that she de­serves to be re­mem­bered. She de­serves to have this place in per­ma­nent con­ver­sa­tion with Lolita. So ul­ti­mately, I’m hop­ing peo­ple rec­og­nize that Sally — and any­body, re­gard­less of gen­der or sex or creed, who has ex­pe­ri­enced the trauma of abuse — mat­ters and that their sto­ries mat­ter. Q. I noted some of this cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence: the sim­i­lar hair colour, the towns start­ing with the let­ter C and on streets start­ing with the same let­ter, phones play­ing an im­por­tant role in both. Aside from the note in the li­brary and the ref­er­ence in it­self to Sally, what else was there? A. It comes down to this: if Nabokov didn’t want me re­search­ing Sally’s story, why would he have in­cluded it di­rectly in the novel? Yes, it would have been won­der­ful to find a lot more di­rect ev­i­dence. With re­con­struc­tion of any kind, it’s also im­por­tant to look at what’s miss­ing. The fact was, there was in­for­ma­tion miss­ing about Sally in his ar­chives. Nabokov and his wife, Vera, de­stroyed much of the novel’s source ma­te­rial — in­clud­ing let­ters and notes — due, in part, to ob­scen­ity laws at that time. That’s why I think it isn’t there.

IN READ­ING LOLITA IN TEHRAN, Azar Nafisi makes the ex­cel­lent point that Dolores Haze is a dou­ble vic­tim, be­cause not only her life is taken from her, but also her life story: “The des­per­ate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelveyear-old by a dirty old man but the con­se­cra­tion of one in­di­vid­ual’s life by an­other.”

With­out re­al­iz­ing it, Nafisi has made the ex­act par­al­lel be­tween Dolores Haze and Sally Horner. For Sally’s life, too, was for­ever marked by the 21 months she spent as Frank La Salle’s cap­tive, his false daugh­ter, his own re­al­ized fan­tasy. Af­ter she was res­cued, she at­tempted to re­sume the life snatched away from her. And it seemed she did, on the sur­face.

But how could she, when her story had been front­page news all across the coun­try, and when those in Cam­den knew ex­actly what had hap­pened to her and judged her — blamed her — for it? Whether she’d lived two years or many decades, whether she might have had time to move for­ward, even if she could not move on, Sally Horner was for­ever marked.

Lolita’s end, dy­ing in child­birth, is a tragedy. But Sally Horner’s demise by car ac­ci­dent is the big­ger tragedy, be­cause it was real, and robbed her of the chance to grow up and at least at­tempt to move for­ward. In fact, Sally Horner is a triple vic­tim: snatched from her or­di­nary life by Frank La Salle, only for her life to be cut short by car ac­ci­dent, and then strip­mined to pro­duce the bones of Lolita, the only ac­knowl­edg­ment a par­en­thet­i­cal ref­er­ence hid­den in plain sight, hardly no­ticed by many mil­lions of read­ers.

Over the course of re­search­ing this book th­ese last few years, I would ask faith­ful fans of Lolita if they’d caught the par­en­thet­i­cal ref­er­ence to Sally Horner’s kid­nap­ping. The unan­i­mous an­swer was “no.” This was no real sur­prise. If no one caught the ref­er­ence, how could they be ex­pected to see how much of the novel’s struc­ture rides on what hap­pened to Sally in real life? But once seen, it is im­pos­si­ble to un­see.

There is no sim­ple lock-and-key metaphor to equate the tragic story of Dolores Haze to the tragic story of Sally Horner. Vladimir Nabokov was too shrewd to cre­ate a life-meets-art dy­namic. But Sally’s story is cer­tainly one of those im­por­tant keys that, once em­ployed, un­locks a crit­i­cal in­spi­ra­tion. There is no ques­tion Lolita would have ex­isted with­out Sally Horner be­cause Nabokov spent over twenty years dwelling on the theme, work­ing it out in bits and pieces as he moved around Europe and Amer­ica. But the nar­ra­tive was also strength­ened and sharp­ened by the in­clu­sion of her story.

Sally Horner can’t be cast aside so eas­ily. She must be re­mem­bered as more than a young girl for­ever changed by a mid­dle-aged man’s crime of mon­strous per­ver­sion. A girl who sur­vived ad­ver­sity, ma­nip­u­la­tion, and cross-coun­try hor­ror, only to be de­nied the chance to grow up. A girl im­mor­tal­ized, and for­ever trapped, in the pages of a clas­sic novel of satire and sad­ness, like a but­ter­fly with wings dam­aged be­fore ever hav­ing the chance to fly.

The Real Lolita: The Kid­nap­ping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scan­dal­ized the World EX­CERPT “Sally Horner can’t be cast aside so eas­ily. She must be re­mem­bered as more than a young girl for­ever changed by a mid­dleaged man’s crime of mon­strous per­ver­sion.”

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