Real life colours Nabokov classic
Recently, and on two separate occasions, I’ve been berated for saying Lolita is a masterpiece. Both women loathed the novel because as far as they were concerned it glorifies pedophilia. What bemused me was that Vladimir Nabokov’s novel is as controversial as it was 60 years ago, when it was called filthy and obscene and, for a time, banned in Australia.
Stately crudely, it’s a first-person narrative told from a prison cell by Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European university professor, who comes to America with a decided taste for pre-teen girls. He falls for Dolores, a 12-year-old daughter of a widow.
After the accidental death of her mother, he kidnaps the girl he calls Lolita and sets off on a wild car journey across the US. On the trip, he rapes her repeatedly, believing she loves him as much as he loves her. He murders the man who takes her from him and she dies in a car crash.
It was Nabokov’s genius to turn this brutal subject matter into a powerful work of art, both funny and sad, sensual and tender, and told in such dazzling prose, with a text full of allusions to other novels and poems, parodies of romantic literature, satirical observations of 1950s America, that most readers forget or overlook, caught in the tawdry undertow of the work as if Nabokov, via Humbert, has seduced them.
A main thread running through the novel are parodies of 19th-century romantic stories and poems. Humbert becomes a perversion of the romantic hero and at the same time Lolita becomes the supreme novel of love in the 20th century. In fact, it is the logical and glorious dead end of the romantic tradition.
When read carefully, it’s easy to see that Nabokov is keenly aware that Humbert’s crimes against young Dolores are hideous and it’s also obvious he has an incredible sympathy for her. Even the solipsistic Humbert eventually comes to the realisation that what he has done is monstrous.
Hidden away in plain sight in the novel is a sentence alluding to a real event: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a 50-yearold mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” Over the years, this sentence has been overlooked.
Then in 2005, Alexander Dolinin, in The Times Literary Supplement, went into detail arguing that Nabokov used many aspects of the case for his story. A couple of years ago Sally Weinman followed this up with her own magazine article and has now written a book about the case, The Real Lolita.
Sally, a 10-year-old, was an academically smart, shy girl, living with her widowed mother, a seamstress, after her alcoholic father had committed suicide. Pretending to be an FBI agent, the middle-aged Frank Lasalle managed to convince Sally’s mother that he was taking her daughter on a vacation. What happened next was a nightmare.
Lasalle was a pedophile and he and Sally spent nearly two years on the run. Sally’s distraught mother had no idea whether her daughter was alive or dead and, as she said to the press: “Whatever she has done, I can forgive her for it. If I can have her back again.”
After Lasalle was arrested, Sally returned to school as if nothing had happened. But McFate, as Nabokov dubbed him, had one more terrible thing in store for her. When she was 16, Sally met a boy who drove her home, but on the way, the car crashed and she died instantly.
Weinman, a crime writer, has investigated the kidnapping. Because of the problem that many people involved in the case were dead and Lolita files missing, there are times when she can shed no light on the events that unfolded.
One of the strongest sections is on Ruth Janisch who met Sally in a trailer park and, believing there was something strange in her
Sally Horner, whose kidnap influenced Vladimir Nabokov’s novel