Real life colours Nabokov clas­sic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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