Longer listens: Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," 50 years and 50 million copies later


Salon Staff
November 1, 2005 12:20AM (UTC)

Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" first appeared on bookstore shelves 50 years ago on Sept. 15, 1955, in Paris. The first American edition would not appear for another three years, after five stateside publishers had rejected the manuscript for fear of obscenity charges. So the now famous story of 37-year-old Humbert Humbert's predatory affair with the 12-year-old "nymphet" Lolita would first appear between the plain green covers of an Olympia Press edition. In this excellent piece (8:55, Real Audio) from NPR, one of Nabokov's former students at Cornell describes stumbling upon that original edition sandwiched between two other Olympia titles in a dusty bookshop on the Left Bank: "On the left side was a book called 'Until She Screams' and on the right ... was a book called 'The Sexual Life of Robinson Caruso.'" Neither of these other two works would join "Lolita" on the Modern Library's list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the 20th century. The first part of the NPR story tells of Nabokov's life in Ithaca, N.Y., when he was working as a professor of Russian literature and composing his book on a stack of index cards, which he was once prevented, at the last instant, from throwing into the incinerator in a fit of frustration. In this second part (8:54, Real Audio), we hear Azar Nafisi, the author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran," and assorted scholars describe the book's lasting influence.

In celebration of this golden anniversary, here are three selections from the Random House audio recording of Jeremy Irons reading Nabokov's masterpiece -- a pairing that single-handedly justifies the existence of audiobooks. Irons' precise diction and gentle cadence give the proper music to Nabokov's sublime prose. "'Lolita' was the record of [Nabokov's] love affair with English," as a Vogue critic wrote. "Irons makes it a ménage à trois." First, from NPR, the legendary opening passage (1:18, Real Audio): "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta." Second, from the Salon archives, a longer passage (9:24, Real Audio) from the middle in which Humbert complains that Lolita failed to fully appreciate him, "Never did she vibrate under my touch, a strident 'what d'you think you are doing?' was all I got for my pains. To the wonderland I had to offer, my fool preferred the corniest movies, the most cloying fudge." And finally, also from NPR, the end (3:22, Real Audio), in which H.H. reflects from prison on his finished memoir.

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Compare Irons' reading of the opening lines with that of James Mason from this New York Times recording (2:02:59, Real Audio) of a two-hour celebration of Nabokov's life and work on the centenary of his birth. Mason opens the celebration. He is followed by an introduction from New Yorker editor David Remnick, then comment and readings from translator Michael Scammell, professor Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Ford, Stacy Schiff, Alfred Appel Jr., Joyce Carol Oates, Brian Boyd, Martin Amis and Nabokov's son Dmitri.

And here is Nabokov himself in October of 1969 commenting -- in his prickly and haughty way -- to James Mossman of the BBC on the distinction between genius and talent (3:13, Real Audio) -- James Joyce is a genius; Henry James isn't -- his distaste for speculation about his private life (1:00, Real Audio), and how he detests Soviet Russia (2:23, Real Audio). Lastly, also from the New York Times, here is Nabokov reading (1:00:41, Real Audio) poetry and selections from "Pale Fire" and "Lolita" at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan in 1964. The selection from "Lolita" -- H.H.'s poem upon losing his nymphet -- comes at the end, in the 56th minute.

-- Ira Boudway


Salon Staff

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