One more drink and I'd have been under the nymphet
November 23, 2013 4:28 PM   Subscribe

Edmund Wilson was a friend [Vladimir] Nabokov shared with many people in American literary circles—including Dorothy Parker. Wilson had first learned about Nabokov's Lolita in the summer of 1953, when he was contemplating an article about Nabokov and asked the novelist whether he had a new project in the works.... A year later, Nabokov offered to let Wilson read his new novel, which he said he considered "to be my best thing in English."

In November, while in New York talking to Straus about his own projects, Wilson got the Lolita manuscript and was a bit less discreet than Nabokov would have wanted.

--How Edmund Wilson may have leaked the plot of Nabokov's Lolita to Dorothy Parker, who then published in the New Yorker a story titled "Lolita," about a middle-aged man in love with a teenage girl, three weeks before the novel came out.
posted by Cash4Lead (7 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this -- love Galya Diment!

For those who may not be aware, she is a leading Nabokov scholar and a Professor at the University of Washington. Her delightful book Pniniad recently became available in paperback.
posted by trip and a half at 5:09 PM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hmm -- I don't know how I feel about this hypothesis. I've got no academic qualifications, but I did read Parker's Portable Reader about ten times in high school alone, and I just don't read her "Lolita" that way.

In that story, the title character is not suggested to be underage. Although she is younger than John Marble, the prosperous businessman who marries her, it isn't a scandal. What's remarkable to everyone in town is that she is plain and shy, and not supposed to be someone who could catch any kind of a husband, let alone an important one. The emotional focus of the story is the cruelty and self-absorption of Lolita's mother, Mrs. Ewing, and the fact that no one can apparently imagine that Lolita and her husband have an intellectual connection. I recall reading somewhere that Lolita's mother was based on the Southern mother of Parker's husband, Alan Campbell, although this too cannot be proven. It's simply not written as a story of preying or pedophilia.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:11 PM on November 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

As someone who has a both a dog-eared copy of "Lolita" AND Parker's Portable Reader within arms reach right now, I'm pretty comfortable saying there was cross-pollination, but had Parker used literally any other first name we wouldn't be talking about it, although it's easy to see there was some germ of an idea taken. ( I take the slightest issue with "and, unlike Nabokov’s Lo, she isn’t very pretty" because Lolita in the Nabokov isn't "pretty". She's boyish and adolescent, but not something a grown man would find sexually appealing. She even tries to pimp out her much more "mature" and conventionally pretty friend to Hubert to no avail. It's kind of the point, Hubert's desires are strange and twisted toward his own personal type, which Lolita personifies while he keeps close observation that she's not developing too quickly and aging out his type, which is what makes their romance doomed from the start. Edmund White said that he could "buy" Humbert's obessive attraction to Lo and almost approve of it, when Humbert starts daydreaming of fathering future lovers with Lo via her daughters, who would of course look like her for a while, then it falls rots away - he doesn't really love her as a person, just as a type, which he then tries to redeem himself for in the end with disastrous results)
posted by The Whelk at 8:58 PM on November 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've never read the Parker story, but just from the linked article and the reactions here I'd say it's much ado about nothing (a conclusion Nabokov came to himself). Interesting read, though, and I was intrigued to see that Nabokov called Lolita "my best thing in English"—suggesting that he, like me, thought of his Russian novels as his best work.

> when Humbert starts daydreaming of fathering future lovers with Lo via her daughters, who would of course look like her for a while, then it falls rots away - he doesn't really love her as a person, just as a type

This is exactly what Proust's narrator does towards the end of À la recherche du temps perdu:
For Gilberte, who had no doubt inherited certain family characteristics from her mother (and I had perhaps unconsciously anticipated some such laxness of principle in her when I had asked her to introduce me to young girls), had now had time to reflect upon my request and, anxious no doubt that the profit should stay in the family, had reached a decision bolder than any that I would have thought possible. "Let me fetch my daughter for you," she said. "I should so like to introduce her to you. She is over there, talking to young Mortemart and other babes in arms who can be of no possible interest. I am sure that she will be a charming little friend to you."
As I wrote elsewhere, "The combination of smug contempt for a woman he claimed to have loved and drooling anticipation of becoming closely acquainted with her young daughter (and this is now a middle-aged man speaking, who presents himself as infirm, decrepit, and on the brink of the grave)... well, it's hard to take." It's a mystery to me why Proust's narrator is generally treated so much more indulgently by readers and critics than Nabokov's Humbert.
posted by languagehat at 8:51 AM on November 24, 2013

I agree that it's pretty egregious, but does not the knowledge that Proust's narrator is referring to homosexual relations introduce a certain turbidity or opacity into the text in a way that Nabokov does not?

Just fishing here!
posted by Wolof at 11:25 PM on November 24, 2013

Not sure what you mean. Proust himself, of course, was gay, but his narrator is not. He screwed the mother, now he wants to screw the daughter.
posted by languagehat at 9:42 AM on November 25, 2013

Well, as you do!
posted by Wolof at 3:48 AM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

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