The Real Lolita
November 21, 2014 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Sally Horner was abducted by Frank La Salle in 1948. In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Humbert Humbert asks: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle [sic], a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” In Hazlitt magazine, Sarah Weinman tells the whole story & explores the similarities between Sally & Dolly. [potential triggers]
posted by chavenet (32 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's long but worth it. Fascinating.
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:02 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


I second what Juliet Banana said; thanks for posting it. One teensy quibble (hey, I'm a copyeditor): in "The incessant ringing of the 'machine telephonica and its sudden god' interrupts the narrative," "machine" should be "machina" (presumably representing Italian macchina). Don't screw up Nabokov quotes or he'll haunt you!
posted by languagehat at 2:44 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


Totally a great read.
posted by Catblack at 2:46 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Amazing and haunting read. It makes me think about how putting insane amounts of pressure on propriety makes people vulnerable. And how the idea that rape is a crime still a shockingly new idea in the public consciousness.
posted by bleep at 2:49 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


2005 story originally in the TLS by Alexander Dolinin.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:05 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


One teensy quibble (hey, I'm a copyeditor): in "The incessant ringing of the 'machine telephonica and its sudden god' interrupts the narrative," "machine" should be "machina" (presumably representing Italian macchina). Don't screw up Nabokov quotes or he'll haunt you!

"Machine telephonica" appears to be the correct quotation.

Here is one of many secondary sources that will have to stand in for the absence of an authoritative online Lolita:
With people in the movies I seem to share the services of the machine telephonica and its sudden god. This time it was an irate neighbor.
And in any case, the allusion seems more likely to be to a standard feature of Greek drama known to us as Deus ex Machina
Deus ex machina, from Latin deus, meaning "a god", ex, meaning "from", and machina, meaning "a device, a scaffolding, an artifice", is a calque from Greek ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός (apò mēkhanḗs theós), meaning "god from the machine".[2] The term was coined from the conventions of Greek tragedy, where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine could be either a crane (mechane) used to lower actors from above or a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor.
posted by jamjam at 3:39 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


Am I the only one reading into a ten day hospitalization for "appendicitis" after which she "walked like an old woman?"
posted by corb at 3:42 PM on November 21, 2014 [13 favorites]


No, corb.

That hit me very hard, too.
posted by jamjam at 3:48 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


There was also a photograph, never before seen by Ella or the police, of a honey-haired Sally, in a cream-colored dress, white socks and black patent shoes, sitting on a swing. Her smile was tentative, her eyes fathoms deep with sadness. She was still just 11 years old.

I don't think most people, seeing this photograph out of context, would fine Weinman's description accurate.

And she explains that Nabokov uses parenthesis in the acccounts Humbert gives of himself to reveal what is really inside his mind and then cites a passage with no parenthesis as the most important example of this. She uses that to buttress the claim Nabokov would have to answer a charge that he was guility of the same things that LaSalle was with a denial-stripping yes. That strikes me as iresponsible.
posted by layceepee at 4:06 PM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


Wow, that was quite the article. That picture of Sally Horner on the swing looks so eerily like our own daughter, who is now ten, that I about jumped when I saw it. Especially her face -- it's uncanny. The article says of that picture:
There was also a photograph, never before seen by Ella or the police, of a honey-haired Sally, in a cream-colored dress, white socks and black patent shoes, sitting on a swing. Her smile was tentative, her eyes fathoms deep with sadness.
I'm not sure I'm seeing the sadness, though of course I don't doubt it for a minute, but it's hard to look at this picture and not see my own daughter looking back with a mixture of hesitancy and a desire for approval. That's what I see in this picture -- a girl who wants to please someone whom she fears and who holds ultimate power over her. Let me tell you, that makes it a mighty disturbing image. Yikes...

Thanks for linking and posting this. I was absolutely stunned (in a good way) when I first read Lolita, but with each subsequent reading I notice more and more the novel's sadness, the characters' despair, and the way the need to be furtive permeates and ultimately overpowers everything. This backstory only adds more layers to that experience.

Now excuse me while I go and give our daughter a big hug...one utterly devoid of subtext, ulterior motive, or untoward intention.
posted by mosk at 4:24 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


Gripping.
posted by The Whelk at 4:50 PM on November 21, 2014


> "Machine telephonica" appears to be the correct quotation.

Nope, I don't think so. Here's a Google Books search that catches a bunch of editions, and not a single one has "Machine"; I direct your attention in particular to the Library of America edition, which presumably was carefully proofread. "Machine" is a very easy typo that I would expect to show up in texts that have not been carefully proofread (e.g., anything online apart from digitized books).

...And I just checked my Russian edition (translated by Nabokov), which has in the corresponding place "С персонажами в кинофильмах я, по-видимому, разделяю зависимость от всесильной machina telephonica и ее внезапных вторжений в людские дела." Case closed, I think.
posted by languagehat at 5:12 PM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


There were a few sentences that really bugged me in this:

Apparently Nabokov thought to have Humbert find reference to the Sally Horner case in the “book of doom” he encounters at the motel where he consummates his relationship with Dolores Haze

I think she means "rapes."

but they wrote that Sally had been “sexually interfered with” at La Salle’s hands, and printed when and where she had sex with him.

She didn't have sex with him - he raped her.
posted by Squeak Attack at 5:48 PM on November 21, 2014 [10 favorites]


And she explains that Nabokov uses parenthesis in the acccounts Humbert gives of himself to reveal what is really inside his mind and then cites a passage with no parenthesis as the most important example of this.

Are you referring to the quote that begins "Had I done to Dolly, perhaps" [...]? The essayist just pulled the parenthetical out of the text. Here is the entire passage:

She attacked me with a fake smile, all aglow with evil curiosity. (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?)
posted by trunk muffins at 6:01 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


Squeak Attack: I think she means "rapes."

Yeah, that one (both your pull quotes, actually, but that one the most) in particular really got me. Consummates? Relationship? Seriously? No. RAPES.

However, I'm not sure I get what corb and jamjam are talking about upthread about the "appendicitis" hospital stay. :\
posted by librarina at 7:09 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


However, I'm not sure I get what corb and jamjam are talking about upthread about the "appendicitis" hospital stay. :\

I think they're suggesting it might have been an abortion.
posted by arnicae at 7:38 PM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


arnicae: "I think they're suggesting it might have been an abortion."

Very difficult to say. People certainly walk stiffly for a while after an appendectomy too.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:29 PM on November 21, 2014


Nabokov, however, gives the reader a number of clues to the literary disconnect, the most important being the parenthetical. It works brilliantly early on in Lolita, when Humbert describes the death of his mother—“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three”

I don't understand this: would someone explain? Thanks!
posted by alasdair at 3:39 AM on November 22, 2014


I don't understand it either, and I suspect it doesn't make any sense. Sometimes a parenthetical is just a (brilliant) parenthetical.
posted by languagehat at 8:37 AM on November 22, 2014


Fascinating article... thanks for posting this.
posted by HuronBob at 8:56 AM on November 22, 2014


His mother died by being stuck my lightning at a picnic. The breezy, off-hand manner with which he refers to it gives you important clues into Humbert's psyche. As well, that line is often referred to as an example of Nabokov's brilliance for the way that just two words illuminates an entire lurid death scene in your head.
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:53 AM on November 22, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's also a joke. Normal people don't describe traumatic events so breezily, and it's absurd that Humbert does. /not a lit major
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:53 AM on November 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ruth tried to cajole Sally, still recovering from her appendectomy, to tell her the “true story” of her relationship with La Salle in Dallas. Sally wouldn’t open up. The Janishes left for California in early March 1950, thinking they’d have better luck finding work there, but on arrival, Ruth hatched the beginning of a plan. First, she wrote La Salle, urging him and Sally to follow them to the San Jose trailer park, where they could be neighbors again. The Janishes had even reserved a spot in the park for them.

For some reason, this part really stuck with me. I have so much respect for Ruth Janish for noticing something was wrong and being so persistent about getting to the bottom of it so that Sally could go home to her family.

This was a great article. Thanks for posting it.
posted by creepygirl at 12:57 PM on November 22, 2014 [3 favorites]


What an awful, tragic, frustrating story. Poor Sally.

I've had a copy of Lolita on my ereader for a few months now, waiting for me to get up the courage to read it (as I know no end of people who've praised it as a novel), but I don't think I'm going to be able to.

.
posted by daisyk at 1:14 PM on November 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


The breezy, off-hand manner with which he refers to it gives you important clues into Humbert's psyche.

This is the intended interpretation. Humbert wants you to read the sentence without the parenthetical; it's the way in which he hopes to be read. The parentheticals, however, are what he cannot resist adding in to emphasize or decorate his narrative, thus (although Nabokov detested psychoanalysis) represent his subconscious seeping through. It's really an important point, as this is the entirety of the theme of the work, writ both structurally and in the tiniest detail.
posted by dhartung at 1:35 PM on November 22, 2014 [4 favorites]


Thanks! This manner doesn't seem entirely alien to me: I'm a upper-middle-class Englishman, and I could imagine saying something of the sort. But it is monstrous, of course.
posted by alasdair at 4:52 AM on November 23, 2014


Fascinating. And, unlike so many of these publicized historical reconstructions, it seemed quite valid.
posted by Samizdata at 1:36 PM on November 23, 2014


> This is the intended interpretation. Humbert wants you to read the sentence without the parenthetical; it's the way in which he hopes to be read. The parentheticals, however, are what he cannot resist adding in to emphasize or decorate his narrative, thus (although Nabokov detested psychoanalysis) represent his subconscious seeping through. It's really an important point, as this is the entirety of the theme of the work, writ both structurally and in the tiniest detail.

OK, maybe I'm an idiot. Could you please explain to me, as though I am an idiot, how that principle (which I agree makes an important point about interpreting what Humbert says in general) applies to the quoted sentence? Because I simply can't make "(picnic, lightning)" into any sort of subconscious self-revelation.
posted by languagehat at 2:34 PM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


For me, this is what I get from that opening (spectacular opening and one of the best-known in literature, fwiw): the character is vain - he needs you to know that his mom was beautiful - not just photogenic, *very* photogenic. This is one of THE most primal, important relationships people form, and usually they don't - I hate to say 'objectify' - but they don't reduce their mothers in that way, esp. when you're talking about them to other people. So, yeah - Nabokov is trying to convey to you that his character is That Guy: shallow, maybe narcissistic? If he views his own mother this way, how might he view other women?

So, on to the lightning part (brilliant piece of writing!): nobody in their right mind would put their mother's death in PARENTHESES! I mean, really: that's supposed to shock you - and the fact that he alludes to what could be a very interesting tale in a cursory manner should send up another red flag. Really the whole thing is establishing the unreliable narrator theme of the novel.

If you find it distasteful, chilling, if reading it gives you the creeps, that's great because that's what you're supposed to feel (I think - I have not read the book, I really should...).
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 3:57 PM on November 24, 2014


As far as subconscious revelation: he presents himself as one way (in the best light possible) and the reader picks up other things from the text (in parenthesis) that contradict or undermine what the character is trying to present.

I would love to hear someone else explain it in better language, though, because I suspsect there's a much more elegant way to describe it to you.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:01 PM on November 24, 2014


> For me, this is what I get from that opening (spectacular opening and one of the best-known in literature, fwiw)

Um, it's not the opening (which is indeed spectacular and well known; it goes "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth."). No offense, but I'd rather have the explanation from dhartung, who presumably has actually read the book.
posted by languagehat at 9:21 AM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


he’d finished up a prison stint for the statutory rape of several pubescent girls.

Jesus wept, nobody gave a shit about child abuse back then.
posted by benzenedream at 11:10 PM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


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