“And the rest is rust and stardust.”

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

The first edition of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was published in the United States on August 18th, 1958. After the manuscript was finished, Nabokov hand-delivered it to publishers for submission, fearing sending it through the mail, calling it his ‘time bomb.’ At first, it was rejected by multiple American publishers, who either deemed it pornography or feared the repercussion of a trial after its release. Nabokov’s agent helped him place the book with a French publisher, Olympia Press, known for distributing books banned in the U.S. Nabokov was unaware of the press’s reputation for smut before publication. Lolita was released as a two-volume copy, in a print run of 5,000 copies, in 1955. It was full of typos and it bore the author’s real name, which Nabokov originally had not intended to do as he was holding a position at Cornell University. With a small print run, it fell under the radar until author Graham Greene proclaimed it one of the best novels of the year in the Sunday Times of London. The ban on the novel in the US and England built up an enormous amount of hype, generating growing demand that finally caused its release in the US by G.P. Putnam’s, and in Britain in 1959 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Although controversial, the novel has remained a classic – ranked 4th on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, and is continually taught in schools. It eclipsed all of Nabokov’s other works, including Pale Fire (1962) and his memoir Speak, Memory (1951). Nabokov was a seven-time finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. 

Nabokov was born April 22, 1899 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He published his first book of poems as a teenager in 1916. During the October Revolution, his family fled for Crimea, then sought refuge in Western Europe before Nabokov enrolled in Trinity College of the University of Cambridge, earning his BA in 1822. He later settled in the United States, teaching Russian and European Literature at Cornell University from 1948-1959. At Cornell, he taught writer Thomas Pynchon and as well future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

He was an expert lepidopterist and wrote Lolita while traveling to collect butterflies in the western United States. His wife Véra was a constant companion and assistant for his works. 

Lesson from Nabokov:

Nabokov had the story of Lolita rolling around in his head for years before settling in to write the novel. In a Playboy interview, he called the process of writing it “like the composition of a beautiful puzzle,” although he almost burned the manuscript multiple times, his wife stopping him in the process. In his memoir, he describes the creation as “a painful birth, a difficult baby,” but he kept on, and was brave enough to follow through with the publication, no matter how difficult and how much his reputation and teaching career was on the line. 

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