‘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. Lo. Lee. Ta.’
Legendary literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote to Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita, ‘nasty subjects may make fine books; but I don’t feel you have got away with this,’ and it was only a Humbertian strain of mixed fortunes and persistence that enable us to read the famed opening lines of his masterpiece. While Nabokov abhorred the idea of novels as parables, Lolita provides the finest means to trace the trajectory of censorship over the sixty years since she was first published.
Rendered homeless on the basis of theme, it was a French pornographic publisher in September 1955 who took the plunge (and as this year taught us all too well, the courageous French culture of publishing the profane lives on). But it was not until Graham Greene listed it in his best three books of 1955 for the Sunday Times that Humbert trapped more than Lo in his ‘luminous web’.
Governments rushed to ban the book when they came to understand its scandalous plot. When an American publisher finally took on the novel in 1958, it sold more than 100,000 copies in its first three weeks. The people had spoken, and most European countries lifted their bans. It took Australia until 1965, when a University of Adelaide professor had his copy seized by Customs, that the ban was eventually lifted. To those, this writer included, who believe Lolita to be the finest book in the English language, reading – and rereading, often – it is perhaps life’s second greatest pleasure. A novel of full-throated lyricism, tragedy, morality, and comedy – it is not said often enough just how funny it is – one not need look outside its deftly constructed catacombs. But a question of progress has long weighed on me: what would happen if Lolita were published today?
Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film adaptation of Lolita shows us that the reception would be no less hostile. It took two years to be allowed in Australia after the Classification Review Board initially refused to give the film a rating. In the last five years alone, a further five films have been refused classification – and as always, it is due to the sexual nature of their content: the pornography of violence rarely faces state censorship.
In 2004, we celebrated the beauty and bravery of Iranian dissident Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, about a women’s book club in the Islamic Republic reading forbidden works of Western literature. ‘Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life,’ her scythe-eye warns, ‘what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.’ Yet while we rightly condemn the moral viciousness of regimes such as Iran, Western governments still, as Harold Pinter would have it, keep a ‘weather eye open for blasphemy, gluttony and buggery’. Last June, an Adelaide bookshop was raided for selling Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho without its prescribed plastic wrapping. Not all censors display such a startling lack of ingenuity; last month, NZ young adult fiction writer Ted Dawe saw his book Into The River (teenagers, sex) banned for sale or supply pending a further review.
But some of the most fervent censorship in the West now comes from the activist student and academic movement who prescribe trigger warnings on everything from Greek mythology (‘the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery’) to Hemingway (‘major: violence, lgbtqa+ slurs, ethnic slur; minor: alcoholism, war’) would expose the flesh of Lolita to the world – which Nabokov so deftly cocooned, mind – before the humble reader could decide whether to read it for themselves. There is a pornography too in reducing a work of literature to its less palatable plot points.
In concert with the religious right, whose compass settles more swiftly on the pornographic than Prof. Humbert on any nymphet, the coalition of the banning revel in seeing authors and thinkers ‘no-platformed’ unpredictably and indefinitely, as Salman Rushdie – who remains to this day at the behest of the pleasure of whomever appoints themselves majesty – could attest. Moreover, there is a subtle shift in campus mobs underway from censorship of works to disqualification of authors. The big-game-shooting, bit-of-a-bastard Hemingway and ‘privileged’ Didion are now viewed in the inane lexicon of the ‘problematic’. Nevermind that they were each at the forefront of the two major transformations in 20th century literature, and have broad, deep bodies of works that hold resonance today.
Whereas the socially conservative 1950s censors feared social decay, the modern-day progressive censors fear personal decay. But the projections of those who appoint themselves arbiters of taste remains the same: we default to the moral projections of the vociferous, wherever they lay. Soft centred university censorship doesn’t have the same edge as fire and brimstone religious moralists, but it is equally troubling: for if our arts graduates can’t – won’t – read for ‘aesthetic bliss’, as Nabokov called it, if literature is reduced to a plaything of critical theory, then what is the point? Culture wars seem too grandiose a notion of an earth salted for reasons of literary hygiene, and like Humbert’s alarm at the ‘decline in Lolita’s morals’, new ages provide new instincts, and the instinct to censor, albeit by fresh means, cannot be said to have diminished since 1955.
It’s unflinchingly sad that Nabokov needed to annex an apologia to the book’s end, but its illumination is a service. The ‘shiver of inspiration’ of Lolita was, he tells us, the product of the story of an ape who, coaxed to produce a charcoal drawing by scientists, sketched his cage – but the novel is ultimately, visibly, the record of his love affair with the English language.
For the tips of tongues who cannot take the lyrical journey to tap Lo-lee-ta, the glowing embers of the instinct to stop others doing so will never extinguish. While Wilson wasn’t all wrong – the question of whether Nabokov has gotten away with it remains in play after sixty years – it has been the weight of his readership that has allowed Lolita to catch the light. For now, anyway.
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