In the opening lines of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—arguably one of the most famous incipits of all time—the narrator, Humbert Humbert, engulfs the object of his desire in a linguistic caress: “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.” By the time his tongue taps three, the reader has been lulled into his upside-down world, coerced into accompanying him on his sordid journey across America with his stepdaughter, Lolita, in tow. The true horror of the novel is not that we bear witness to the psychological manipulation and rape of a twelve-year-old girl, but that, in the thrall of the narrator’s poetic diction, we find ourselves all too complicit.
This premise was shocking in its time, and remains so to this day. While drafting the novel, Nabokov himself began to fear the genie he’d unleashed and tried to stuff it back into the bottle: he made at least two attempts to destroy the manuscript (both thankfully thwarted by his wife, Véra), and then tried to publish it under a pseudonym. It was bounced like a hot potato by every American publisher who touched it—several of whom recognized its merit but were unprepared to fight the inevitable obscenity lawsuits—until it was finally embraced by an audacious European press in 1955.
The intervening years have solidified the book’s reputation as both a literary classic and an unremitting source of controversy, with each generation refracting its fears through Lolita’s prism. At the time of its publication, Lolita was seen as an assault on common decency; in the 1980s and 1990s, it found itself in the crosshairs of American cultural panic about the sexual abuse of children; today, as the #MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on the intersection of sexual exploitation, gender, and power, a new wave of indictments has crested. Several months ago, the novel was at the centre of heated public discussions in Spain that culminated in a televised debate on the topic, “Is Lolita a work that advocates pedophilia?” A recent article in the online magazine Bustle focused the #MeToo lens even more sharply, proclaiming, “I re-read Lolita in the age of #MeToo—and I’m no longer standing for its overt misogyny.”
To charge Lolita with misogyny or pedophilia is, to my mind, like accusing Jonathan Swift of promoting the eating of children: Nabokov intends us to see the horrors seeping from beneath Humbert Humbert’s erudite veneer, and to question our own susceptibility to his wiles. I also want to point out that our culture displays a strange contradiction (dare I say, hypocrisy) when it comes to our aesthetic politics. While fervently campaigning to expel gendered violence from our fiction, many of us are simultaneously gorging ourselves on the brutalities peddled by the true crime genre, which is booming as never before, and whose audience, statistics show, is predominantly female. The seemingly endless parade of books (Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks running), podcasts (Serial; My Favorite Murder) and Netflix series (Making a Murderer; Evil Genius; The Staircase) is barely able to keep up with the demand for true tales of rape, murder, and other cruelties, in which many of the victims, too, are women.
The Real Lolita is, in one sense, a product of this trend, insofar as it chronicles the kidnapping and repeated rape, in 1948, of an eleven-year-old named Sally Horner. Weinman—who refers to herself as the “Crime Lady” on Twitter and in an eponymous newsletter—is no stranger to the genre, having written extensively in this mode for newspapers like the Guardian and the New York Times. Weinman is also the editor of two anthologies of crime fiction, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense and Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s. However, the salacious details of the abduction occupy only a small part of The Real Lolita; primarily, the book is a biography of Horner, whose short life Weinman painstakingly reconstructs from primary documents and interviews. Woven into this story is the parallel account of the composition and publication of Lolita, which Weinman contends was more informed by Horner’s ordeal than Nabokov ever admitted. Rather than exploit the sordid details of the crime, Weinman uses them to fuel a sophisticated reevaluation of Nabokov’s controversial classic.
Sally Horner is the “real” Lolita not only in that their stories are topically similar, but in that her trauma—which serves as a counter-narrative to the glamourized love affair recounted by Humbert Humbert—exposes the lie at the heart of Lolita. In Humbert Humbert’s telling, it is he who is seduced by the precocious young nymphet rather than the other way around: “she was all over me…with perfect simplicity, the impudent child extended her legs across my lap.” This idea of the teen temptress, Weinman points out, is a motif that can be discerned across cultures, from Hollywood films to Japanese manga. In The Real Lolita, she “writes back” (to borrow a turn of phrase from postcolonial theorist Edward Said) against this trope by “reveal[ing] the truth behind the curtain of fiction.”
The truth of Horner’s abduction is actually wilder than that of her fictional counterpart: in March 1948, the eleven-year-old stole a notebook from a five-and-dime in New Jersey, in an attempt to curry favour with a clique of mean girls. A middle-aged man named Frank La Salle spotted her, and, posing as an FBI agent, told her that she could avoid jail only if she followed his instructions to the letter. The terrified girl complied, and eventually boarded a bus to Atlantic City with La Salle, a convicted sex offender. Like other victims of kidnapping such as Elizabeth Smart, Horner never revealed her identity or asked for help as La Salle hauled her around America, posing as her father by day and raping her by night. This went on for nearly two years, until a concerned neighbour finally uncovered the truth and helped her phone for help. Horner’s reunion with her family was tragically short-lived, as she died two years later in a car crash.
Weinman situates Horner within an unfortunate lineage: women and girls who, like Smart, were held captive for extended periods under a variety of pretexts and (often horrific) circumstances. In the introduction to The Real Lolita, she asserts that Horner’s biography has value not only in itself, but also “because it is the story of so many girls and women, not just in America, but everywhere.” But her investment in this particular, nearly forgotten story stems from the mystery that surrounds Nabokov’s inclusion of it in Lolita: in a moment of feigned introspection, Humbert Humbert ponders whether he had “done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank La Salle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948.” The connection was ignored until 1963, when a reporter took note and enquired, eliciting denials from the Nabokov household; Véra (writing on behalf of her husband) stated unequivocally that Horner’s case “did not inspire the book.”
Weinman argues convincingly that this disavowal was part of Nabokov’s more generalized self-styling as a “sui generis artist,” an all-too-familiar male-genius posture carefully cultivated by both Vladimir and Véra. By tracing the overlaps between real and invented victims—both pubescent girls were coerced into a cross-country voyage with a predatory father figure, and there are other echoes—Weinman dispels the “illusion of total creative control” that she argues the Nabokovs sustained by erasing Horner and other real-world sources. This implicitly feminist critique is far more incisive than the facile criticisms levelled (in Bustle and elsewhere) against Lolita’s offending content. It is also refreshing, in this era of political polarization, that Weinman does not as a consequence throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater, conceding that our awareness of Horner “does not diminish Lolita’s brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel.”
Beyond the desire to unfetter his genius from the dross of facts, Nabokov had another reason for downplaying Lolita’s real-world influences: the need to stave off accusations of pedophilia. Although Weinman accepts the widely held view that Nabokov’s interest in the topic was “literary, not literal,” she nevertheless spends a lot of time probing “the deep-seated compulsion” that resurfaces throughout his life and work. The occurrences are manifold, ranging from the subjects of several early stories to the expressed predilections of close friends. Nabokov also notably translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian, and was therefore intimately acquainted with Lewis Carroll’s prurient interest in young girls. By unmooring Humbert Humbert from these real-world counterparts, Weinman suggests, Nabokov was also deflecting attention from himself.
The Real Lolita was originally published in 2014 as a feature for Hazlitt, where it remains among the magazine’s top five most popular articles to this day. The article is captivating: methodically researched and gripping, moving back and forth between the drama of Horner’s eventful life and an analysis of Nabokov’s masterpiece, the juxtaposition illuminating correspondences between fact and fiction. Extending The Real Lolita to book length has given Weinman the opportunity to flex her investigative muscle, and I commend the effort she has put into tracking down relatives, court documents, and other scant traces left by Horner during her short life.
However, much of the content that Weinman has added to flesh out the article detracts from the narrative rather than adding to it. While the basic facts of Horner’s abduction are known, the details of what she thought and felt remain a mystery. This lacuna poses a challenge for the biographer, who—in the absence of diaries, interviews, or friends and family who knew Horner—must speculate about her young subject’s inner life. Weinman is transparent about this difficulty, admitting, “Inference will have to stand in for confidence. Imagination will have to fill in the rest.” Nevertheless, her incarnation of Horner’s inner monologue (“She had to retreat into her own mind to escape the void of her current situation”) seems somewhat at odds with the book’s stated aim of revealing “the truth behind the curtain of fiction.”
Weinman has also padded The Real Lolita with deep dives into the backstories of minor characters, a choice that interrupts its focus and pace. An entire chapter is dedicated to the New Jersey prosecutor who worked Horner’s case; I found myself wondering what exactly his taste for Broadway musicals added to the topic at hand. While mystery continues to shroud the facts of Horner’s time with La Salle, the neighbour who helps Horner escape becomes the primary focus of two chapters; we learn what she served for Thanksgiving dinner, months before she would even come into contact with the pair (pancakes and beans).
The scant details of Horner’s abduction are likewise supplemented with accounts of horrific crimes that were either similar or contemporaneous to her case. One chapter, for instance, is devoted to a mass shooting that took place in Horner’s hometown of Camden a year after Sally’s abduction. The rationale for its inclusion—that the shooting was “the true beginning of Camden’s downward slope”—is unsubstantiated by corroborating logic or data. Elsewhere, justifications for extraneous material (“I bring up the Grammer case because…”) are not entirely convincing, and perhaps signal the author’s awareness that the reader might not intuit its significance on her own.
Where Weinman’s discussion of Horner is diluted at book length, though, her investigation into Lolita’s composition and afterlife are strengthened. Her thorough study of Nabokov’s back catalogue (including obscure early works published in Russian) highlights one dimension of Lolita’s genesis, while her archival research reveals another: on a handwritten notecard detailing Horner’s abduction, Weinman finds several phrases (“middle-aged morals offender”; “cross-country slave”) that appear in the novel verbatim, proving that Horner’s case was more significant than Nabokov let on.
As Weinman sees it, her restitution of Sally Horner from the margins of Lolita to the centre of her own narrative refocuses our attention on “the real little girls who…end up getting lost in the need for artistic license.” Early in The Real Lolita, she argues that stories like Horner’s “should not be subsumed by dazzling prose, no matter how brilliant.” While this is a noble goal, I would argue that this statement is somewhat at odds with the celebration of Nabokov’s brilliance implicitly and explicitly undertaken elsewhere in the book.
It would be more accurate to say that Horner’s plight adds nuance to our interpretation of Lolita. As Weinman shows, Nabokov’s disavowal of his sources has had a profound effect on the way Lolita has been read over the years; freed from the burden of reality, many readers have treated it as a love story. Among the first to do so was the book’s initial publisher, Maurice Girodias, who reportedly expressed excitement that the novel “might lead to a change in social attitudes toward the kind of love described.”
Others have seized upon Lolita’s precocious sexuality: the movie poster for Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation features a famous photograph of the fourteen-year-old actress Sue Lyon as Lolita, clad in heart-shaped glasses, sucking on a red lollipop. By the same token, detractors of Lolita have mobilized similar interpretations to condemn the novel’s politics, denouncing its sexualization of a child and its championing of a flagrant power imbalance.
As Véra Nabokov noted in a 1958 journal entry, such readings, whether for or against the novel, fail to “notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on the monstrous HH.” Weinman clearly agrees, arguing that Lolita hinges on “the mounting tension between what Humbert Humbert wants the reader to know and what the reader can discern.” In locating the real-world counterparts to his narrative, Weinman makes the sordid reality all too easy to discern. To her great credit, she nevertheless avoids the reductive dogmatism that has flourished in the #MeToo era: rather than censuring Lolita, Weinman offers a necessary gloss. The Real Lolita deepens and challenges our reading of Nabokov’s classic novel, reminding us of the ugliness that lies below its manicured surface.