In a conversation with a friend about Lolita, an interesting problem arose. This is the cover of the second Vintage International edition of the book:
In the upper left corner is the blurb “The only convincing love story of our Century” —Vanity Fair. You can imagine why this characterization could be a problem. I have never had the great luck to teach Lolita in a course, but just by looking at this cover I can imagine conversations in intro lit classrooms across the country centering on this practically anonymous quotation.
So I decided to track the source down.
Lolita was first published in Paris in 1955. It was never banned in America, but it took American publishers a few years to come around to the idea that social mores were changing and that a book like Lolita could be a bestseller—which, in fact, it was when it was finally published here in 1958.
(I notice that his current publisher—Random House—whitewash this history somewhat in their centennial timeline of Nabokov’s career, observing only that Lolita was published in 1955 and that, in 1959, the book had made him sufficiently wealthy that he could retire to Switzerland.)
Vanity Fair didn’t review Lolita in the 1950s for the very simple reason that there was no Vanity Fair in the ’50s. The magazine was folded into Vogue in 1936, and didn’t reemerge until 1983.
So when did Vanity Fair have a chance to write about Lolita? July 1986. If you’re my age, you might remember this issue as the one in which Annie Leibovitz photographs Ron Reagan prancing about in his underwear. Folks noticed at the time, though these pre-internet controversies can be hard to substantiate.
“In Pursuit of Lolita” is a smart essay. A photographer—Wim Wenders—and author/translator Gregor von Rezzori follow Lolita and H.H.’s trans-American odyssey, photographing and describing the cities and motels the literary pair visited.
Von Rezzori first became involved in the Nabokov industry, by his report, when a German publisher asked for his help translating Lolita. Here is the paragraph from which the cover blurb comes:
At one point a heated discussion arose over the possible interpretation of Lolita as a grandiose metaphor of the classic European’s hopeless love for a young, seductive, barbaric America. In his afterword to the novel Nabokov himself mentions this as the naïve theory of one of the publishers who turned the book down. And although there can’t be the slightest doubt that Nabokov did not mean to limit Lolita to that interpretation, there is no reason to exclude it as one of the novel’s many dimensions. The point, I felt, became obvious when one drew the line between Lolita as a delightfully frivolous story on the verge of pornography and Lolita as a literary masterpiece, the only convincing love story of our century. If one accepted it as the latter, there was no longer a question of whether to read it as “old Europe debauching young America” or as “young America debauching old Europe.” It simply stood as one of the great examples of passion in literature, a deeply touching story of unfulfillable longing, of suffering through love, love of such ardor that though it concentrated on its subject monomaniacally, it actually aimed beyond it, until it flowed back into the great Eros that had called it into being. Every passionate love can find its image in Humbert Humbert’s boundless love for Lolita, I said; why should it not also reflect the longing of us Europeans for the fulfillment of our childhood dreams about America? As for myself, that longing had become irresistible from the moment, in our translation, when we arrived at Lolita and Humbert’s crisscrossing of the United States. I vowed then that someday humble humble me would follow in their tracks. (80.)
So there is your source: Gregor von Rezzori, “In Pursuit of Lolita,” Vanity Fair 49.7 (July 1986) 78–87, 116–119. Interpret him as you will. I know how I will.