I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.
Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.
Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.
I read this book to fill the Truly Terrifying square of my 2019 Halloween Bingo Card.
I heard the author of The Real Lolita interviewed on the radio and was immediately intrigued. I’ve read true crime. I’ve read biography and books seeking to trace an author’s process. But this is the first book I’ve read that really combines the two and does so effectively.
When I think about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, I think about a work of fiction. But where did Nabokov get his idea from? It turns out that this true crime story may have provided the final details and framework for this recognized classic of fiction. Weinman has spent time in the author’s archives and has been able to connect the dots in a most convincing way.
But the author doesn’t forget the real girl--Sally Horner--and her awful predicament. Her separation from her family by an unscrupulous man and his sexual abuse of this extremely young girl. I was struck by how differently we look at society and children now--it wouldn’t be likely nowadays that a mother would send her daughter off with a person she didn’t know. It was a more trusting age, trusting that people had good intentions towards others. And yet, even in our more suspicious times, young girls still get kidnapped. Witness first person accounts like Elizabeth Smart’s My Story and non-fiction like Captive: One House, Three Women and Ten Years in Hell by Allan Hall. Indeed, the author read some of these accounts to assess what Sally’s life with her abductor might have been like.
It seems that Nabokov was interested in this theme long before the Sally Horner disappearance, but her situation seems to have resonated with him somehow. What he did was fictionalize the whole experience from Humbert Humbert’s perspective and give us an amazingly literate look at the criminal’s point of view. His wife’s notes, however, indicate that he wanted the audience to recognize the plight of Lolita in the fraudulent worldview of Humbert.
I haven’t yet read Lolita and I wondered whether I actually would, but this book makes me think that I must give it a try. Thank you, Ms. Weinman, for giving me a reason for attempting what is acknowledged to be a great novel.