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Fruits of Perseverance

Fruits of Perseverance

The French Presence in the Detroit River Region, 1701-1815
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : france
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Eliza Hamilton

Eliza Hamilton

The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Audiobook
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The Real Lolita

The Real Lolita

The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World
edition:Hardcover
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Excerpt

I FIRST READ LOLITA at sixteen, as a high school junior whose intellectual curiosity far exceeded her emotional maturity. It was something of a self-imposed dare. Only a few months earlier I’d breezed through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Some months later I’d reckon with Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. I thought I could handle what transpired between Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert. I thought I could appreciate the language and not be affected by the story. I pretended I was ready for Lolita, but I was nowhere close.
 
Those iconic opening lines, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta,”sent a frisson down my adolescent spine. I didn’t like that feeling, but I wasn’t supposed to. I was soon in thrall to Humbert Humbert’s voice, the silken veneer barely concealing a loathsome predilection.
 
I kept reading, hoping there might be some salvation for Dolores, even though I should have known from the foreword, supplied by the fictional narrator John Ray, Jr., PhD, that it does not arrive for a long time. And when she finally escapes from Humbert’s clutches to embrace her own life, her freedom
is short-lived.
 
I realized, though I could not properly articulate it, that Vladimir Nabokov had pulled off something remarkable. Lolita was my first encounter with an unreliable narrator, one who must be regarded with suspicion. The whole book relies upon the mounting tension between what Humbert Humbert wants the reader to know and what the reader can discern. It is all too easy to be seduced by his sophisticated narration, his panoramic descriptions of America, circa 1947, and his observations of the girl he nicknames Lolita. Those who love language and literature are rewarded richly, but also duped. If you’re not being careful, you lose sight of the fact that Humbert raped a twelve-year-old child repeatedly over the course of nearly two years, and got away with it.
 
It happened to the writer Mikita Brottman, who in The Maximum Security Book Club described her own cognitive dissonance discussing Lolita with the discussion group she led at a Maryland maximum-security prison. Brottman, reading the novel in advance, had “immediately fallen in love with the narrator,” so much so that Humbert Humbert’s “style, humor, and sophistication blind[ed] me to his faults.” Brottman knew she shouldn’t sympathize with a pedophile, but she couldn’t help
being mesmerized.
 
The prisoners in her book club were nowhere near so enchanted. An hour into the discussion, one of them looked up at Brottman and cried, “He’s just an old pedo!” A second prisoner added: “It’s all bullshit, all his long, fancy words. I can see through it. It’s all a cover-up. I know what he wants to do with her.” A third prisoner drove home the point that Lolita “isn’t a love story. Get rid of all the fancy language, bring it down to thelower [sic] common denominator, and it’s a grown man molesting
a little girl.”
 
Brottman, grappling with the prisoners’ blunt responses, realized her foolishness. She wasn’t the first, nor the last, to be seduced by style or manipulated by language. Millions of readers missed how Lolita folded in the story of a girl who experienced in real life what Dolores Haze suffered on the page. The appreciation of art can make a sucker out of those who forget the darkness of real life.
 
Knowing about Sally Horner does not diminish Lolita’s brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel.
 
 
WRITING ABOUT VLADIMIR NABOKOV daunted me, and still does. Reading his work and researching in his archives was like coming up against an electrified fence designed to keep me away from the truth. Clues would present themselves and then evaporate. Letters and diary entries would hint at larger meanings without supporting evidence. My central quest with respect to Nabokov was to figure out what he knew about Sally Horner and when he knew it. Through a lifetime, and afterlife, of denials and omissions about the sources of his fiction, he made my pursuit as difficult as possible.
 
Nabokov loathed people scavenging for biographical details that would explain his work. “I hate tampering with the precious lives of great writers and I hate Tom-peeping over the fence of those lives,” he once declared in a lecture about Russian literature to his students at Cornell University, where he taught from 1948 through 1959. “I hate the vulgarity of ‘human interest,’ I hate the rustle of skirts and giggles in the corridors of time—and no biographer will ever catch a glimpse of my private life.”
 
He made his public distaste for the literal mapping of fiction to real life known as early as 1944, in his idiosyncratic, highly selective, and sharply critical biography of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. “It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a ‘true story,’ ” Nabokov chided. “Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself?”
 
The Gogol biography was more a window into Nabokov’s own thinking than a treatise on the Russian master. With respect to his own work, Nabokov did not want critics, academics, students, and readers to look for literal meanings or real-life influences. Whatever source material he’d relied on was grist for his own literary mill, to be used as only he saw fit. His insistence on the utter command of his craft served Nabokov well as his reputation and fame grew after the American publication of Lolita in 1958. Scores of interviewers, whether they wrote him letters, interrogated him on television, or visited him at his house, abided by his rules of engagement. They handed over their questions in advance and accepted his answers, written at leisure, cobbling them together to mimic spontaneous conversation.
 
Nabokov erected roadblocks barring access to his private life for deeper, more complex reasons than to protect his inalienable right to tell stories. He kept family secrets, quotidian and gargantuan, that he did not wish anyone to air in public. And no wonder, when you consider what he lived through: the Russian Revolution, multiple emigrations, the rise of the Nazis, and the fruits of international bestselling success. After he immigrated to the United States in 1940, Nabokov also abandoned Russian, the language of the first half of his literary career, for English. He equated losing his mother tongue to losing a limb, even though, in terms of style and syntax, his English dazzled beyond the imagination of most native speakers.
 
Always by his side, aiding Nabokov with his lifelong quest to keep nosy people at bay, was his wife, Véra. She took on all of the tasks Nabokov wouldn’t or couldn’t do: assistant, chief letter writer, first reader, driver, subsidiary rights agent, and many other less-defined roles. She subsumed herself, willingly, for his art, and anyone who poked too deeply at her undying devotion looking for contrary feelings was rewarded with fierce denials, stonewalling, or outright untruths.
 
Yet this book exists in part because the Nabokovs’ roadblocks eventually crumbled. Other people did gain access to his private life. There were three increasingly tendentious biographies by Andrew Field, whose relationship with his subject began in harmony but curdled into acrimony well before Nabokov died in 1977. A two-part definitive study by Brian Boyd is still the biographical standard, a quarter century after its publication, with which any Nabokov scholar must reckon. And Stacy Schiff’s 1999 portrayal of Véra Nabokov illuminated so much about their partnership and teased out the fragments of Véra’s inner life.
 
We’ve also learned more about what made Nabokov tick since the Library of Congress lifted its fifty-year Restriction upon his papers in 2009, opening the entire collection to the public. The more substantive trove at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection still has some restrictions, but I was able to immerse myself in Nabokov’s work, his notes, his manuscripts, and also the ephemera—newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, diaries.
 
A strange thing happened as I looked for clues in his published work and his archives: Nabokov grew less knowable. Such is the paradox of a writer whose work is so filled with metaphor and allusion, so dissected by literary scholars and ordinary readers. Even Boyd claimed, more than a decade and a half after writing his biography of Nabokov, that he still did not fully understand Lolita.
 
What helped me grapple with the book was to reread it, again and again. Sometimes like a potboiler, in a single gulp, and other times slowing down to cross-check each sentence. No one could get every reference and recursion on the first try; the novel rewards repeated reading. Nabokov himself believed the only novels worth reading are the ones that demand to be read on multiple occasions. Once you grasp it, the contradictions of Lolita’s narrative and plot structure reveal a logic true to itself.
 
During one Lolita reread, I was reminded of the narrator of an earlier Nabokov story, “Spring in Fialta”: “Personally, I never could understand the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other . . . were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest to rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.”
 
Nabokov himself never openly admitted to such an attitude himself. But the clues are all there in his work. Particularly so in Lolita, with its careful attention to popular culture, the habits of preadolescent girls, and the banalities of then-modern American life. Searching out these signs of real-life happenings was no easy task. I found myself probing absence as much as presence, relying on inference and informed speculation as much as fact.
 
Some cases drop all the direct evidence into your lap. Some cases are more circumstantial. The case for what Vladimir Nabokov knew of Sally Horner and when he knew it falls squarely into the latter category. Investigating it, and how he incorporated Sally’s story into Lolita, led me to uncover deeper ties between reality and fiction, and to the thematic compulsion Nabokov spent more than two decades exploring, in fits and starts, before finding full fruition in Lolita.
 
Lolita’s narrative, it turns out, depended more on a real-life crime than Nabokov would ever admit.
 
OVER THE FOUR OR SO YEARS I spent working on this book project, I spoke with a great many people about Lolita. For some it was their favorite novel, or one of their favorites. Others had never read the book but ventured an opinion nonetheless. Some loathed it, or the idea of it. No one was neutral. Considering the subject matter, this was not a surprise. Not a single person, when I quoted the passage about Sally Horner, remembered it.
 
I can’t say Nabokov designed the book to hide Sally from the reader. Given that the story moves so quickly, perhaps an homage to the highways Humbert and Dolores traverse over many thousands of miles in their cross-country odyssey, it’s easy to miss a lot as you go. But I would argue that even casual readers of Lolita, who number in the tens of millions, plus the many more millions with some awareness of the novel, the two film versions, or its place in the culture these past six decades, should pay attention to the story of Sally Horner because it is the story of so many girls and women, not just in America, but everywhere. So many of these stories seem like everyday injustices—young women denied opportunity to advance, tethered to marriage and motherhood. Others are more horrific, girls and women abused, brutalized, kidnapped, or worse.
 
Yet Sally Horner’s plight is also uniquely American, unfolding in the shadows of the Second World War, after victory had created a solid, prosperous middle class that could not compensate for terrible future decline. Her abduction is woven into the fabric of her hometown of Camden, New Jersey, which at the time believed itself to be at the apex of the American Dream. Wandering its streets today, as I did on several occasions, was a stark reminder of how Camden has changed for the worse. Sally should have been able to travel America of her own volition, a culmination of the Dream. Instead she was taken against her will, and the road trip became a nightmare. Sally’s life ended too soon. But her story helped inspire a novel people are still discussing and debating more than sixty years after its initial publication. Vladimir Nabokov, through his use of language and formal invention, gave fictional authority to a pedophile and charmed and revolted millions of readers in the process. By exploring the life of Sally Horner, I reveal the truth behind the curtain of fiction. What Humbert Humbert did to Dolores Haze is, in fact, what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner in 1948.
 
With this book, Sally Horner takes precedence. Like the butterflies that Vladimir Nabokov so loved, she emerges from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free.

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A Dream of the Future

A Dream of the Future

Race, Empire, and Modernity at the Atlanta and Nashville World's Fairs
edition:Hardcover
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