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August 5, 1998
The wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac -- these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils.
--John Ray Jr., Ph.D., in the "Foreword" to Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
There is perhaps no better symbol of American society's contradictory obsession with sex -- at once voyeuristic and puritanical -- than the history of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955) and its delayed publication in the United States, in 1958, when it became a controversial bestseller. (See a review that originally appeared in the September, 1958, Atlantic Monthly.) What better timing, then -- both the fortieth anniversary of the novel's appearance in America and the impending climax of the White House sex scandal (a lurid spectacle even Nabokov couldn't have imagined) -- for the long-awaited release of Adrian Lyne's new film version of Lolita? Last year the film rekindled the controversy surrounding Nabokov's book when American distributors refused to touch the project (Dominique Swain, who portrays the nymphet, was just fifteen at the time of filming, which raises some uncomfortable questions). Now Lyne's Lolita, having found a distributor and cleared an "R" rating, is airing on cable television's Showtime during the month of August, and is set to be released in theaters in September.
For those interested in a slick preview, the Lyne film's official Web site is worth a visit. So are, though for very different reasons, a couple of other sites: The New York Times's special collection on Nabokov's life and times and a site called Zembla, the Nabokov Butterfly Net. Both offer substantive background on Nabokov, his life, his work, and contemporary reactions to his most famous novel. ("The Lolita Effect," a section of the Zembla site, features an in-depth interview with Stephen Schiff, the screenwriter for the new film.)
In its day Lolita raised more than eyebrows -- it raised the bar for scandal. These days, as we become inured to the spectacle of a United States President facing an intrusive public inquiry into his sex life, it's worth reflecting on the distance American society has travelled since Lolita made her debut. The reception of Nabokov's novel in the United States may have heralded, on the eve of the 1960s, a turning point in Americans' attitudes toward the explicit treatment of such taboo subjects as the sexuality of pubescent girls (to say nothing of pedophilia). Bill Clinton's presidency appears to mark another, not unrelated, kind of turning point forty years later. Just as Nabokov's book may, in the end, have had a salutary effect on our literary culture, one can't help wondering -- as the President's approval rating holds at around 65 percent (the political equivalent of a bestseller) -- whether the same will be said of the Clinton scandals and their effect on our political culture. If there is one thing Kenneth Starr has proven unequivocally, it is that Americans may be easily titillated, but we are no longer quite so easily scandalized.
|Raising the bar for scandal?|
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