Lacy Warner | Longreads | November 2018 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)
It feels like I’m watching porn. The video is grainy and cheap looking, like an old daytime soap shot with Vaseline over the lens. In the corner there is a grey couch that sits against a wall painted the desperate sand-beige color of every strip mall in America. This is a six-minute, twelve-second YouTube video of Dominique Swain’s screen test for the title role in the 1997 film adaptation of Lolita. At the four-minute mark, director Adrian Lyne gives a line reading of the word, “slut.” He says it over and over again. Jeremy Irons, 49 years old at the time, had already been cast as Humbert Humbert. In the video, Swain is 15 years old, playing 14, though in the novel, Lolita is 12. Seconds before the end, she looks toward the camera, smiles, and says in a bad, mock-English accent, “I’m a conniving little slut.”
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” In 1954, Lolita was rejected by five American publishing houses. Eventually, the down-market French publisher Olympia Press agreed to publish the first edition. Riddled with errors, this initial printing would be Nabokov’s albatross for the next three years. In 1958, Lolita finally saw its American debut, and became a bestseller overnight. Critics and readers alike have called Lolita many things: the great American novel; the great road novel; an allegory for the alienation caused by exile; a satirical tale of the incompatibility between European and American cultures; a great detective novel; smut; high-brow porn — but what it has never been called, until now, is true.
Last September saw the publication of Sarah Weinman’s nonfiction book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World. Weinman investigates the 1948 case of Horner, who was abducted as a child by the con-artist and pedophile, Frank La Salle. Horner lived with La Salle as his captive for two years, spending her 12th and 13th birthdays on the road as he took her from her New Jersey hometown across the US to California. Horner’s story is also Dolores Haze’s story. Through careful critical investigation, Weinman maps out how Nabokov learned of, and developed Lolita around, reports of Horner’s kidnapping and abuse.