AUGUST 18, 1958: Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita was published in America on this day in 1958 after being banned in Britain amid outcry over its paedophilia theme.
The book, describing Professor Humbert Humbert’s sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter Dolores Haze, is now considered a 20th century classic.
But in 1953, when Nabokov finished Lolita after five years of writing, the text was considered as either mere smut by some publishers or too risky to release by others.
The Russian author, who produced nine novels in his native language before writing in English, eventually had success in France, where it was published in 1955.
Despite winning instant acclaim – including praise by renowned British author Graham Greene – customs officers were ordered to seize all copies entering the UK.
The following year, the book, which was initially littered with typos, was banned in France too.
It was not until Lolita was published in the U.S. by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1958 that the novel finally became widely distributed.
It was the first book since the 1936 American Civil War drama Gone With The Wind to sell 100,000 copies within three weeks.
It was eventually released in Britain in 1959 – but the following uproar forced publisher Nigel Nicolson to stand down as a Conservative MP.
Lolita, whose title was derived from the pet name narrator Humbert gave Dolores, was also adapted into a hit film by Stanley Kubrick in 1962.
A British Pathé newsreel filmed the glittering premiere in New York, with James Mason as Humbert and striking blonde 14-year-old Sue Lyon in the title role.
The success of both the book and movie enabled the term Lolita to go on to describe a sexually precocious girl in pop culture.
The novel, in which Lolita initiates sex herself following Humbert’s obsession, also inspired a musical, two operas and Police song Don’t Stand So Close To Me.
Despite his racy novels, Nabokov, who fled Russia at age 18 after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and eventually settled in the U.S. in 1940, was surprisingly conservative.
He held American student activists in contempt, admitted having a prejudice against women writers and supported President Nixon and the Vietnam War.
Nabokov returned to Europe in the 1960s and he died aged 77 in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1977 after suffering from severe bronchial congestion.
At the time he was in the middle of writing his ninth English-language – and 18th overall – novel, The Original of Laura, which was also about a sex-crazed scholar.
His wife Vera and son Dmitri, who had the rights to his works, could not go through with the dying author’s wish to burn the 125 index cards he had handwritten.
But they refused to release the full text until more than 30 years later after extracts were published in Playboy magazine.