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Three Blockbuster Novels From the 1950s, and Their Remarkable Afterlife

Category: Art & Culture,Books

Zhivago and Lara’s “conversations, however casual, were as full of meaning as the dialogues of Plato,” Pasternak writes. Perhaps. But his own homilies read less like Tolstoy than like the mock-Russian hilarities in Woody Allen’s “Love and Death.” At the time, however, astute and august critics were mesmerized. One of them, Edmund Wilson, argued that Pasternak presented a “radical criticism of all our supposedly democratic but more and more centralized societies.” William F. Buckley Jr., praising “Doctor Zhivago” from the right, wrote, “The elaborate edifice of Marxism-Leninism crumbles before the poet’s eye of Boris Pasternak.” The secret genius of “Doctor Zhivago” was that it gave comfort to everyone, even the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev when he finally got around to reading it. “We shouldn’t have banned it,” he conceded. “There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it.”

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Boris PasternakCreditGetty Images

This was also the opinion of the author of the third post-Sputnik classic, the ferociously anti-Communist Vladimir Nabokov, though he had a personal reason for disliking “Doctor Zhivago.” It had bumped his novel “Lolita” off the top rung on the Times best-seller list. He had a second reason too. An important incident early in Pasternak’s novel — Lara’s sexual ravishment, at age 16, by a much older man — pre-empted Nabokov’s explicit story of the rape of a 12-year-old by the narrator, Humbert Humbert, who is three times her age. Like the other post-Sputnik novels, “Lolita” had its own pre-publication tumult, in this case an obscenity scandal. American publishers were afraid to release it, so it had come out in Paris, and it was banned there too, becoming prize contraband. But after a large portion of it was serialized in The Anchor Review, it was at last deemed acceptable for American readers.

They were surprised by what they found. Sexual sin was a familiar subject in the late 1950s. The period’s best sellers included “Peyton Place,” “By Love Possessed” and “Anatomy of a Murder.” But these were all conventional middlebrow novels. Nabokov was a highbrow genre-changer, an originator of postmodern techniques: wordplay, stories constructed like puzzles, layers of allusion, tricks of misdirection.

If Rand and Pasternak were fabulists dabbling in realism, Nabokov was the opposite, a literary magician, with a dandy’s lush prose style, whose story was based on a shockingly thorough knowledge of facts on the ground. In her new book, “The Real Lolita,” Sarah Weinman maps the parallels between Humbert’s case and one true-crime episode mentioned in “Lolita,” the abduction of a fifth grader by a 50-year-old pedophile in Camden, N.J., who fled with her on a cross-country spree. But that was just one story among many in what later came to be called the “postwar sex crime panic.” Ordinary readers were well-versed in such stories. They were staples of the so-called family magazines. A cover story in The American Magazine in 1947 — when much of “Lolita” takes place — was “How Safe Is Your Daughter?” Not safe at all, according to the author, the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover. “The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders,” he wrote, going on to offer a selection, complete with lurid details, of a nationwide binge of rape and pedophilia, a “criminal assault every 43 minutes, day and night, across the United States.” There was, for instance, the case of the 17-year-old jailed on a sex charge who “three weeks after his release lured an 11-year-old girl to an open field, where his brutal attacks ended in the murder of the child.” Another family magazine, Collier’s, published a series, “Terror in Our Cities.” And there was more in the daily press — tales of grown men who plied underage girls with “sodas and sundaes,” teenage sex rings involving girls as young as 13 (all “said to be from good families”).

What was surprising, in 1958 no less than today, was the indifference of the nation’s most sophisticated readers, its literary critics, to the connection between Humbert’s ensnared “lover” and “the real Lolitas who exist in darkness throughout their lives,” as The New Republic pointed out in an editorial. It was the familiar story of clueless elites, and it rested on intellectual complicity. Advanced midcentury thinking had all but discarded the categories of “normal” and “abnormal” sexual conduct. In his book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” the sexologist and data-accumulator Alfred C. Kinsey wrote that “adult contacts are a source of pleasure to some children, and sometimes may arouse the child erotically (5 percent) and bring it to orgasm (1 percent).” And of the “80 percent of the children who had been emotionally upset or frightened by their contact with adults,” Kinsey, a trained entomologist, concluded, “in most instances the reported fright was nearer the level that children will show when they see insects, spiders or other objects against which they have been adversely conditioned.”

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Vladimir NabokovCreditHulton-Deutsch/Getty Images

Nabokov was an accomplished butterfly collector, well versed in scientific jargon, real and fake. In a mock foreword to “Lolita,” Humbert’s story is described, in pitch-perfect Kinsey-ese, as the “confession of a White Widowed Male.” His story, the author adds, “should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.” It was easy to feel in on the joke, just as it was easy to share in the snobbery when Nabokov wrote, “Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.” But you could also miss what he was really saying, that America had mass-produced its own version of Old World decadence. The same consumer culture that infantilized adults — with “cute paper napkins and cottage-cheese crested salads” and “‘raid-the-icebox’ midnight snacks” — was also sexualizing their children and making them prey to pedophiles. Grown-ups and “bobby-soxers” alike were in thrall to the “luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of jukeboxes,” and also huddled together in the “dim, impossibly garnet-red light that in Europe years ago went with low haunts, but here meant a bit of atmosphere in a family hotel.” Humbert, posing as Lolita’s father, is a sinister parody of the overprotective “helicopter” parent, rebuked by Lolita’s teachers for being an “old-fashioned Continental father” who forbids his “daughter” to mix with boys her own age. Viktor Komarovsky, the sexual predator in “Doctor Zhivago,” would have had an easy time of it in Nabokov’s America.


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