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Did A Real-Life Kidnapping Inspire Nabokov's 'Lolita'?


This is FRESH AIR. Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita" is a staple of the American Library Association's Banned or Challenged Books (ph) list. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends a new book called "The Real Lolita" that sheds light on the novel's disturbing influences. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Few novels can claim to offend readers in their very first lines. But Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 masterpiece "Lolita" has no problem making that claim stick. Here's Nabokov's narrator, Humbert Humbert, speaking in Paragraph 1 about the object of his desire. (Reading) Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul. Lolita, the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap at three on the teeth - Lolita. Humbert of course is not only the most charmingly unreliable narrator ever to slither his way through the pages of a novel. He's also a middle-aged sexual predator fantasizing about defiling the 12-year-old Dolores Hayes, aka Lolita.

If you want to ignite discussion in an American high school or college classroom these days, try assigning "Lolita." In this age of trigger warnings and the #MeToo movement, it's hard for students to get past those first lines and the moral questions they raise. And for those of us who admire Nabokov's dazzling literary gifts, any celebration of the novel's artistry also must acknowledge the corruption that artistry brings to life.

Sarah Weinman's superb book called "The Real Lolita" has just made conversations about the novel even more complicated. Weinman has edited two acclaimed collections of female suspense writing. Here, Weinman becomes something of a literary detective herself. "The Real Lolita" is a compelling investigation into the 1948 abduction of 11-year-old Sally Horner, a case that Weinman says inspired "Lolita." Though Nabokov himself always denied that his great novel had roots in the foul rag-and-bone shop of true crime, Weinman assembles evidence to the contrary. She convincingly demonstrates how Nabokov strip-mined Sally Horner's story to produce the bones of "Lolita." Weinman points to a clue that, like Poe's purloined letter, Nabokov planted in plain sight. Referring to Lolita by the nickname Dolly, Humbert asks himself, had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank La Salle, a 50-year-old mechanic, had done to 11-year-old Sally Horner in 1948? That quick aside, Weinman says, suggestively references a horrific real-life kidnapping ordeal.

It all began with a sad shoplifting stunt. Sally Horner was a lonely junior high honor student in Camden, N.J., trying to get in with a clique of fifth-grade girls. The clique dared Sally to steal something from the local Woolworth's, and so one day, she stuffed a 5-cent notebook into her bag. Before she got out of the store, however, Sally was grabbed by a man claiming to be an FBI agent. As Sally began crying, the agent relented. He told Sally that if she reported to him occasionally, he'd release her. That man was Frank La Salle, a predator who'd already served over two years of jail time for the statutory rape of five adolescent girls. La Salle subsequently told the terrified Sally that the government insisted she go with him to Atlantic City. Sally told her overworked single mother that she'd been invited on vacation with the family of some school friends. On June 14, 1948, Sally's mother gratefully put her on a bus bound for Atlantic City. She wouldn't see her daughter again for almost two years. Much like Humbert and Lolita, La Salle and Sally moved around under the guise of being a widowed father and his daughter, living in boarding houses and trailers where Sally was repeatedly sexually violated.

By combing through court documents and newspapers, as well as interviewing surviving friends and family, Weinman has evocatively reconstructed Sally's nightmare. She also reminds readers of the harsh sexual standards of the good old days. Thus, when Sally's mother was told her daughter had been found alive in a California trailer park, she reacted by saying, whatever she has done, I can forgive her. Upon Sally's return to school, her only close friend recalls that Sally was ostracized and that the boys looked at her as a total whore. Simultaneous with Sally's story, Weinman also traces Nabokov's long writing process with "Lolita." While it remains unclear exactly when Nabokov first heard of Sally's ordeal, an index card in his handwriting attests to the fact that he knew of her death in a car crash in the summer of 1952.

Knowing about Sally Horner, Weinman rightly says, does not diminish "Lolita's" brilliance or Nabokov's audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel. Nabokov thought that great art justified appropriating another person's story, pilfering their pain. No doubt - he's probably right. But what Sally Horner might have thought remains a mystery.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Real Lolita" by Sarah Weinman. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the evangelical sexual purity and abstinence movement with Linda Kay Klein. Her new book, "Pure," is part memoir about growing up in the movement. The book is also based on conversations she's had with other women about how the evangelical purity movement has affected their sense of identity and their sex lives. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our engineer is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer of digital media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


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Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.