Lolita and Mr. Girodias


Vladimir Nabokov

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 100 in 1998.

Vladimir Nabakov, whose Lolita was first published by the Olympia Press of Maurice Girodias, was the subject of an article in Evergreen #37 in which Mr. Girodias gave his account of the events leading up to and following the publication of Lolita. This is Mr. Nabokov's reply.


From time to time, in the course of the 1960's, there have appeared, over the signature of Mr. Girodias or that of some friend of his, retrospective notes pertaining to the publication of Lolita by me Olympia Press and to various phases of our "strained relations." Those frivolous reminiscences invariably contained factual errors, which I generally took the trouble to point out in brief rejoinders; whereupon, as I detected with satisfaction, certain undulatory motions of retreat were performed by our flexible memoirist. An especially ambitious article, with especially serious misstatements, has now been published by him twice in Evergreen Review (No. 37, September, 1965) under the title Lolita, Nabokov, and I, and in his anthology (The Olympia Reader, Grove Press, N.Y., 1960) under the less elegant title of A Sad, Ungraceful History of Lolita. Since I have religiously preserved all my correspondence with Mr. Girodias, I am able, I trust, to induce a final retraction on his part.

Two clauses from a document in my possession entitled "Memorandum of Agreement" ("made this sixth day of June nineteen hundred and fifty five between Mr. Vladimir Nabokov, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and Olympia Press, 8, rue de Nesle, Paris") might do very well as a motto for the present occasion. Here they are in strophic form for the reader's convenience:


In the event of the Publishers
Going bankrupt
Or failing to make accountings and payments
As herein specified,
Then in either event the present agreement
Becomes automatically null and void
And the rights herein granted
Revert to the Author.


The Publishers shall render statement
Of the number of copies sold
On the 30th June and 31st December
Of each year
Within one month from these dates
And shall make payment to the Author
At the time of such rendering of account.

The eighth stave, with that beautiful, eloquent, almost sapphically modulated last verse ("Revert to the Author"), is of great importance for the understanding of what Mr. Girodias calls "our enigmatic conflict." It will be also noted that while devoting a lot of space to the many "disappointments" that my attitude toward him caused him, he never mentions in the course of his article the perfectly obvious reason for a writer's resenting his association with a publisher - namely, the fact of Mr. Girodias' failing repeatedly, with a kind of maniacal persistence, to live up to clause 9 of our agreement. By stressing effects and concealing causes he gives a comic slant to his account of our relations, making it seem that during ten years I kept extravagantly fuming at a puzzled benefactor.

Lolita was finished at the beginning of 1954, in Ithaca, N.Y. My first attempts to have it published in the U.S. proved disheartening and irritating. On August 6 of that year, from Taos, N.M., I wrote to Madame Ergaz, of Bureau Litéraire Clairouin, Paris, about my troubles. She had arranged the publication in French of some of my Russian and English books; I now asked her to find somebody in Europe who would publish Lolita in the original English. She replied that she thought she could arrange it. A month later, however, upon my return to Ithaca (where I taught Russian Literature at Cornell) I wrote to her saying I had changed my mind. New hopes had arisen for publication in America. They petered out, and next spring I got in touch with Madame Ergaz again, writing her (Feb. 16) that Sylvia Beach "might perhaps be interested if she still publishes." This was not followed up. By April 17 Madame Ergaz had received my typescript. On April 16, 1955, a fatidic date, she said she had found a possible publisher. On May 13 she named that person. It was thus that Maurice Girodias entered my files.

Mr. Girodias in his article overemphasizes the obscurity I languished in before 1955 as well as his part in helping me to emerge from it. On the other hand, I shall be strictly truthful when I say that before Madame Ergaz mentioned his name, I was totally ignorant of his existence, or that of his enterprise. He was recommended to me as the founder of the Olympia Press, which "had recently published, among other things, Histoire d'O" (a novel I had heard praised by competent judges) and as the former director of the "Editions du Chéne" which had "produced books admirable from the artistic point of view." He wanted Lolita not only because it was well written but because (as Mme. Ergaz informed me on May 13, 1955) "he thought that it might lead to a change in social attitudes toward the kind of love described in it." It was a pious although obviously ridiculous thought but high-minded platitudes are often mouthed by enthusiastic businessmen and nobody bothers to disenchant them.

I had not been in Europe since 1940, was not interested in pornographic books, and thus knew nothing about the obscene novelettes which Mr. Girodias was hiring hacks to confect with his assistance, as he relates elsewhere. I have pondered the painful question whether I would have agreed so cheerfully to his publishing Lolita had I been aware in May, 1955, of what formed the supple backbone of his production. Alas, I probably would, though less cheerfully.

I shall now proceed to point out a number of slippery passages and a few guileful inexactitudes in Mr. Girodias' article. For some reason, which presumably I am too naive to grasp, he starts by citing an old curriculum vitae of mine which, he says, was sent to him by my agent together with the typescript of Lolita in April, 1955. Such a procedure would have been absurd. My files show that only much later, namely on February 8, 1957, he asked me to send him ''all the biographical and bibliographical material" available for his brochure "L'affaire Lolita" (which he published when fighting the ban of the book in France); on February 12, I sent him photographs, a list of published works, and a brief curriculum vitae. With the sneer of a hoodlum following an innocent passerby, Mr. Girodias now makes fun of such facts in it as my father's having been "an eminent statesman" or the "considerable fame" I had acquired in émigré circles. All this he had published himself (with many embellishments and additions gleaned elsewhere) in his brochure of 1957!

On the other hand, he now tones down substantially his proud recollections of having "edited" Lolita. On April 22, 1960, 1 had been obliged to write to the editor of The New York Times Book Review (where Mr. Girodias had been comically flattered by a person unknown to me) thus: "Mr. Popkin in his recent article on Monsieur Girodias, the first publisher of my Lolita, says that I 'did some rewriting at Girodias' request.' I wish to correct this absurd misstatement. The only alterations Girodias very diffidently suggested concerned a few trivial French phrases in the English text, such as 'bon,' 'cest moi,' 'mais comment,' etc., which he thought might just as well be translated into English, and this I agreed to do."

I began to curse my association with Olympia Press not in 1957, when our agreement was, according to Mr. Girodias, "weighing heavily" on my "dreams of impending fortune" in America, but as early as 1955, that is, the very first year of my dealings with Mr. Girodias. From the very start I was confronted with the peculiar aura surrounding his business transactions with me, an aura of negligence, evasiveness, procrastination, and falsity. I complained of these peculiarities in most of my letters to my agent who faithfully transmitted my complaints to him but these he never explains in his account of our ten-year-long (1955- 65) association.

"I hardly received the proofs back" (he received them in July, 1955), writes Mr. Girodias, "when Nabokov sent me a cable (August 29, i.e., after a month of Girodiasic silence) saying: 'When is Lolita appearing. Worried. Please answer my letters' - an entreaty which has been repeated so often in so many cables sent by so many authors to so many (i.e. wise, calm, benevolent) publishers...." The would-be wit and delightful flippancy of this remark should not fool anybody. Mr. Girodias alludes here to coy emotions typical of a young author hardly ever published before. Actually, at fifty-six years of age, I had had, since 1925, dealings - recurrent dealings - with at least a score of publishers and had never been exposed to anything like the tissue of haggling manoeuvers and abstruse prevarications in which Mr. Girodias involves his victims (perhaps not deliberately - it just seems to be part of his bizarre nature). In reality, two specific questions were worrying me - and to them I was getting no answer. The main one of the two was the question of the copyright; the book had to be registered in Washington, in the author's name, and for this purpose I had to know the exact date of publication so as to insert it in the application forms. On October 8, 1955, I received, at last, a copy of the published book, but only on November 28, after some more "entreaties," did I learn that Lolita had been published on September 15, 1955. The second matter was a financial one -and proved to be the leitmotif of what Mr. Girodias terms the "sad, ungraceful history of Lolita." My benefactor had agreed to pay me an advance of 400,000 "anciens" francs (about a thousand dollars), one half on signature of the agreement (dated June 6, 1955), and the other half on publication. He had paid his first half only one month late. My wire did not help to elucidate the date when Mr. Girodias would have to pay the second half. It was easier for him to leave the matter open. I continued reminding him about that second check. I told him (October 5) that "I write for my pleasure, but publish for money." He paid only on December 27, under strong pressure from my agent, and more than three months after that second payment was due.

My copyright worries were not over. "With blithe unconcern" (to use a phrase Mr. Girodias favors), he had added to "Copyright 1955 by V. Nabokov" on the title page of his edition the words "and The Olympia Press." On January 28, 1956, I learned from the Copyright Office in Washington that this matey formula (for which I had not given my permission) might cause trouble at re-publication in the U.S. which had to take place within five years. I was advised to get an "assignment or quit-claim" from Mr. Girodias, and this I at once asked him to send me. I got no reply (as "so many authors" do not get replies from "so many publishers"), wrote to him again and again, but only on April 20 (i.e., three months later) got from him what I asked. It is interesting to conjecture where would Mr. Girodias have been, when "our" book came out in America, had I not had the foresight to protect it there.

By the beginning of 1957, 1 had still not received from Olympia any statements of accounts since the publication of the book in September, 1955. The lapse entitled me to annul the agreement (see Clause 9), but I decided to wait a little longer. I had to wait till March 28, 1957, and when it came, the statement did not cover the entire period for which it was due.

The nuisance of non-statements did not fail to resume. By the end of August, 1957, I had received none for the first semester of that year which was due on July 31. On September 2, Mr. Girodias asked for a postponement of two months, and I agreed to wait till September 30, but nothing happened, and having had enough of that nonsense I advised him (October 5) that all rights had reverted to me. He promptly paid up (44,220 "anciens" francs), and I relented.

In a particularly nasty and silly passage our memoirist juxtaposes my refusal to defend my book in France from the attack of local magistrates and "philistine readers" (as I wrote to him on March 10, 1957) with my requesting him (a month earlier) to avoid mentioning "Cornell" when referring to me in publicity splashes as a "university professor." I am not sure what he means specifically. Only a very helical mind could twist my request into a semblance of frailty. By signing Lolita I had shown my complete acceptance of whatever responsibility an author has to take; but as long as an unhealthy flurry of scandal surrounded my innocent Lolita, I certainly was justified in acting as I did, lest a shadow of my responsibility fall on the university that had given me unbelievable freedom in conducting my courses (they were never meddled with by the department or departments under which they were nominally listed); nor did I care to embarrass the close friend who had brought me there to enjoy that true academic freedom.

Nevertheless Mr. Girodias kept urging me to join him in his campaign against French censorship. "Our interests are identical," he wrote; but they were not. He wanted me to defend Lolita, but I did not see how my book could be treated separately from his list of twenty or so lewd books. I did not want to defend even Lolita. He repeats in his article one of his favorite arguments that without him Lolita would have never been published. As I wrote him on August 3, 1957, I was, and am, deeply grateful to him for printing that book. But I must also point out to him that he was not the right person to undertake the thing; he lacked the means to launch Lolita properly - a book that differed so utterly in vocabulary, structure, and purpose (or rather absence of purpose) from his other much simpler commercial ventures, such as Debby's Bidet or Tender Thighs. Mr. Girodias greatly exaggerates his powers. Had not Graham Greene and John Gordon clashed in London in such providential fashion, Lolita - especially its second volume which repelled so-called "amateurs" - might have ended in the common grave of Traveller's Favorites or whatever Olympia's little green books were called.

In 1957, the Lolita affair entered its American phase which to me was in every way more important than its Olympia one. Jason Epstein, by championing the publication of a considerable portion of Lolita in the summer issue, 1957, of Anchor Review (Doubleday, New York), edited by Melvin Lasky, and Professor F. W. Dupee by prefacing that portion with a brilliant article, helped to make the idea of an American edition acceptable. Several publishers were interested in it but the difficulties Mr. Girodias created in our negotiations with American firms he met him later in New York. One part of this passage is inaccurate and the other simply untrue: It was not I who dissuaded this particular publisher, but his partner. The account is inaccurate because Mr. Girodias does not say who was to get most of that 20 per cent. "I am prepared to accept this proposal," wrote Mr. Girodias to me (apparently under the impression that he had got a definite offer which was not the case), "if my share is assured at 12 1/2 per cent. The advance would be shared in the same proportion. Would you accept 7 1/2 per cent as your share? I consider my claim justified and fair." My agent wrote that she was "outreé de ces pretensions." (His contract obliged him to pay me a 10 per cent royalty up to ten thousand copies, and 12 per cent after that). The interim copyright stipulated that no more than fifteen hundred copies should be imported into the U.S. Mr. Girodias rather resented my keeping an eagle eye on his lighthearted transatlantics. I knew for instance that copies of his edition were being sold for twelve dollars and more in New York. He assured me that the difference was pocketed by the retailers. On November 30, 1957, Mr. Girodias wrote in a mellow mood, "I admit that I have been wrong on several occasions in the course of our dealings...." He added that he no longer "requested a larger share of the proceeds" of the American edition and that he was canceling his "alternative project" of bringing out his own "American reprint" - a silly threat, the carrying out of which would have been his undoing. But already by December 16, 1957, he was larking again: On that day I learnt with wonder from my agent that Mr. Girodias declared he had sold only eight copies in America in three months (April to June) but that since I thought he had done so at a higher price than shown in his statements ($7.50) he was sending me the difference, a check for fifty cents. And he added that he considered all our differences now settled!

It would be tedious to continue giving instances of the delayed or incomplete statements of accounts that marked Mr. Girodias' course of action during the following years or of such misdemeanors as publishing in Paris a reprint of his edition of Lolita with his own introduction (in intolerably bad English) without my permission - which he knew I would never have given. What always made me regret our association were not "dreams of impending fortune," not my "hating" him "for having stolen a portion of Nabokov's property," but the obligation to endure the elusiveness, the evasiveness, the procrastination, the dodges, the duplicity, and the utter irresponsibility of the man. This is why, on May 28, 1959, before sailing for Europe after exactly nineteen years of absence, I wrote to Mme. Ergaz that I did not wish to make the acquaintance of Mr. Girodias when I came to Paris for the launching of the French translation of Lolita. As revealed now by his Evergreen article, the depths of his personality are even less attractive than they seemed when showing through our correspondence. I suspect that much of the rudeness in his article is the result of his relying too heavily on a journalistic style, redolent, perhaps, of Gallic levity but sadly wanting in English precision. Anyway, I shall not discuss here the insolent and vulgar remarks he makes in regard to my wife (such as idiotically insinuating that certain editorial comments in Life International, July 6, 1959, were written by her though signed "ED").

Let me repeal I have never met Mr. Girodias. He has been described as "fascinating," and "debonnair," and "exuding French charm": that is about all I have to go upon when trying to picture him to myself as a physical being (his moral aspect I know well enough). However, half a dozen years after the beginning of our gappy correspondence, he suddenly proclaimed in a Playboy article (Pornologist on Olympus, April, 1961) that we had been actually introduced to each other at a cocktail party given by Gallimard on October 23, 1959, in Paris, despite my warning my agent I did not want to meet him. The details he gave were so absurd that I saw myself obliged to call his bluff, and did so in the July issue of Playboy. Instead of the stunned silence that I expected would last for ever, Mr. Girodias after brooding on my little note and his imaginary past during the next four years, comes up now with a new version of the event in his Evergreen piece. The discrepancies between the two variants are typical of apocrypha. In Playboy we have a classical description of "the members of the Gallimard family" looking on "horrified" while Mr. Girodias "slowly progressed toward the author through a sea of bodies" (a splendid image, that sea). In Evergreen, there are no Gallimards, but we find, instead, Monique Grall "doubled over in helpless mirth, in a corner" and another lady, Doussia Ergaz, "hiding in a corner" (i.e. another corner) and, most unconvincingly, "choking on a macaroon." In the Playboy codex, Mme. Ergaz is described as Mr. Nabokov's "literary agent and patient supporter." In the Evergreen scroll, she has become Mr. Girodias' "dear, suffering, terrified friend." In Playboy, he and I exchange a few "not unfriendly" sentences. In Evergreen, the great meeting is wordless: I limit myself to a "vacuous grin" and immediately turn away to talk "ardently" to a "Czech reporter" (an unexpected and rather sinister personage of whom one would like to hear more from our chronicler.) Finally, and rather disappointlingly, the passage in Playboy about the quaint way I "plunged backwards and sideways with the easy grace of a dolphin" is now replaced by the "graceful ease of a circus seal"; whereupon Mr. Girodias "went to the bar and had a drink" (plain Playboy) or "went to down a few glasses of champagne" (lush Evergreen).

As I pointed out in my rejoinder, even if Mr. Girodias was introduced to me (which I doubt), I did not catch his name; but what especially invalidates the general veracity of his account is the little phrase he slips in about my having "very obviously recognized" him as he was slowly swimming toward me amid the "bodies." Very obviously, I could not have recognized somebody I had never seen in my life; nor can I insult his sanity by suggesting he assumed I had somehow obtained his picture (in the days of the famous curriculum vitae) and had been cherishing it all those years. I am looking forward to Mr. Girodias' third version of our mythical meeting. Perhaps he will discover at last that he had crashed the wrong party and talked to a Slovak poet who was being feted next door.