Lolita, Nabokov and I


Maurice Girodias

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 37 in 1965 and featured in Issue 101 in 1998.

Maurice Girodias founded the Olympia Press in Paris in 1953. His father Jack Kahane had published such luminaries as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, James Joyce, Frank Harris and Lawrence Durrell under his own Obelisk imprint in the 1930's. After World War II, Girodias began to accumulate a crew of American and British writers living in Paris to produce what became know as "dirty books" under his Traveller's Companion series. These small green paperbacks were written in English and sold mainly to American servicemen and tourists who helped to "distribute" them throughout the world. But mixed in with the erotic titles were works which were to become some of the most important literature in the poat-war era. J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, Pauline Reage's Story of O, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Terry Southern's Candy, works by Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, Raymond Queneau, Jean Genet and Georges Bataille rounded out the Olympia list. Girodias was also the first to publish Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The two had a long running feud over the book, some of which was played out in the pages of Evergreen. Girodias' article, Lolita, Nabokov and I was first published in Evergreen in September of 1965 (#37). Nabokov replied in Evergreen #45 (1967) in his article Lolita and Mr. Girodias. Girodias had the last word in his Letter to the Editor, June 1967 (#47). After the censorship barriers were broken in the U.S. and in Europe, Griodias moved Olympia to New York City where it remained until its demise in 1973. Maurice Girodias died in 1990.

One day in the early summer of 1955, 1 received a call from a literary agent, a Russian lady by the name of Doussia Ergaz.

She told me about an old friend of hers, a Russian émigré now a professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University. He had written a book with a rather dangerous theme which had, for that reason, been rejected by a number of prominent American publishers.

The man's name was Vladimir Nabokov and his book, Lolita, dealt with the impossible amours of a middle-aged man with a girl of twelve who belonged to the seductive species for which Nabokov had invented the word "nymphet."

I asked Madame Ergaz to send me the manuscript, which promptly turned up complete with a curriculum vitae in which I read:

"Born 1899, St. Petersburg, Russia. Old Russian nobility. Father eminent statesman of the Liberal group, elected member of the First Duma. Paternal grandfather State Minister of Justice under Czar Alexander 11. Maternal great grandfather President of Academy of Medicine.

"Education: Private School in St. Petersburg. Cambridge University (Trinity College), England. Graduated with Honors, 1922.

"Family escaped from Communist Russia in 1919. England, Germany, France.

"Acquired considerable fame in émigré circles as a novelist and poet,

"Married in 1925. One son, b. 1934. "Emigrated to the United States in 1940. Became an American writer. American citizen since 1945.

"Since 1940 taught literature at various American universities, combining this with a Research Fellowship in Entomology at the Museum of Comp. Zoology, Harvard (1942-48). Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University since 1948.

"Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing in 1943, and again in 1952.

"American Academy of Arts and Letters award in 1951.

"List of published works attached."

There was a certain disarming naïveté in the writer's insistence on such points as "father eminent statesman," or the "considerable fame acquired in émigré circles," which I found to be not devoid of charm, but I quickly succumbed to the much more compelling attraction of the book itself, which developed before me in its near absolute perfection. I was struck with wonder, carried away by this unbelievable phenomenon- the apparently effortless transposition of the rich Russia-n literary tradition into modern English fiction. This was, in itself, an exercise in genius; but the story was a rather magical demonstration of something about which I had so often dreamed, but never found: the treatment of one of the major forbidden human passions in a manner both completely sincere and absolutely legitimate. I sensed that Lolita would become the one great modern work of art to demonstrate once and for all the futility of moral censorship, and the indispensable role of passion in literature.

I immediately wrote Nabokov and we proceeded to negotiate a contract. I bowed to all the terms imposed on me, paid an advance much larger than I could afford at the time, and did not even insist on reserving for my firm a share of the eventual film rights, as is the usual practice.

The truth of the matter is that I was delighted by the book itself, but I doubted that it had any of the qualities which make a best seller. Nabokov himself wrote to me that he would be deeply hurt if Lolita were to obtain a success de scandale: as the book had quite another meaning for him. He did not believe that it would ever be published in America, and he repeatedly expressed his gratitude for my acceptance of the book, as I had provided the only chance left for him ever to see it in print.

Madame Ergaz told me that Nabokov, somewhat frightened at first by the reaction of the American publishers to whom he had submitted it, was reluctant to let the book appear under his own name, and that she had had to use all her influence to make him change his mind. His career at Cornell was important to him, obviously, although he had written a number of books before, but they had all met with mediocre reception, and he did not believe that Lolita would ever pull him out of obscurity.

I wanted to print the book immediately, but, before I did, I decided that we had to obtain a number of changes from the author. On July 1, 1955, I wrote to Nabokov that the "excessive use of French sentences and words gives a slightly affected appearance to the text," and submitted a list of suggested changes; to which he immediately responded by making numerous corrections on the proofs. I had hardly received the proofs back when Nabokov sent me a cable 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 publishers...

Lolita appeared a few weeks later, in September 1955, but was not noticed or reviewed anywhere, and sold very poorly. It was only at the end of the next year things started to happen- strange things indeed. In an interview made by the London Times Literary Supplement, Graham Greene mentioned Lolita as one of the "three best books of the year." That immediately provoked a demential reaction on the part of John Gordon, editor of the popular Daily Express, who accused Graham Greene and the Times of helping sell pornography of the lewdest variety. A very absurd and comical exchange followed-including even a very drunken public debate-in which Graham Greene fought gallantly and cleverly for the book; and the overall result of that commotion was to create a great deal of interest in Lolita among partisans and detractors, an infinitesimal number of whom had read the book.

At the same time, I heard that one or two copies of Lolita, having been sent to persons residing in America, had been confiscated by the Customs, and then released after a few weeks, without any explanation. I decided to write to the New York Bureau of Customs to investigate, and received a rather miraculous letter signed by a Mr. Irving Fishman, Deputy Collector for the Restricted Merchandise Division, dated February 8, 1957, which said: "… You are advised that certain copies of this book have been before this Office for examination and that they have been released." In lay language, that meant that the U.S. Customs had had the remarkable mental - and may I say political- courage of finding Lolita, a book printed in Paris by my disreputable publishing firm, admissible in the United States... That decision by one of the two Federal departments to exert moral censorship (the other being the post office) on literary material, was naturally of extreme importance: Lolita could now legitimately be published in America with practically no danger.

The third fact was of a less favorable nature at least at first sight. The British Government had several times already invoked the International Agreement on the Repression of Obscene Publications to prevail on the French Government to look into my publishing activities. Nothing much had been done about those requests by the French, until the dispute between Graham Greene and John Gordon in London gave new dimensions to the issue.

More pressing demands were made on the Ministry of the Interior in Paris by the British Home Office which provoked the intervention of the French police. Lolita was thus banned in its English version by the French government (on December 20, 1956) only a few weeks before it was found to be no longer objectionable by the U.S. authorities.

My relations with Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera, who helped him in his work, had up to that point been remarkably courteous and pleasant, if sometimes a little strained, although we had never yet had occasion to meet. When I decided to fight the Lolita ban, my first thought was to ask for Nabokov's help. I was rather surprised to receive a very adamant refusal to participate in what he called, with blithe unconcern, the "lolitigation."

"My moral defense of the book is the book itself," he wrote on March 10, 1957. "I do not feel under any obligation to do more.... On the ethical plane, it is of supreme indifference to me what opinion French, British, or any other courts, magistrates or philistine readers in general may have of my book. However, I appreciate your difficulties."

Somewhere else he wrote: "I would very much prefer if you did not stress too much my being a professor at Cornell ... I do not mind being referred to as a 'university professor teaching literature in a great American university.' But I would prefer you not to call Cornell by name..."

All Britain and all America were now aware of Lolita, and in the United States all the big publishers who had turned down Nabokov's manuscript a few years before were biting their nails in chagrin. The prize was still there for any one of them to seize, but naturally there were quite a few bidders now, and the rights had to be bought from me, not from Nabokov. One publisher spontaneously offered a 20 percent royalty to get the book, but was then apparently frightened away by Nabokov's attitude when he met him later in New York; and Nabokov's attitude had indeed changed quite substantially as Lolita's glory expanded on the horizon. There were no more haughty denunciations of the philistine masses coming from that supple pen, but only tortuous controversies over the terms of our agreement, which was now weighing heavily on Nabokov's dreams of an impending fortune.

In spite of my disappointment at Nabokov's indifference, I went on with my single-handed fight against the French authorities' Progress was slow, as the case was most unusual, and to make the issue known to the French public I printed a pamphlet (L'Affaire Lolita) which elicited from Nabokov a volley of enthusiastic adjectives. Soon after, on August 3, he was still writing: "I shall always be grateful to you for having published Lolita."

Alas, those were his last nice words to me. After that came more and more morose exchanges on the subject of the American publication of the book and I finally received a registered letter from Nabokov, dated October 5 of the same year "to declare the Agreement between us null and void." I was already half prepared for that, but the shock was felt nevertheless. Nabokov's excuse for his action was futile and ineffective, but our relationship was irreparably damaged by it, at a time when we should have been acting more than ever in close agreement. The bickering over the American contract became even more ludicrous since Nabokov had persuaded himself that he no longer had a contract with me.

At last I received a cable from Walter Minton, head of G. P. Putnam's Sons, announcing: "Nabokov has agreed contract." That was on February 11, 1958. A few days later I won my lawsuit against the Minister of the Interior: the ban was lifted ... in France. Nabokov did not feel it necessary to acknowledge that event.

In August, Putnam released their edition of Lolita, which immediately conquered the top place on the best seller list, to be dislodged only a few months later by Dr. Zhivago.

It was very gratifying, and I was receiving Minton's crescendo reports of our successes with a feeling that I had really earned the right to relax a bit and enjoy life. But the more sales increased the more Nabokov remembered that he hated me for having stolen a portion of his property. His harassment was thorough and all-encompassing: he refused to let Putnam acknowledge my firm as first publisher of Lolita in their edition of the book; a new argument flared up over the British contract and Minton reported that Nabokov was again contemplating lawsuits (more lolitigation). I had made great plans based on my share of American royalties, but Minton was constantly writing to me that he could not pay me as agreed, due to the Nabokovs' opposition: "They feel you did nothing to help the book and they think you have taken a lot of the royalties," was his explanation (November 6, 1958).

I became so disgusted that I asked Nabokov to submit his ghostly grievances to arbitration. But after the British contract was signed with Weidenfeld and Nicolson, which was finally achieved when I agreed to pay Nabokov's commission to his own agent out of my own pocket, Walter Minton again wrote to me (November 19, 1958): "I have also talked with Nabokov about the question of arbitrating your difficulties. I must confess I don't think there is anything to arbitrate . . ." And a few days later (November 29, 1958): "Incidentally Mrs. Nabokov is highly suspicious of a tie-up between you and Weidenfeld even though I told her I picked him and you did not even meet him… Actually it is she, I think, who is at the bottom of most of the troubles between you and her husband. She is a lovely lady of a very actively suspicious turn of mind which just complements her husband's…" Aye, aye, sir.

The next episode came when I wrote again to Nabokov on January 14, 1959, a long letter meant as an effort to dissolve the bad feelings, in which I said: - "I was greatly relieved to hear from Madame Ergaz that you see no point in the arbitration I suggested in order to eliminate the legal differences which seemed to persist between us.... Now that the legal aspect of that enigmatic conflict is happily settled, I would very much like to settle its other aspects. I am still at a loss to understand your reasons for so much resenting your association with me, and feel we should make a genuine effort to eliminate misunderstandings…" and concluded thus: "I admit that my satisfaction in having done my job well is marred by your attitude towards me. The only purpose of this letter is to ask you to think the matter over and to reconsider your judgement." To this I received a twelve-line answer saying: "I have received your letter of January 14th. I am sorry that lack of time prevents my commenting upon it in detail…"

Three weeks later I received a letter from Minton chiding me for having given my agreement to sell the Israeli rights on Lolita to a man named Steimatzky. I had nothing to do with that as it had been Mrs. Nabokov herself who had insisted on having us offer the rights to Steimatzky. I said so but nobody thought of apologizing to me for that silly incident.

In France, since the advent of the Fifth Republic, the status of Lolita had again changed. The Minister of the Interior had appealed against the earlier judgment of the Administrative Tribunal lifting the ban, and had won an easy victory against me at the Conseil d'Etat: under a strong regime, you cannot win against the police. Lolita was again under a ban restricted in its application (by accident, I assume) to the English version as published by me. If strictly interpreted, it did not preclude the possibility of publishing a French version in France. The Librairie Gallimard- France's foremost literary publishers-had bought the French rights long before, but they had been very hesitant to release the book, which had been translated by my brother, Eric Kahane. The release of the Putnam edition in America was a powerful argument which I used to convince Gallimard finally to publish the French version, which came out in April 1959.

I had asked Gallimard to mention in their version that my firm was the publisher of the original version, as this was very important to me in my litigation with the French government. Such an acknowledgment was a simple enough matter, but Nabokov heard of my request and opposed it violently. Gallimard's editor, Michel Mohrt, wrote me on February 27, 1959, a pathetically embarrassed letter in which he quoted Nabokov: "You are mistaken in thinking that the French translation of Lolita has been made from the Olympia edition. This is not so. When last spring I prepared the Putnam edition I changed an entire paragraph in the Olympia edition and made several other corrections throughout the book…" Etc., etc.

I was descending the stairs of hell, feeling like the much-hated Quilty with the nuzzle of a maniacal revolver pointed at my back. However, I was still fighting. There was no way of appealing against the final judgment of the Conseil d'Etat and of having the ban lifted on the English version of the book by direct litigation: in its verdict, the Conseil had stated that the Minister of the Interior's power not only to apply but even to interpret the law was absolute and could not be questioned even by the Conseil (a strange conclusion, incidentally, as the Conseil's function is precisely to verify the lawful regularity of the government's acts and decisions). But since the French version of Lolita had been authorized while my own English edition was still under a ban, I had yet another way open to me: to sue the government for damages, under the pretext that an unjust application of the law had been made, and that the republican principle of equality between citizens had been violated. Surprisingly, that worked. I was called to the Ministry of the Interior, and a compromise was proposed to me: the Minister was willing to cancel the ban if I agreed to withdraw my request for damages. I agreed and the ban was finally abrogated on July 21, 1959, signed by Mr. Maurice Bokanowski himself.

The ban had hardly been lifted in France on the English version when the Belgian government decided to forbid the sale of the French version on its own territory. Apparently, Gallimard was not in a hurry to do anything about that, and I took it upon myself to write to the Belgian Minister of the Interior, Mr. René Lefebvre, protesting against his decree. Mr. Lefebvre immediately responded to my request and wrote to me that he would look into the matter: the Belgian ban was in turn abrogated by royal decree a few weeks later.

A few days after that I received the visit of a Mr. Godemert, who acted as legal adviser to Gallimard. I knew him well, and he stated the reason for his visit with as straight a face as he could manage. Mr. Nabokov did not want to spend money on French lawyers, and had therefore asked Gallimard to see if there was any legal possibility of breaking his agreement with me. So, Godemert explained, in view of the fact that you know all the aspects of the case better than I do, I have come to ask you if you could please give me the elements of an answer, and suggest some method to attack you on Mr. Nabokov's behalf.

We had a drink together, and I wrote to Nabokov (April 27, 1960): "I have just seen Mr. Godemert, Gallimard's legal adviser, who came to ask on what grounds you could possibly sue me. I need hardly draw your attention to the irony of the situation," etc. Nabokov, meanwhile, had instructed his much-harassed agent, Doussia Ergaz, to suspend all payment to me of my share of certain foreign royalties due me as a result of our contract. I reciprocated by informing her that I would suspend payment of the royalties owed by my firm to Nabokov on our own edition. With mechanistic determination another registered letter soon issued from the tireless typewriter dated August 13, 1960, in which I was told: "I must call to your attention, therefore, that as a result of such failure and as provided in paragraph 8 of such Agreement, such Agreement between us, effective as of the last day of July, 1960, automatically became null and void and all rights therein granted reverted to me. I, therefore, demand that you immediately cease publication of Lolita and distribution and sale of any copies thereof," etc., etc.

What could I do but patiently attempt to refute once again the fine legal metaphysics, and helplessly resort to the habitual conclusion of my letters to Vladimir Nabokov: "Allow me to say again how deeply I regret this turn of events, not only because it cannot, in the long run, fail to harm our mutual interests, but also because I consider your personal attitude to be profoundly unjust in view of my constant efforts in favor of a book which I have always admired…"

Nabokov's final consecration by the American Establishment had come in the form of a long panegyric in Life International of April 13, 1959, entitled "Lolita and the Lepidopterist" and announced by a large portrait of the author himself appearing on the cover in his butterfly-hunting costume, with the wily, innocent grin of the traditional Russian society clown painted on his face.

That article could have been conceived as a pastiche by a clever journalist of an article written for Life by Mr. Nabokov on Mr. Nabokov. In particular, the earlier career of Lolita is dismissed with a series of stylistic shrugs of strictly Nabokovian obedience but the distortion of facts was such that I sent a protest, which Life felt obliged to print in full (Life International, July 6, 1959), although they attempted to water down my pitiful true-life account of facts by framing it between two pieces of prose, the first being a letter from Vladimir Nabokov himself; and the latter being an exhaustive editorial comment which appeared as a postscript, and, which, although signed with the initials of our mysterious friend ED., seems to carry on its forehead the beautiful silver aura of Vera Nabokov's distinguished scalp. However unjustly trying for the reader, I cannot refrain from quoting Nabokov's letter which was obviously intended to temper the effects of Life's reporter's excessive adulation:

"There are two little errors in your fascinating account of me and Lolita.... In the photograph showing my brother Serge and me in boyhood he is on the left and I am on the right, and not vice versa as the caption says. And towards the end of the article I am described as being 'startled and . . . indignant' when my Parisian agent informed me that the Olympia Press wanted to 'add Lolita to its list.' I certainly was neither 'startled' nor 'indignant' since I was only interested in having the book published-no matter by whom."

In my own letter, I had protested against Nabokov's innuendoes concerning Lolita's "unhappy marriage" with The Olympia Press, adding that: "Were it not for my firm, Lolita would still be a dusty manuscript in a nostalgic cupboard. I might add that I do not regret having published this admirable book; in spite of many disappointments, it has proved to be a rather exhilarating experience."

Life, in its closing comments, deemed it right to express regrets for having given "the mistaken impression that Vladimir Nabokov was 'a little indignant' at the Olympia Press offer to publish Lolita-an impression that Mr. Nabokov himself corrects in his letter above. As for the somewhat more important question of whether or not Olympia Press publishes pornography, it may depend upon one's viewpoint."

After that last scuffle, I began at last to accept the fact of the Nabokovs' hostility as a permanent part of my difficult publisher's life. The career of Lolita had been wonderful, and although my role was being represented in the darkest colors, I really did not mind. May I say that I was quite happy to see Nabokov pursuing his literary career so masterfully, with Pnin, Pale Fire, and the heroic translation of Eugene Onegin. Many years spent in this profession, publishing, teach you that no great writer can be less than a monster of egomania. And that seems indeed to be an absolute requisite: literary genius can only derive from superhuman concentration-and who cares if a few people are abused and hurt along the way?

Some time after the Life incident, I heard that Nabokov was coming to Paris. He wrote to my brother Eric that he was anxious to meet him to discuss the French translation of Lolita. Gallimard decided to celebrate Nabokov's arrival in this conquered city with one of their traditional cocktail parties. I learned that a heated debate and taken place between the directors of the firm when somebody had asked whether I should be invited or not. My conflict with Nabokov was so notorious that some unpleasant incident was bound -to happen if we were ever to face each other in the flesh for the first time in the history of our relationship. Some argued that it would be unseemly to exclude me; and in the end caution prevailed, and it was decided to- eliminate my name from the guest list. But Monique Grall, Gallimard's P.R. lady, thought it would be amusing to transgress that decision, of which she had not been properly informed. She sent me an invitation.

I was very perplexed when I received it. I did not want to embarrass my friends at Gallimard; and I did not want to look like a coward, being quite as able as anyone else to digest a punch on the nose in case of necessity. I discussed this rather exquisite point of ethics with Eric, who said that he was to meet Nabokov shortly before the party at his hotel, at his invitation, and it would be ludicrous for me to abstain; he later called from the hotel, insisting that Nabokov had showered him with compliments for his translation, and although he had not breathed a word about me, it did not seem that the old boy would be shocked to meet me. I therefore duly made my appearance in the gilded salons of the rue Sébastien-Bottin, and I must add in all proper modesty that the stupor painted on so many faces made me feel a little conspicuous. Monique Grall was doubled over in helpless mirth, in a corner, but the other Gallimard dignitaries were all rather pale, and the many press photographers present had that determined, ferocious glint in their eyes which means so much to celebrities in danger of being caught at a disadvantage.

I immediately identified Nabokov who was surrounded by a tight group of admirers; not too far away Madame Nabokov was impersonating dignity, destroying by her pale-fire presence the myth of her husband's entomological concern for the race of nymphets. I found, hiding in a corner, my dear suffering, terrified friend Doussia Ergaz, choking on a macaroon. I asked her kindly to introduce me to the master, our master, as was her duty being our mutual friend, as well as the dea ex machina who had, with her magic wand, generated such a sumptuous train of literary facts. She at first protested, then complied. We made our way through the crowd. Nabokov was speaking to my brother in earnest, but he had very obviously recognized me. At last we reached the presence, I was introduced, expecting at all moments a blow, a screech, a slap, anything-but not that vacuous grin which is all the papperazzi were able to capture, much to their disappointment. As if he were seized by some sudden urge, Vladimir Nabokov pivoted on himself with the graceful ease of a circus seal, throwing a glance in the direction of his wife, and was immediately caught up in more ardent conversation by a Czech journalist. I was both relieved and disappointed, and I went to down a few glasses of champagne before I plunged back into the crowd, unassisted this time, in the direction of Madame Nabokov. She was standing very quiet, very self-possessed. I introduced myself, but she did not acknowledge my presence even with the flicker of an eyelash. I did not exist; I was no more than an epistolary fiction, and I had no business wearing a body and disturbing people in a literary cocktail party given in honor of her husband, Vladimir Nabokov.

The next day, Doussia Ergaz called me, chuckling with delight and relief. She had had dinner with the Nabokovs after the party, and asked Vladimir what he thought of me. "And do you know what he answered," she added: "He said: 'Was he there? I didn't know.'"

But so many things have happened since then. There is nothing much now to quarrel about, and when the project of publishing a volume (of selections from books published by Olympia Press) came to be discussed with the directors of Grove Press, I told them that the only difficult author they would have to approach would be Nabokov, but that he would certainly agree after all these years, even if a little reluctantly, to let them print an excerpt from Lolita in this compendium. They said that they would try to approach Nabokov through his American publisher, Walter Minton, who obligingly accepted to forward their request. The answer was no, certainly not. I then wrote to Barney Rosset to tell Minton that if Nabokov were to persist in his refusal, I would have no choice but to write the story of our relationship. The answer came by return mail: "This is blackmail. And you know what you have to do with blackmailers: sue them."