11 July 2008

Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita, 1955.

Vladimir Nabokov. LOLITA. Olympia Press, Paris, 1955. (2 vols)

Current Selling Prices
$4000-$10000 /£2000-£5000

Fossicking about on YouTube I found an interview with Nabokov from the 1950s with Lionel Trilling and a bow-tied presenter. Trilling vigorously defended 'Lolita' as a great love story and VN, urbane and surprisingly modest, occasionally spoke -always referring to his trademark Boston file cards. In the 1960s, with nymphet money pouring in, he took up residence on the sixth floor of the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland and started his 'greatest living writer' act. Certainly it is hard to think of a greater writer alive at that time, with the possible exception of Jorge Luis Borges. A fellow dealer specialising in highbrow lit proclaims that the most important writers of the 20th century are Borges, Kafka, Joyce, Proust and Nabokov -he refuses to accept a sixth writer, John Buchan, who I thought might provide some light relief.

The quest to get 'Lolita' published is well known. It is said there were 5000 copies of the first edition. A friend, now a venerable book dealer, worked for Maurice Girodias, the book's publisher in Paris, during the 1950s. He used to bring them over to the UK to sell for a premium as a filthy, banned book. British Customs officers had been instructed by the Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. He recalls trips where he failed to sell all copies and rather than return with them he had to abandon copies in bus stations, phone boxes etc., ( some of them were reprints, no one much cared at the time.) It's not especially scarce, but very hard to find in sharp, unmolested condition- you want a price of "Francs: 900" price on the lower back corner of both volumes to have the first state.

VALUE? A copy sits on the web in fine, bright condition at $15000. I have seen nice but not fine ones sell for £5000. Auction records reveal very healthy prices for signed copies especially those with some associational resonance. At Christies New York in 2002 $265,000 was paid for a slightly worn copy inscribed to Graham Greene with the customary drawing of a butterfly. The story of this copy is dealt with in an earlier piece. When the book was published Greene had told Nabokov that "in England one may go to prison, but there couldn't be a better cause!" A copy of the 1958 US first from 1958 inscribed to his wife Vera made $160,000 in the same year. On the subject of defective books (see yesterday's piece) a copy of the Paris first with 'some pages blank between 129-60' made $100 in California in 1984.

Last year a copy of the Russian edition presented to his wife with whom he collaborated on the translation was 'bought in' (i.e. it failed to sell) against an estimate of $200,000 - $300,000. The inscription, in cyrillic, read "To my Verochka | October 1967 | Montreux"), beneath this Nabokov had executed a spectacular coloured drawing of a butterfly labelled "Colias Lolita Nab. | [female]", and signed his name using three different permutations ("V. Nabokov | VL Nabokov | Vladimir Nabokov"). Effectively it was the dedication copy as the printed dedication is to Vera. It was housed in a black morocco clamshell box by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, the upper and lower covers and spine onlaid with numerous butterfly designs in turquoise, dark blue, violet, mauve, yellow and silver morocco, incorporating mother-of-pearl and gilt, intertwined with flowing design in poussiere d'or (flaked 24ct gold), the spine lettered ''Lolita'' in Russian in rainbow colours (echoing the jacket design), the interior of the box lined with blue velvet. No one raised a hand to bid, possibly those oligarchs who collect books want something in a flashier box.

Outlook? Nabokov is never going away, he is not John Galsworthy or even John Fowles, and successive generations will discover his wonders - so prospects are good. At the highest end he can be a little risky- the above is not the only 'buy in'. Copies of Lolita have to be very clean, shabby copies are worth 20% of great copies. It can be seen rebound at about £1000, but the Olympia Press green wraps have an erotic and forbidden charge about them which it is a shame to hide.

TRIVIA. In Feb 2008 bedroom furniture for little girls with the brand name 'Lolita' was withdrawn by Woolworths UK after pressure from parents. Nobody at Woolie's had heard of the book, Nabokov or even the movie. There is a perfume called Lolita Lempicka which cross-pollinates the nymphet with the doomed Deco painter, and also a range of shoes from the Far East (see below.) In the 1960s Nabokov wrote "I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow —perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings." Indeed there are pictures of pampered poodles called Lolita all over the web and in our post literate age the name will probably drift back into human use. Oscar was a no-no name for about 50 years after Wilde; the only name I can think of that is still verboten is Adolf and in England, possibly, Myra.


Anonymous said...

Nabokov is probably the only writer who has a unique distinction of being greatest of both English and Russian literature of the 20th century.

Also, the preschool where my kids go has a TA named Lolita. She looks in her 40s, definitely born after the book was out.

Fnarf said...

I've got one of these -- not a first state, but the pair of green covers (I think it's a fourth printing), which is as close as I'll ever get. I paid an alarming fifty cents for it in a thrift store. Well, it looks like a first from across the room.

I've also got one in bizarre purple and magenta psychedelic wraps -- still Olympia Press though. No idea what it is, besides cool to look at.

Anonymous said...

Actually the name got more popular in the U.S. right after the 1962 movie came out. That popularity lasted until 1973, when the name drops off the list of 1000 most popular girls' names in the U.S. It has not rejoined the list since.

See: http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/

Anonymous said...

Arrgh! TO think I had a first edition, though devalued by my boyfriend's inscription (money-wise, at least)! After being lent to a fellow student and returned 6 yrs. later, it then disappeared amidst several moves and may be moldering away in a storage locker!

Having just re-read Lolita AND The Forsyte Saga, I am no longer of the opinion that Nabokov was as great as HE thought he was, nor Galsworthy as poor. He steals from G. shamelessly, just as he uses Freud's ideas and slams them. was it true that, according to Hunter Thompson, Nab. was holed up near Aspen with a REAL nymphet? Who knows...?

Hindi SMS said...

A must read and a literary classic. Nabokov represents emotions and thoughts with mathematical visual precision. You can feel that each word is weighed against the rest of the sentence, against the rest of the paragraph against the rest of the novel, following the strict tone of the entire piece. Unity is one of the main features of art.
Every page gets laughs.. sometimes its laugh out loud funny. A delight to read..

Bill said...

Three classic novels and a solid screenplay adaptation -- Vladimir Nabokov's literary genius is perhaps best shown in the second volume of Library of America's collections. The classic "Lolita" is paired with its own screenplay adaptation, and the comic "Pnin" and witty "Pale Fire."