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
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!