BOOK REVIEW: The Real Lolita, on the true origins of Nabokov’s Lolita

Weinman, Sarah - The Real Lolita (3)The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
by Sarah Weinman

The Real Lolita tells three stories: that of the kidnapping of Sally Horner by Frank La Salle in 1948; the writing and publication process of Vladmir Nabokov’s literary classic Lolita; and how the story of Sally Horner and Lolita (Dolores “Dolly” Haze). Sarah Weinman extensively researched the topic, consulting primary sources, reading newspaper accounts from the time period, visiting Nabokov archives, and interviewing key individuals still alive.

After Horner, on a dare from the popular girls, stole a notebook from the five and dime, Frank La Salle grabbed her and told her he was an FBI agent. Weeks later, in June 1948, he found her and told her she had to come with him, posing as his daughter, always leveraging the threat of juvenile detention if she told anyone what was really going on. So began a nearly two-year ordeal as they crossed the country from Atlantic City to Baltimore to Dallas to San Jose. Finally, with the encouragement of a neighbor, Sally called home and was rescued while La Salle was condemned to jail.

Long before Sally’s kidnapping, Vladimir Nabokov was working on a book in which a man had unnatural affections for young girls, but he was not making progress, and, in fact, tried to destroy the manuscript at least twice. Nabokov knew of Sally’s case: Humbert Humbert asks himself in Lolita, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” But he and his wife, Vera, insisted that the novel was not inspired by the crime. As early as 1963, though, Peter Welding published an article in Nugget arguing that Lolita owned more to Sally Horner than the Nabokovs would admit.

The Real Lolita attempts to resolve definitively the debate over how much Nabokov drew on Sally Horner’s kidnapping in his novel. Weinman is best in my opinion when she recounts Sally’s harrowing nightmare, La Salle’s depravity, and the aftermath of the kidnapping. I hadn’t known anything about the case before, so it was all new to me. To flesh out the prosecutor handling La Salle’s trial, Weinman discusses other crimes in Camden, two in particular, both of which were very interesting. This is not so surprising since Weinman has a background writing true crime.

It’s been ages since I’ve read Lolita, and I probably should have reread it before tackling The Real Lolita. Even so, learning about the manuscript through its creation, release, film adaptation, and lasting impact was gratifying. Nabokov’s writing process, in which he wrote his research on index cards, and the road to publication were fascinating. I had not known Nabokov was so interested in butterflies (which explains their presence on the cover) or that he and his wife often took road trips across the country from their home base in Ithaca, NY.

My least favorite aspect of the book was Weinman’s attempt to “prove” Nabokov was inspired by Sally Horner’s case. In some ways, she is convincing. The manuscript was floundering, but when Nabokov learned of Sally’s kidnapping (as evidenced by an index card referencing it), he seemed to be catalyzed into finishing the book. Aside from the direct mention of Sally Horner and Frank La Salle, Weinman shows aspects of the true crime Nabokov seemed to incorporate. One character was named Fogg, one of La Salle’s aliases. Humbert Humbert is sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, the same as La Salle. The fictional Humbert marries Dolores’s mother to gain access; La Salle pretends to be Sally’s father. At the same time, some of her ideas are speculative. For example, she was unable to find any material mentioning Sally Horner in the Nabokov archives, even though the Nabokovs had kept voluminous amounts of clippings related to Lolita. She implies that they were deliberately omitted to keep researchers from linking the real crime to that depicted in the novel.

In the same vein, Weinman speculates more than I would like about Sally’s state of mind and daily life. Since Sally is not available, speculation is the only alternative, and Weinman does base her ideas on narratives written by young women kidnapped and held for long periods of time. However, the fact is, we can never really know what Sally was thinking.

Weinman’s ultimate argument is that the Nabokovs would deny any connection to real life inspiration to preserve the image of Vladmir as a literary genius. In so doing, they re-victimize Sally by depriving her of acknowledgement. In The Real Lolita, Weinman effectively lobbies for the reinstatement of Sally’s voice through documenting her story.

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