Lolita is one of the classic novels of the last century, an American masterpiece written by a Russian writer, Vladimir Nabokov. The book is even referenced in an old Police song, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” in which a teacher gets nervous around his student lover “just like that old man in that book by Nabokov.” It’s become a cultural touchstone with the archetype of a Lolita, a young, seductive girl snapping gum and behaving as though unaware of her effect on older men.
Only the Lolita of the novel is actually a sexually abused girl. And according to Sarah Weinman in The Real Lolita, it’s based on the real-life kidnapping of a young girl named Sally Horner. The case is even referenced by Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.
Weinman makes a compelling case, having talked to relatives of Sally Horner and drawing from documented recollections of those involved. But rather than the erudite foreign language teacher, Humbert Humbert, Horner spent nearly two years in captivity to a crude auto mechanic named Frank LaSalle. The case of Horner is actually more interesting than Nabokov’s fictional version, which somehow was conflated with the idea that a preteen might seduce a middle-aged man. Neither the real Sally Horner nor the fictional Lolita were complicit in what happened to them. And that’s Weinman’s point. As a culture, we’ve created a character that was never there. Lolita is a horror story with a very human monster.
Where Weinman shorts herself as an author is when she drifts into stylized prose, as though trying to emulate the master stylist Nabokov. It’s understandable as Weinman is clearly fascinated with the creator himself. But early on, it detracts from what she is trying to convey about this novel and the Stanley Kubrick film. Eventually, she settles down into some solid reporting and makes the case that Nabokov, despite protestations to the contrary, used real life to complete his most famous novel.