I didn’t mean to write about this book. I simply knew I wanted to read it.
The Real Lolita; The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World is an analysis not just of Vladimir Nabokov’s path towards the writing of his novel Lolita about the but also presents a thesis pressing the writing of the book as influenced by the real-life kidnapping of 11-year-old Sally Horner by a man who posed as her father, sexually abused her, and held her as a prisoner for almost two years before Sally confided in a neighbor, called home, and was freed.
Writer Sarah Weinman, the person behind the excellent The Crime Lady newsletter (among other things) Weinman’s book is part of a larger trend in true crime (and a culmination of her nonfiction work in general) that puts a focus less on the details just on a crime itself but on an empathetic focus on the victims of notorious true crime cases, in this case a child whose life was speculated on after her freedom, and who in a way can be seen as emblematic of how many people do the same thing about true crime in their attempts to give spotlight space to victims. No information is presented that isn’t actual information, and while there is conjecture about what was happening, at the same time that speculation is always constantly aware of the weight it could wield, even now, against the memory of an actual person.
Similarly, while in looking at the history of the creation of Lolita it could be easy to make definitive claims about the impact the Horner kidnapping had in influencing Nabokov, Weinman’s approach is careful to very clearly lay out the far less direct but just as influential web of ways in which the author could have let this true crime case, despite his public persona, help guide one of the most controversial novels of the 20th century. It doesn’t paint the most flattering picture of Nabokov, honestly, though how much of this is influenced by his own behavior in outright denying outside influences of his own work (something that smacks of not only larger cultural indifference but a somewhat arguably inflated sense of self-worth) is worth debating in and of itself.
While it’s difficult to not simply heap effusive praise on this, the only thing that I find difficulty with is that there wasn’t more. Every trail of information that builds into a truly complete coverage of a larger web that hints at so much more about Horner, analysis of the creation and the text of Lolita, post-WW2 America, the decline of places like Camden, NJ, and the ripple effect of the kidnapping and assault of a child by a man who claimed to be her father. There’s a larger picture and a larger world hinted at that doesn’t leave you lacking so much as it makes you realize that The Real Lolita makes you realize how many conversations still need to be had, openly, about crime, women, literature, and the modern world.
The Real Lolita is available now online and in stores.
*) NOTE: The book has a new edition out soon w/a new subtitle, “A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece”. This review is of a previous edition.