The Real Lolita—The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World

By Sarah Weinman

Harper Collins | 2018

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Photo of Sarah Weinman

When I read the review of Ms. Weinman’s book in the Los Angeles Times I wanted to read it because I hold the belief that often great art draws its inspiration from real-life events, or, as is the case with James Joyce’s Ulysses from mythology or other well-known stories; so, I wanted to see to what extent Vladimir Nabokov may have been influenced by the kidnapping of Sally Horner, a widely-published event of which he was aware.

First, I read The Real Lolita and then reread Nabokov’s Lolita.

In March of 1948 11-year old Sally Horner was accosted when she attempted to shoplift a five-cent composition notebook from a Woolworth’s in Camden, New Jersey, by a stranger who said he was an FBI agent but was in fact Frank LaSalle. Later, her mother, thinking he was the father of one of Sally’s friends, was persuaded to let her go on a trip to Atlantic City with him. She then was kidnapped and kept by LaSalle for the next two years. As Lolita had with Humbert Humbert, they traveled cross country together until finally, when they were living in a mobile park in San Jose, California, Sally told a neighbor by the name of Ruth Janisch of her plight, and Ruth alerted the authorities. After she was freed, LaSalle plead guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to no less than thirty and no more than thirty-five years in prison.

As for Sally she was reunited with her family but tragically died in a car accident with a boyfriend on August 18, 1952, only two years after her release from LaSalle clutches. I couldn’t help but think she might have been spared the worst of the consequences she might have suffered as the result of her kidnapping.

Vladimir Nabokov published Lolita in 1955. He was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, into an aristocratic family in 1899 that fled Russia in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, making their way to Paris, as did many families of “white” Russians. The family spoke three languages—Russian, French and English. He studies French and Russian literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, lived in Berlin and Paris, where he launched his literary career. In 1940 he moved to the United States, where he taught literature at Wellesley, Stanford, Cornell and Harvard. In 1961 he moved to Montreux, Switzerland, where he died in 1977. He dedicated his masterpiece, Lolita, to his devoted wife Vera. They had one son, Dmitri, who became a musician. Nabokov was passionate about lepidoptery; he and Vera took several trips across the United in pursuit of rare butterflies.

Nabokov was toying with the idea for Lolita, the self-told account of a pedophile, before he learned of Sally Horner’s case. He tended to deny the degree to which he mined information from it, maintaining that art supersedes influence.

There is no doubt in my mind that Nabokov was a literary genius, and Lolita is his masterpiece, deserving of its place in the circle of best-novels-ever-written, right up there with Madame Bovary and Moby Dick.

Who can forget its first paragraph:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” (Please notice its alliteration).
Nabokov dares to do what few writers dare—he plays with language, making up words along the way, inventing the names of people and places, either as a means of camouflage (or perhaps because his memory was faulty); he takes a playful delight in writing—there’s hardly a page that does not contain French phrase or two sprinkled in.

And then there the scandalous content of his story. As he tells of it—the 40-year-old Humbert Humbert receives a stroke of luck when Charlotte Haze, the woman he has married in order to be close to her eleven-year-old daughter Dolores (Lolita), accidently dies, leaving the field open for him, as her legal guardian, to take charge of the child. With Lolita he embarks on travels across the United States and back.

Lolita is supposed to be Humbert’s confession from prison, if you will.
It is sensational because he has dared to ignore an important societal convention requiring that adults not take advantage of children sexually, that they be protected from the vicissitudes of sex until they have matured sufficiently to handle them. He was broken this cardinal rule of adult conduct and has done so with impunity.
In his favor, I think it should be said that he truly loved Lolita; he showered her with presents and gave her all that a child of her age might require. Therefore, she seems less harmed by her experience than she might otherwise have been. And yet, it is a story of unrequited love, as she, of course, lacked the capacity to return his love or to share in any of the responsibilities of their cohabitation. Yet, this does not seem to bother Humbert in the least.

Nabokov describes Humbert, despite his rich capabilities and education, as sometimes having a slim grasp of reality; in fact, when his beloved Lolita disappears (she is rescued by the dentist friend named Clare Quilty) he falls into a state of despair and paranoia and swears his revenge.

When he finds Lolita again, she has married a rather good-natured but average sort of man and is pregnant. Nabokov kills her off by having her die giving child-birth. I guess it just wouldn’t do to write of her as a mother to her own children.

In the end he hunts down Quilty and kills him. He sent to prison not for kidnapping but for murder.

The question that arose in my mind as I reread Lolita was not the degree to which he may have been influenced by the Sally Horner case but how he could have consistently known how a child of her age would behave, her passion for things like paper dolls and such:

“Naked, except for one sock and her charm bracelet, spread-eagled on the bed where my philter had felled her—so I fore glimpsed her; a velvet hair ribbon was still clutched in her hand; her honey-brown body, with the white negative image of the rudimentary swimsuit patterned against her tan, presented to me its pale breast buds; in the rosy lamplight, a little public floss glistened on its plump hillock.”

With this attention to detail, and, of course, his marvelous use of language, Lolita would not be the masterpiece that it is.

Jane M McCabe is the Associate Editor of the Neworld Review

Return to home page

Return to home page

divider line


The Man Who Fell from the Sky

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Hardball Press | 2018

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

In The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Bill Fletcher, Jr.’s debut novel, one of his character’s says of the plot, “Amazing, you couldn’t make a story like this up.” But Fletcher does, and the short chapters, suspenseful narrative, and incisive prose keep you turning the pages, waiting to see the next eventful twist, right to the end.

The title alone is enough to draw you in and Fletcher delays explanation of this spiral through space—a World War II crewmember of a bomber who slips from the plane after dislodging a stuck bomb—as he develops his cast, particularly his protagonist David Gomes, an aspiring journalist at a small press in Cape Cod.

When TJ Smith is mysteriously killed by a sniper one morning after leaving his house and entering his truck, the novel engages the reader, and like David you want to know why this seemingly upstanding citizen is the victim of an assassin.

But as the tale unravels there are other victims, and, as David discovers. they are all members of a crew on a bomber plane with missions over Italy toward the end of World War II.  David, like Fletcher, meticulously delves into the intricacies of the tragedies, gradually assembling the pieces of the puzzle that leads to a suspect, who is among several under suspicion.

Since I am basically a nonfiction writer and reader, there was my usual hesitancy to get too involved in fiction, but because the author is an activist I have been affiliated with in various political movements, I thought I would give a cursory glance at a couple chapters and see if it grabbed me. 

It did, and I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised since even in Fletcher’s nonfiction essays there’s always a glimmer of what’s now called creative nonfiction. These elements are particularly evident in his descriptive passages where he introduces a character or develops a scene. 

While we get the size, age, hair color, and other aspects of the numerous personalities in the novel, it’s not until the end that David’s color and ethnicity becomes vital components to the story. In fact, that he is a black journalist opens an entirely new and intriguing plot line that is essential to understanding exactly what happened to the man who fell from the sky.

Inevitably, David’s pursuit of the serial assassin and his reportage brings his own life into the deadly crosshairs, and there’s no more intense scene than when he is finally face to face with the killer.

It was not unexpected that Fletcher would find time and space to ruminate on some of the liberation struggles where he has been such a formidable participant, but the mention of Amilcar Cabral, the Black Panthers, and other revolutionaries are merely teases that begs a follow up, though the novel has its own coda that extends a generation beyond the seventies.

Most appealing is Fletcher’s pace and journalistic insights; there are more than a complement of cinematic moments, and it is not farfetched for David to have visions of a Pulitzer or to get some motion picture overtures.

Fletcher has woven an engrossing story that harkens back to the forties while he connects the seventies and sprints forward into the 21st Century.  I feel this is just the beginning of a trove of fiction waiting to spring from this author’s deeply creative imagination.

Herb Boyd is a frequent contributor to The Neworld Review

Return to home page

divider line


To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight.

By Terrance Hayes

Seattle Wave Books | 2018

Reviewed by Jerry Ward

terrance hayes

From the "Acknowledgments" of this book on page 205 we learn that "The Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry supports contemporary poets as they explore in-depth their own thinking on poetry and poetics and gives a series of lectures resulting from these investigations."

Terrance Hayes is a contemporary poet, a MacArthur fellow (2014) and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets (2017).  He is gifted, prized and credentialed man to speak about American poetry.

As an arrangement of his Bagley Wright lectures, Hayes's book is a walking tour in the Republic of American letters, a bagatelle for the super-literate, and a wonderment, a puzzling for readers who insist on occupying less elevated ground. The book gives an American voice to Jean-Paul Sartre's question—Qu'est-ce que la littérature?

Hayes chose to dig into and meditate on poetry by way of the elusive genre of autobiography, which he garnished with facts, speculations, fantasies, photographs, and drawings that pertain to the biography of Etheridge Knight. His choice is existential.  His book is a soup, a mash-up, a blurring of text, pretext, and context; the reworking of the original lectures from 2014 and 2015 tempts one to contrast the result with Kevin Young's The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness  (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012) and to compare the result with Nathaniel Mackey's Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993) and to evaluate the three works through the lens provided by Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

Hayes avoids the excess of data imprisoned in The Grey Album, however, much of the excess comes with good intentions; he deals with what Mackey made explicit regarding engagement:

“I relate discrepant engagement to the name the Dogon of West Africa give their weaving block, the base on which the loom they weave upon sits. They call it the 'creaking of the word.' It is the noise upon which the word is based, the discrepant foundation of all coherence and articulation, of the purchase upon the world fabrication affords. Discrepant engagement, rather than suppressing or seeking to silence that noise, acknowledges it. In its anti-foundational acknowledgement of founding noise, discrepant engagement sings 'base,' voicing reminders of the axiomatic exclusions upon which positing of identity and meaning depend."

The evaluation might illuminate, to a certain degree, for readers who are inmates of one system or another, how but not why "history" (as process and record/narrative of process) makes a relentless assault on consciousness and knowing.  Why is a mystery immune to reckoning or consensus.  Ultimately, one concludes poetry and poetics have been and shall continue to be fraught. We are incarcerated.

The "in conversation" device used so freely in the Twenty-First Century exposes the extreme reluctance of some American poets to admit that real-time conversations with one another are more valuable than the shadows or ghosts of conversations that can be sold to readers and listeners.

They are abetted by their publishers. Perhaps the reluctance is grounded in dread of the political or of the class-based enmity that readily obtains when aesthetics must navigate among realities and actualities. The life and work of Etheridge Knight (1931-1991) demands more digging into a history of American crime and punishment, into addiction and trauma, into incarceration as metaphor and as material state of being than some American poets can stomach. They can't take the weight of the funk. They seek sanctuary in the academic cloisters of being "in conversation" with, of being in accord with the designs of American literary politics.

The title of Hayes's book is taken from the last six words of Knight's famous poem, "The Idea of Ancestry."  After playing with the implicit pun in the phrase  "biography of the cell," borrowed from a scientific article by David A. Shaywith and Douglas A. Melton, Hayes asserts that Knight is "a muse and mystery," and promises to not write a biography of the prison poet who was not a prison poet while in the same breath he would encourage a future biographer to do so.

Referencing the character Charles Kinbote from Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, he stresses the difference between a scholar assessing a poet and a poet assessing a poet and dares to ask if imagination can be a form of critical study. Thus, he shows how a poet can drift toward and then away from his announced subject. He might float away from dedicated speculations about Etheridge Knight into appreciative speculation about the life and work of Christopher Gilbert.

The answer to Hayes's rhetorical question about critical study is, "Yes."   Nevertheless, there is a bit of shock in his saying that Arnold Rampersad’s "pages of clear-eyed scholarship" on Langston Hughes “are altogether dull,” because his own book so plainly betrays how much he yearns to be a scholar as well as a poet. Rampersad’s prose is never exactly dull, so one must ask where Hayes is coming from?

Hayes, a poet who longs to be a scholar, tests the literacy of his readers with allusions to Shakespeare, Roland Barthes, Gustave Freytag, Zygmunt Bauman, and Giambattista Vico and has a romp with the idea that liquidity makes a “relationship to poets and poetry renewable and sustainable.”

To Float in the Space Between is not exactly dull.  It is annoying in a way akin to the annoyance one might have through engagement with Young's The Grey Album.  One is annoyed by the artifice of pretense, the lightweight attention Hayes accords to the gravity of what incarceration determines about life and creativity in the United States. That gravity was never lost on Knight nor is it lost on the many accomplished writers who reside in American prisons.  As far as one knows, Hayes has never been to war or to prison, so he can blithely turn to Wordworth's notion of “recollection in tranquility” and extend it to the angst of imprisonment.  There is something that is deliberate (a negative liberation) in Hayes’s claim that Knight sold himself as “the artist with a critique of incarceration as well as the artist with an endorsement of rehabilitation.”

Tell us how willing slaves should be to sell themselves. As if to remind himself and his readers that he has not exactly dismissed the centrality of incarceration from his project, Hayes mentions quite humorously that his mother was the warden of the household and that a house is a poem.  Faint reminders of what a panopticon is, of what “negative capability” can be. (Hayes abandoned before the election of 2016 the “irritable reaching after fact & reason,” the Romantic idea foisted upon the world by John Keats, the idea which currently enthralls millions of American citizens in the Age of Trump. Strange are the ways poetry and poetics inform discourses contemporary life.)

By coincidence, Terrance Hayes and Kevin Powell have roots in South Carolina and a certain kinship in the commonplace American male enterprise of accounting for ancestry. They are the sons who must quest after many years of wondering for their absent biological fathers. One does not question the legitimacy anxiety about knowing who one's father is and questions how the racialized American publishing industry perpetuates the stereotype of anxiety.

Powell and Hayes remind us of how poignant it was of Knight to say in, “The Idea of Ancestry” that his paternal grandmother had “no place in her Bible for ‘whereabouts unknown’.”  In The Education of Kevin Powell : A Boy's Journey into Manhood (New York: Atria Books, 2015), one of the most poetic moments is the paragraph wherein Powell describes speaking to his father's tombstone in Laurens County, South Carolina.

Hayes is also poetic in describing conversations of discovery with his father, Earthell "Butch" Tyler, Jr. in Columbia, South Carolina. His father reassures him that he definitely has the Tyler head.  By coincidence, one is reminded that contemporary narratives of being an African American male are so necessarily and so ironically saturated with discovery. Perhaps it is useful to revisit what Stephen Henderson wrote about saturation in Understanding the New Black Poetry (New York: William Morrow, 1973).

Would it be obscene to find an omen in the name of Hayes's father, Earthell  (Earth/Hell), to find in the name a subjective correlative for what the site of incarceration is?  After all, an in-depth investigation of poetry and poetics deals with the final couplet of Knight's poem "The Violent Space"

So, I grab the air and sing my song.

(But the air cannot stand my singing long.)

Without malice, one might conclude that To Float in the Space Between is at best a tool for knowing what literary history brings to us in 2018 in the form of Etheridge Knight's poem "Feeling Fucked Up."

Return to home page

divider line

;©Copyright - Website Designs by rdobrien.com, 2016.