It’s been a chilly, rainy weekend, more like mid-November than mid-October, so I’m especially thankful for my hot cup of chai tea this morning. I have no treat, as it was just too busy and rainy to get to City Cafe yesterday - maybe I’ll try to pick one up today, if the rain holds off.
I read a non-fiction book this past week, The Real Lolita: the kidnapping of Sally Horner and the novel that scandalized the world by Sarah Weinman, a new publication that was recently reviewed. I put it on hold just to have a look at it and possibly recommend it to my volunteer book club ladies, since we are reading Lolita in February. I ended up reading the entire book, although it wasn’t very long, and found it quite interesting. It is a true crime book recounting the circumstances surrounding the abduction and 21-month captivity of Sally Horner by Frank LaSalle in 1948 when Sally was just eleven years old. Posing as an FBI agent, LaSalle managed to trick Sally into accompanying him on a weekend trip to Atlantic City, threatening to turn her in to the police for shoplifting if she didn’t comply. What follows is a cross-country odyssey as LaSalle tries to stay one step ahead of the police investigators’ searches. That LaSalle was claiming Sally was his daughter while systematically forcing her into having sexual relations with him makes this abduction even more horrific. Weinman’s argument is that Nabokov based Lolita on this case, a claim he refuted again and again, although he does acknowledge that he researched actual cases while he was writing it. According to his notes, he was working on the novel well before the case was in the newspaper, so the ideas were already there. That he took some details from the Horner-LaSalle case is likely, as this case is actually mentioned in the novel. I found it an interesting read because it was written well enough, if you like this kind of book, although it was fairly repetitive and a bit tacky. It shed light on an actual incident where a child was sexually abused by a perfect stranger who eluded capture for nearly two years. It also served to remind readers of the children in our society who are victims, and who continue to be victimized every day because they are too afraid to speak up, that this victimization becomes their “normal”. And it served to remind readers that the character of Lolita is a victim, a child who is forced into a sexual relationship with her stepfather, and that we should not be seduced by Humbert Humbert’s language into believing that she is a willing participant. I had issues with this book, though, because I don’t think it really matters whether it was based on a real case or not. What makes the book such a landmark of 20th-century literature is the way Nabokov uses language to tell his story. What I found out about his writing process was that he spent years observing and noting details about American society and culture, especially teen culture, at the time to depict it convincingly. I learned much about Nabokov’s life, his emigration from Russia to Berlin and then to the US, where he lived, taught and wrote until he moved with his wife to Switzerland, so it was a worthwhile read for this information alone. But the basic point of the book, that Nabokov should have acknowledged the influence of Sally Horner’s abduction and captivity more openly and stridently than he was willing, was, in my opinion, unfounded. The fact that he mentions this case specifically in Lolita (which I didn’t remember, but will look for when I read it for our book club meeting), in my opinion, offers sufficient credit. How much of art is based on life? That’s the real question here. Of course writers and other artists are products of their environments and therefore must use material they know to create their works, whether these are characters, plots and settings in a book or images on a canvas. But does this diminish the value of the finished product? No so, in my opinion. Clearly, Weinman feels differently. Anyway, I will now be able to read Lolita with a more informed mindset, and I will recommend this to my book club members if they want to find out more about this real case.
That’s all for today. Get outside before it starts raining again!