The Real Lolita?

Sarah Weinman’s new book questions the responsibility of fiction to fact

In June of 1948, 11-year-old Sally Horner got in a car she had no hope of driving. What follows is horrifying, its aftermath sensationalized and managed at the expense of the story’s victim. Horner’s abductor and rapist, a man named Frank La Salle, 50 years old at the time, gained her tenuous trust by posing as an FBI agent and manipulating her into believing she was in trouble for stealing a notebook from a department store.

At La Salle’s behest, Sally convinced her mother to let her leave her home in Camden, New Jersey, for a trip to Atlantic City with friends, then told her that she was extending her stay. Soon after, the phone calls stopped and the authorities stepped in, but it wasn’t until March of 1950 that Sally was finally found alive. La Salle had taken her to Atlantic City as promised, then trafficked her on to Baltimore, where according to Sally’s testimony “rape became a regular occurrence.” Eventually, through the help of a noticing neighbor and friend of Sally’s in San Jose, where she was briefly enrolled in school and held captive in a trailer park, she was able to telephone her relatives. In August of 1952, at the age of 15, Sally died in a car crash while riding back home from a date with 20-year-old Edward Baker. He lived on—at least, for a while.

This is the real story of Sally Horner, but is it the real story of Vladimir Nabokov’s iconic novel Lolita? In her new book, The Real Lolita, journalist and editor Sarah Weinman argues that Horner’s life was a major inspiration for the novel’s title character (née Dolores Haze), if not the novel itself, the two not being easily separable. She contends that Horner’s life was “strip-mined to produce the bones of Lolita.” Though Weinman concedes that her evidence is circumstantial and that she “can’t say Nabokov designed the book to hide Sally from the reader,” she also strongly suggests a (perhaps unconscious) cover-up on Nabokov’s part, bolstered by his unstoppable drive to be known as the great “sui generis artist, whose imagination and gifts were far superior to others’.”

“Reading his work and researching in his archives,” writes Weinman, “was like coming up against an electrified fence designed to keep me away from the truth.” Nabokov was famously disdainful of revealing too much of himself off the page, but he most amply did. He cultivated the persona of a private genius, and although he generated enough interviews to pad the bulk of a 360-page volume that is appropriately titled Strong Opinions, he was adamant that his responses be written, never off the cuff. False art was for him a work of mediocrity, of poshlost, and could not elicit the telltale spine tingle of first-rate scribblings. True art and reputation therefore enjoyed a kind of harmony in Nabokov's estimation, and what they had in common was, to quote Weinman, a “carefully constructed myth of Nabokov.”

Yet none of this satisfactorily points to Horner’s life being twice absconded with, as Weinman’s book attests. It does not address how we might continue to appraise Great Literature that we know to our bones, without a procurable body, cannot “do justice” to its subject, nor was ever primarily intending to. Fiction has to come from somewhere, but its responsibility to its source material is much less tethered than that of journalism. Threads are lost in the spinning of the story to form a different one, and a different truth, one that evokes, entertains, outrages, but perhaps does not inveigh against or explain itself. Horner’s case raises large questions about the nature of fictional truth that Weinman's book hardly touches.

As a piece of journalism, Weinman’s book excels. She illuminates Sally’s ordeal despite huge testimonial gaps. “Inference will have to stand in for confidence,” she writes. “Imagination will have to fill in the rest.” Through interviews and archival research, Weinman renders Sally’s story with an eye not only for detail but for systemic injustice as well. We see that upon being rescued Sally was not immediately returned home but instead held in a San Jose detention center. When she finally arrived back in Camden, her family was there to meet her, yet instead of allowing her to leave with them authorities ushered her to the nearby Camden County Children’s Shelter in Pennsauken, New Jersey, where she was expected to stay for the duration of the trial. Luckily, it didn’t take long: Only a few weeks after his arrest, La Salle pleaded guilty; a judge ordered him to serve between 30 and 35 years on a kidnapping charge, to which 2 to 3 years was added for the original abduction charge, and 3 additional years for violating his parole. But it would never have come to this if La Salle hadn’t been released from prison 6 months prior to kidnapping Sally, after serving a mere 14 months for the statutory rape of five girls between the ages of 12 and 14.

As she did in her immensely popular 2014 Hazlitt article on the subject, Weinman draws intriguing parallels between Horner’s life, at least what bits of it were publicized, and certain details of Lolita’s plot. Though this portraiture of connections has yet to be corroborated or disproven, and probably never can be, it holds before us a strong, disturbing possibility. Both Sally and Dolores were daughters of single mothers. In both cases, their torturer posed as their father, enrolled them in school, and otherwise appeared as a caring patriarch. Newspapers reported that La Salle threatened Sally with banishment to a “juvenile hall”; Lolita’s narrator, the villainous Humbert Humbert, threatens “the correctional school, the reformatory, the juvenile detention home.” These observations are filled in with some more speculative reaches such as that the fictional Hazes live on “Lawn Street,” while Sally lived on “Linden Street”; that Dolores’s mother, Charlotte, is described in the novel as “Dietrich-like” and Ella Horner over-plucked her eyebrows and had prominent cheekbones and a strong jawline.

We also see how victim-blaming assumptions by those she returned home to creep into Horner’s story at every stage. Throughout her daughter’s disappearance, Ella Horner told the press, “Whatever she has done, I can forgive her for it.” When Sally finally gets home from detention and returns to her local school, a former classmate named Carol Taylor attests to Weinman that many of her peers “looked at her as a total whore.” Dolores suffers an analogous loss of control over her life’s depiction. Lolita makes a big show of its namesake. She is the first word and the last, the word being one carefully selected to describe, motivate, and cherish her more majestically than she could herself. It's a miserly, unfair rendering, and Weinman's detective work strives to correct this imbalance by prioritizing the perspective of the girl ingenue over that of the middle-aged male raconteur. A narrative recalculation takes shape around this exercise: As their stories expand, the fiction's limits pop out like traffic signals on an American freeway. A fantasy may be sustained by a cruel belief in its own transcendence, or wrecked upon it.

And yet the same might be said of Weinman’s own work, for when she strays from imagistic and thematic persuasion to attempts at firm nonfictional grounds, the seams in her argument show forth and tear. In one instance, Weinman supplies ouroboros-like evidence that Nabokov knew about the Horner case before he finished writing Lolita. Weinman exhumes from Nabokov’s archives a single note card’s worth of information about Horner’s death and previous abduction, indicating he likely knew about the case in 1952, a little over a year before Lolita was completed. (It was published in 1955 and begun in earnest five years prior, although, as Weinman notes, Nabokov “had struggled with [Lolita], in various forms, for more than a decade.”) Weinman makes a lot of this, writing, “Here, in this note card, is proof that Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case.” Yet this is no surprise for the even mildly astute reader, since, as Weinman documents on the very first page of her book, there is a direct reference to Horner in Lolita, the very one that sparked so much scholarly interest in the question of a possible true-crime inspiration in the first place. (It’s a connection journalists picked up on as early as 1963). Toward the end of the novel, Humbert wonders to himself, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?”

The Real Lolita explores where fiction and nonfiction bleed together, but it is sometimes too sure of itself; its tendency is to seed suspicion of Nabokov’s motives, leading at times to a prosecutorial narrowing of scope. Weinman spends a chapter on Nabokov’s inclusion of a different true crime; her hope is to suggest a pattern in his research while drawing out a capriciousness in his tastes that, for Weinman, hints at duplicity.

The case in question is that of G. Edward Grammer, whose murder of his wife and subsequent framing of the act as a car accident in 1952 bears some resemblance to Humbert’s reverie of slaying Dolores’s mother, Charlotte Haze, to more easily assault the young girl. (Charlotte is struck and killed by an automobile soon after.) Weinman writes that the Grammer case, briefly invoked in a single paragraph in chapter 33 of the novel, “demonstrates Nabokov’s extended interest in crime stories. This, too, he sought to deny in public; he was also openly critical of mystery novels despite his boyhood love of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, and he denounced Dostoevsky as a hack, though he taught Crime and Punishment to his Cornell students. He disdained those who would reduce Lolita to a genre, yet a great deal of Nabokov’s fiction relies on tropes of crime and suspense.” Again, as with the note card, I’m not sure what more evidence of Nabokov’s interest in crime stories proves—we already know he read about Sally’s case because it’s in the book. Nabokov’s citation of the Grammer case might in fact demonstrate he was inspired by multiple stories. It seems prudent of Nabokov to research true-crime cases, so that his novel might come alive. But Weinman’s prurient interest in framing inconstancies of taste and polemic over the course of a long career as damning wins out over likelier explanations.

In her final chapter, Weinman cites Azar Nafisi’s remark in Reading Lolita in Tehran that “the desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.” “Without realizing it,” writes Weinman, “Nafisi has made the exact parallel between Dolores Haze and Sally Horner.” Yet Weinman neglects to mention that the parallel Nafisi herself makes is between the lives of women under the sexually, intellectually repressive regime that followed the Iranian Revolution and Dolores’s struggle, with which she and her students often felt a kinship. Again, I wondered whether this interpretation was omitted in avoidance of complications to Weinman’s thesis, so that it might proceed most like a trial. “Lolita’s success almost seemed designed so people missed the point,” concludes Weinman in the previous chapter, about the commercialization of the book in the decades since its publication, much of which had Lolita playing the seductress. “It allowed for a culture of teen-temptress vamping that did not account for the victimization at the novel’s core.” This bold assertion is too hastily reached, leaves out a multitude of less shallow readings, and doesn’t sufficiently explore how literary interpretation is a shared responsibility. It occurred to me Weinman is mostly focused on the opinions of a small but influential coterie of male artists and tastemakers: the kind who read 1984 as a warning, and Lolita as license.

For many of us, it isn’t so simple. There’s one refrain of Weinman’s book in particular that I kept getting stuck on, wanting to consider more deeply. She writes that in reading Lolita, “those who love language and literature are rewarded richly, but also duped. If you’re not being careful, you lose sight of the fact that Humbert raped a twelve-year-old child repeatedly over the course of nearly two years, and got away with it.” It seems unlikely to me that a reader who finishes Lolita without realizing the book is pervaded by instances of rape has risked enough of their intellectual capacities to be “duped.” But the general idea—that this novel seduces and betrays even a faithful reader, is likely. It is then incumbent upon the readership to notice that the novel, which has gripped a whole and dazzling constellation of belletristic motion, is transfigured upon an even more unfathomable, insidious inexpression; that this may be the novel’s most fawning luxury, its headiest liberty taken; that its ambition was never merely its own. As Weinman is careful to affirm, the novel has no skeleton key, or comfortable vantage point. It’s incumbent upon us to make more of this book than aesthetic purity and baby-doll dresses, to struggle with its many permissions and abuses.

In my own readings of Lolita over the years I’ve never managed to escape the book’s seduction so much as develop strategies for surviving it. After reading the novel for the first time at 17, I went home and wrote a short story about a woman who falls in love with a rabbit. The plot and the language I chose were adapted from Lolita. And in the spirit of The Real Lolita—that is, to be perfectly up-front about my sources—the characters and setting were lifted from the life of a woman my dad used to date, who consecrated an entire floor of her Park Slope brownstone to her pet bunny, in order to keep it secluded from her ever growing collection of cats. I too fell into the trap Weinman proposes; I adopted an outsized fetishism of Nabokov’s bewitching English. Yet Lolita emboldened my own imaginative instinct in a vast, traceable manner, contributing to my wanting to be a writer, to tell my stories and the stories of others in my own way.

Many years later, and shortly after I’d read the book for a third time, a man I very much hoped to fall in love with picked me up in his car for a date. We talked for most of the ride about Lolita, and Nabokov’s oeuvre. My desire to have already read everything that Nabokov had ever written, as this man clearly had, mingled with another, finer passion to have already been on every date we would ever go on, to grow up—when exactly was I going to get somewhere, anyway? Sometime before this I’d fixed myself an answer while taking ecstasy for the first time with an ex-boyfriend. I dragged him home from a rave so that I could have him sit on my bed very patiently (it was paramount to me that he be patient, and absolutely still, although he was allowed to smile) as I grabbed book after book from my floor and read dramatically from them, at him, for hours on end. And what absorbed the most time were several passages from Lolita, which I tore through greedily as if seeking a justification, or too much pleasure—perhaps collapsing the distinction.