The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
“It’s a tempting premise,” said Rachel Monroe in Bookforum. Knowing that one of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century closely echoed a true-crime story from the same era, author Sarah Weinman decided to track down every detail of the possible connection. Several years before Vladimir Nabokov published Lolita, 11-year-old Sally Horner of Camden, N.J., was abducted by a middle-aged man who for the next two years posed as her father while traveling the country and repeatedly raping her. Though her ordeal ended in 1950 just about the time the writing of Lolita began, Nabokov always maintained that Horner was not his inspiration. In the end, “I’m not sure it matters.” Weinman has done a service by resurrecting Sally Horner’s story, because her America betrayed her.
Weinman’s book interweaves two narrative threads, said Sadie Trombetta in Bustle.com. The first relates Horner’s horrific journey, pieced together from court documents, newspaper reports, and interviews. The other story concerns the years Nabokov put into writing Lolita and working to see it published. Weinman dug through Nabokov’s notes, pored over the novel’s text for clues, and pieced together the cross-country trips that Nabokov made with his wife in pursuing his amateur interest in butterflies. The result is “a stunning mash-up of cultural history, true crime, and classic American literature.”
The link between Horner and Lolita is “more tenuous than Weinman suggests,” said Katrina Gulliver in The Weekly Standard. Yes, the novel mentions Horner by name, but Nabokov began work on it before she became news. He also recast whatever true-crime tales he’d heard by making the pedophile an erudite narrator: “We begin to accept Humbert Humbert’s self-justifications, and hate ourselves for it.” Like Humbert’s prey, Horner was a victim of a culture confused about sexuality and too deferential to adults. She deserves to be remembered not as a mere victim, though, but “as one brave enough to escape.”