Lot 38
  • 38

Nabokov, Vladimir

80,000 - 120,000 USD
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  • ink and paper
Lolita. Paris: the Olympia Press, 1955

2 volumes, 12mo. Original printed green wrappers priced at Francs: 900 on both lower wrappers; some of the usual rubbing along joints and to the upper panel of volume one, slightly more so at spine ends of same. In a custom cloth case.


Juliar A28.1.1


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Catalogue Note

A presentation copy of the first edition, inscribed with a butterfly on the half-title of volume one in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a year after publication, to his close friend William James, Jr. and his wife Alice: "for Alice and Billy from V 23 April 1956." Nabokov has inscribed beneath a one-inch wide pencil butterfly decorated in greys and reds.

Nabokov and his wife Véra first met “Billy” James—Williams James, Jr.—and his wife Alice in 1952. A Visiting Lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literature, responsible for Slavic 150, Modernism; and Slavic 152, Pushkin, he also took over for his closest friend there, Harry Levin, at the helm of Humanities 2, The Novel, for which course he would prepare and deliver his historic six lectures on Don Quixote. Having taken up residence in Cambridge for the spring semester, the Nabokovs were quite active socially (though not, as it turned out, as active as their son Dmitri, who had begun his freshman year in the fall of 1951), and the Levins introduced them to those who would come to comprise their circle.

“Through the Levins, the Nabokovs also began to see much of William and Alice James. William, a painter, was the son of the great philosopher, a favorite of Nabokov’s and a nephew of the novelist. Nabokov thought William James “a dear soul with an admirable delicacy of string-tone,” and treated the older man—aged seventy in 1952—in his most warmly ceremonious fashion.” (VN: The American Years, pp. 215-16).

In January 1953 Nabokov returned to Cambridge for two months of research for his Eugene Onegin translation, with Véra at his side in the libraries, and the Jameses took over for the Levins, who were away for the semester, as the Nabokovs’ closest companions. Indeed, when the Nabokovs returned to Harvard to conclude their research in 1956, during which visit this inscription was made, Boyd lists the Jameses second only to the Levins in the hierarchy of their Cambridge friends. 

At least five American publishers rejected Lolita: Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar Straus, and Doubleday. The Partisan Review agreed to print a portion of it, but only on the condition that Nabokov would sign the work; he refused, having decided that “its subject is such that V., as a college teacher, cannot very well publish it under his real name. Especially, since the book is written in the first person, and the ‘general’ reader has the unfortunate inclination to identify the invented ‘I’ of the story with its author.” He added, parenthetically, “This is, perhaps, particularly true of the American ‘general’ reader.”

All the while Nabokov defended his work to friends and publishers. He wrote to Morris Bishop:

I know that Lolita is my best book so far. I calmly lean on my conviction that it is a serious work of art, and that no court could prove it to be ‘lewd and libertine.’ All categories grade, of course, into one another: a comedy of manners written by a fine poet may have its ‘lewd’ side; but ‘Lolita’ is a tragedy. ‘Pornography’ is not an image plucked out of context; pornography is an attitude and an intention. The tragic and the obscene exclude each other. (March 6, 1956, SL p. 184)