At 16, Sarah Weinman was a Nepean High School student when she picked up Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita.
She wouldn’t have know then that such a controversial work would be a major part of her life, so much so in fact that she has released a book that examines the real life crime story that lies behind Nabokov’s exploration of pedophilia. It’s called The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
Why this story?
“It is a complicated answer. I first read Lolita when I was 16 about 20 odd years or so ago. Obviously it is disturbing and deliberately so. Reading at 16 was perhaps not the best decision I made, but I think I was trying to prove something to myself.”
She realized while reading, that she was encountering an unreliable narrator.
“The shock of, ‘Oh, you can do that with literature. You can make it so the reader doesn’t trust the narrative you are presenting. From that standpoint I was really fascinated by what Nabokov was doing.
Weinman knows that the novel is, frankly, creepy. It is about one man’s unrelenting obsession with a pre-pubescent girl to the point where he takes that obsession takes her against her will and rapes her repeatedly over the course of a cross-country road trip.
Her interest in the current book was sparked in 2013.
“Among many things that I do (as a freelance writer and editor) is crime journalism especially crime stories at the intersection of 20th century culture.”
The mid 20th century is a time frame she is particularly interested in.
“I had just finished a story for the New York Times Magazine and was looking around for something new to do. As is my want I stayed up late at night and followed something down an internet rabbit hole.” The idea of a rabbit is a reminder of Alice in Wonderland another interest of Nabokov’s, she said in an aside.
Curious and curiouser … Weinman found a Times Literary Supplement essay by a Nabokov scholar that asked the question ‘Whatever Happened To Sally Horner.’
Sally Horner was a young girl from New Jersey who was kidnapped and held hostage by a predator named Frank La Salle. She was eventually rescued from her abuser.
Sally is actually referenced late in the novel, Weinman said.
“There is a paranthetical where Humbert Humbert has returned to the New England town of Ramsdale after several years has passed and Lolita is long gone. He is trying to move on but he thinks to myself,” Wwinman said, ‘Had I done to Dolly (Dolores Hayes or Lolita) what Frank La Salle, a 50 year old mechanic did to 11 year old Sally Horner in 1948.”
Because so much is going on in the book it’s easy to miss that paranthetical, she said, ” I certainly did.”
Reading the essay, Weinman knew this was a good story and she wondered if anyone had “actually reported out what had happened to Sally Horner.”
By 2014 she was immersed in the story. She wrote a magazine piece on the relationship between the novel and the real life drama of Sally Horner. It was published in Hazlitt magazine which is part of Penguin Random House Canada.
But “I knew there was so much more to explore. It felt like a book. I wanted to figure out what Nabokov knew (about Sally) and when he knew it.
She also wanted to tell Sally’s story “to the best of my ability.”
Weinman started out on another career path. After leaving Nepean High she went to McGill to be a scientist and later to be a forensic scientist. That took her to New York City and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“What I learned was that I had no business working in a lab. I was much more interested in crime as a larger picture.”
But there is no doubt that her training has helped her as a journalist and writer.
“People are capable of monstrous things. For someone like Frank La Salle, I think he was more of an opportunist. He saw his chance and took it. In crime circles you have people who abuse children because of a compulsion or those who do it because the kids are there. I don’t know which version is scarier.
In La Salle’s case, she said. “it’s not so much what he was but what he did.”
In the case of Nabokov, Weinman said he had been “working through this idea for many years in different forms and to varying degrees of success. It started of with a poem that he wrote.”
She said the author also did talk about compulsion in his novel The Gift in which there is a paragraph that is essentially a precise of Lolita.
“Then he really got going with unpublished novella that was published after he died. It is called The Enchanter. That set out a lot of Lolita’s storyline but it doesn’t quite work.”
Lolita itself took a long time including one instance when he tossed the manuscript into a fire only to have his wife Vera rescue it.
It took awhile to find a published once the novel was finished. Eventually a French house called Olympia Press, which was also known for printing a lot of pornography, put the book out, Weinman said.
“It became the hot underground book to read between 1955 and 1958 when it was finally published in American and Canada. One of reasons my book is being published this year is because of the anniversary. It’s also the 70th anniversary of Sally Horner’s kidnapping.”
After 60 years, Lolita still feels pretty incendiary.
“No one can be neutral on it. It is designed to be provocative and thought provoking. It is also a work of art and it is important to respond to it in kind.
“What I was trying to do with The Real Lolita is to show that there is this real girl. There is Sally Horner and she deserves to be thought of alongside this work of art that used her story, invoked her name and then superseded everything that she was. She didn’t have a chance to grow up.”
Sally died in a car crash at age 15 in a vehicle that was driven by a boy she liked.
“Nabokov knew this. … He copied down a wire story about Sally’s death and incorporated details into Lolita. He also knew about the case when she was rescued. It was a widely reported story and he paid attention to real life crime. It’s safe to say he was likely aware in 1950. In 1952 he was hard at work on the Lolita manuscript which he finished in 1953.
Weinman is also exploring the responsibility that a novelist has to real life crime stories with real victims.
“I think what you need to do as a writer is take that inspiration, draw from it and make it your own. Lolita does draw from Sally’s story, still it is a tremendous work of art.
“It could work even if he had never known her story. He was always going to write something akin to Lolita. I believe Sally’s story helped him finish the novel but it was not the inspiration.”
her own motivation was to show Sally mattered as a person she was more than just a victim.
“My hope is that when you think of the novel you will remember Sally.”
She also hopes that The Real Lolita will start a bigger conversation.
“My fear is #MeToo is experiencing a backlash starting with public consideration of redemption for perpetrators. As a writer and researcher on crime, my thought is, ‘Why would we want to give anybody who displays any degree of predatory compulsion anything when they have not done the work to truly rehabilitate. Lewis CK is back on the comedy circuit. Why didn’t he go and do some restorative justice.”
In town: Sarah Weinman, the author of The Real Lolita ( ) will be at the Sunnyside branch of the Ottawa Public Library, 1049 Bank St., Thursday evening (Sept. 20) at 6:30 p.m. For more information, please see biblioottawalibrary.ca