Saturday, June 29, 2019

Heard: "The Real Lolita" by Sarah Weinman

Heard: The Real Lolita: the kidnapping of Sally Horner and the novel that scandalized the world by Sarah Weinman, 2018, audio from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Sarah "With an H" Weinman wrote a neat book but I admit to being a little bummed that there was not more about the girl and her family. Weinman seems to have done a lot of research and interviewed all the surviving friends and relatives of the girl who she could . But, Horner died in 1952 when she was 15 and her niece was only about 4 years old at the time. Weinman dug up court docs and some letters and journals that were related but all the people directly involved are dead, dead, dead.

Weinman addresses this issue of evidence and people because for her this absence made the story all the more compelling. Many of the people involved passed away with the past 10 years or so and therefore were juuussst out of reach. Horner's story was national news at the time and mostly forgotten. Many documents and papers of the time are still around but have to found in basements and attics and boxes.

This is not all true crime. Weinman is addressing the question of whether Nabokov was inspired by or used the story of Horner to write Lolita. This is not literary theory, instead she tells about Nabokov and Horner and a few other New Jersey crimes.

Anyhoo. Florence Sally Horner was 11 years old in 1948 when garbage human Frank La Salle kidnapped her in Camden, NJ and kept her for almost two years. La Salle was already a serial rapist and degenerate scumbag. He saw Horner trying to shoplift and convinced the girl that he was an FBI Agent and she had to do what he said or go to jail. He moved her around a bit in NY and then to Philadelphia, Dallas, and ending in San Jose.

Meanwhile, Nabokov was teaching at Cornell, being a bit grouchy, and taking long summer vacations in the car to hunt butterflies.  Nabokov worked on Lolita for about ten years and seems to have overcome a literary hump in the story at the same time Horner's rescue from shitbag La Salle hit the national news. But, Nabokov was no ordinary novelist. He was an ARTISTE! Vlad did not need any damn inspiration, he was the inspiration! How dare you suggest he took features of the real kidnapping and people and employed them in his art! Everything was fully formed inside his brilliant min and sprang forth onto the page through his hard work and native brilliance!

And that's why this is kinda-sorta a big deal. A big deal enough deal that this book has a lot of press when it came out last Autumn. Mr. Big Shot Literary Dude was a private guy and kept his work a but mysterious. So the idea that he used a true life incident is neat for Lolita fans. But, as Weinman clearly points out, Nabokov referred to Scumbag rapist La Salle within the text of Lolita. It's like listening to Trump, Nabokov admits to something in the damn book and then says he never heard of the guy.

I don't give a rat's ass about a literary mystery. I just enjoyed the story. And since Weinman did not have a whole lot of information about Horner and her family she gives some interesting crime details of New Jersey in the late '40s and early '50s. There are plenty of other rapes and murders. There is a young woman whose preacher father has her beaten to death for the insurance. A spree killer WWII veteran in Camden. And a few other events. The spree killer story was particularly interesting and Weinman tried to hunt down surviving witnesses but the killer outlived them all when he died in 2009.

Within all this is the social impact Lolita has had. The publishing travails of Nabokov. Multiple adaptations that mostly sucked. Vera Nabokov's work on behalf of her husband. So on. So forth.

A more interesting aspect of Lolita is current day awareness of rape and silence. Sarah Horner was a freaking kid. She was taken with her mother's consent (well, not exactly, but read the book for details), and raped for two years as the Piece of Human Filth La Salle posed as a caring father. 11-years-old and she still gets ostracized upon her return. For fuck's sake, the cops put her in custody at a youth facility because of bullshit reasons of being a witness.  And her mother says in an interview, "No matter what she has done I'm sure we can get past it."

Match that up with all the other women getting assaulted and murdered in New Jersey at that time. It all runs down to sex and power and control. LaSalle had a history of controlling and that kept up after his arrest. He filed appeals that were full of lies directly contradicted by his own court testimony. He sent flowers to the service for Horner after she died in a 1952 car wreck.

Weinmand quotes Vera Nabokov and others about how people miss the point that Lolita was being raped. Even using the name Lolita - a name derived by the rapist Humbert Humbert from the girls real name, Dolores.  The novel is told by the rapist and many adaptations and discussions if the characters are missing the fact that she was a freaking child. Instead they use Humbert's rationalizations and fantasies and portray the girl as a vixen or tease or sexually precocious.

Anyhoo times two. I enjoyed the story and Weinman makes a strong argument that Nabokov heard about Horner

1. Deserves to be Burned to Death LaSalle was one of those cagey liars. He lies whenever he feels the need - which reminds of another rapist, Trump - and his background was partially concealed. He did leave a surviving daughter though. Weinman spoke to her and the daughter had only really heard her father's bullshit stories and still believed him decades later.
2. Nabokov took a fantastic trip from Ithaca, NY west one summer. They drove south of great lakes, through IA and NE, arriving in Salt Lake City for a conference and workshops. They then dorve North to the Grand Tetons for butterfly hunting and east through MN into Northern Ontario. Sounds fantastic.
3. Horner was 15-years-old when she took a weekend away from home with a friend. She was killed in a car wreck when taking a drive with a 20-year-old dude. The car crash aftermath included multiple lawsuits and prosecutions.

4. Weinman references Memoirs of Hecate County when discussing the trouble with publishing Lolita. I never heard of it before.
5. Nabokov signed with a sketchy publisher to get his book out. The publisher gave him a shit deal and was late or never paid royalties. Due to the contract Nabokov also could have lost the copyright after five years. Since the book sold like hotcakes that would have been a disaster.

6. Nabokov wrote the initial screenplay and it tallied at 400 pages. Kubrick rewrote the thing with no credit and the Oscar nomination went to Nabokov.
7. Discussion on the further adaptations written by middle aged men. Focus on Lolita as envisioned by Humbert Humbert. That she was a sexy tease and not a child.
8. Weinman found only 1 interview with Nabokov copping to reading or hearing of middle age rapists.
9. The discussion of seeing Lolita as a sex object reminded me of Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire. That involves a high school girl carrying on with a married teacher and the awful effect it has on her life. Back when I was doing videos for work Maguire was kind enough to talk to me from Australia. Watch the video because hardly anyone else has.


pattinase (abbott) said...

My husband read and enjoyed it but commented when the literary types got a hold of it, they wouldn't like a non-Ph.d writing about Nabokov and I guess that happened to some extent. But since it wasn't supposed to be literary criticism I don't get why that happened.

Todd Mason said... happened in part since there's a lot invested academically in Nabokov, who was one of these ridiculously talented slavs who took up English after childhood yet wrote the way they did in the adopted language (see also Conrad and, though some will fight me, Algis Budrys, though the last did learn English while still a child, just not first nor even second). The films notably kept casting rather blatant teens in the role, to soft-pedal the utter rape.

Also notable, though perhaps (hard to say) not supportable, the potential influence the 1952 novels SPRING FIRE by Marijane Meaker as Vin Packer and THE PRICE OF SALT (aka CAROL) by Patricia Highsmith as Claire Morgan might've had on Nabokov, as both have "illicit" lovers (lesbian couples in both cases...later in the '50s, Meaker and Highsmith would become a couple) taking auto jaunts, fleeing into the midwest to escape together from those attempting to keep them apart. The Highsmith particularly, it has been suggested, to much subsequent dismissal, might've gotten Nabokov thinking in those terms metaphorically. Both the women's novels are key documents in lesbian literature.

Sadly, I doubt New Jersey was a particularly odd hotbed of such activity then, any more than it probably is unusual in the degree of such crime now. As a Camden County resident, I certainly hope not.