lolita Nobokov

From the Great Depression to the Cold War

  • Theme: American literature in Europe

The period of the Lost Generation’s ascendancy and influence lasted barely a decade, and began to wane after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed in the early 1930s. Like their European counterparts, American Modernists such as Stein, Pound, and Williams had initially pursued formal literary innovation at the expense of political or historical context; as William Carlos Williams put it in The Great American Novel, “Clean, clean he had taken each word and made it new for himself so that at last it was new, free from the world for himself” (1923; 17). Now, though, the Depression years and the alarming growth of Fascism and Communism required public intellectuals to address the political tide, to take sides and make allegiances. Many, including George Orwell, André Gide, and Arthur Koestler, Dreiser, Steinbeck, and Dos Passos, turned to the left, and looked to the Soviet experiment in Russia for solutions to the economic and ethical crises of the 1930s.

The “Roaring Twenties” of hedonism and experiment in Paris were replaced by the chastened Depression years, and the arts reflected this change, as a new sprit of realism took hold in American (and European) fiction. This was also an era when American literature turned to face inwards again, when authors returned from their European travels and focused on alarming domestic developments. Characteristic titles from this depressing decade were Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925; YA.1986.b.1522), Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930; X.808/6212), Dos Passos’s USA (1938;, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath(1939; Cup.410.f.84), and the portraits of rural deprivation in James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941; 1960; 10153.ff.26).

“American tragedies” of all kinds—wildcat strikes in the cities and poverty and hardship in the Dustbowl—would continue to preoccupy American writers and intellectuals at least until 1941, when the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbour forced the United States out of isolation and into international affairs once more. Again, throughout the 1940s-1950s, another wave of North Americans, many in Europe for the altogether less hedonistic purpose of fighting Fascism, found their way to Paris. Again, following in the pioneering footsteps of Stein, Hemingway, et al, the list of authors who either wrote or published first in Europe reads like a who’s who of the post-war era: James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, Leonard Cohen, J.P. Donleavy, Joseph Heller, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Edmund Wilson, Thomas Wolfe, and Kurt Vonnegut. Like their forebears in the inter-war years, many of these writers, once again scarred by horrific experiences of Europe at war, found dark inspiration in the surreal spectacle of the continent’s descent into chaos.

One of these writers, Henry Miller, had, in fact, been in Europe for longer than most, and his time in Paris spanned the 1930s, that anxious decade after most of the expatriates left, and the forces of Fascism mustered across Western Europe. Sometimes threatening to overshadow his literary achievements, Miller’s influence as a social libertine and radical cannot be underestimated. In often ill-tempered partnership with Jack Kahane, head of the Paris-based Obelisk Press and another pioneer of “free expression”, Miller eventually brought forth his rancorous reflections on exile and debauchery in Tropic of Cancer (1935). Paradoxically, this was an era both of literary experiment and unprecedented censorship, when controversies around their work forced Joyce and Lawrence, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and Radclyffe Hall, among others, to seek the support of courageous small presses, often in comparatively liberal Paris as opposed to London or New York.

I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead. 

Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice...

The opening of Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

The enduring product of this torturous process of censorship and publication are a number of novels now regarded by many as among the cornerstones of the Modern movement. In its confessional sensibility and embrace of extreme experience, sexual freedom and violence, Tropic of Cancer was defiantly one of those pivotal works. It would also prove hugely influential, with many of Miller’s post-war successors on both sides of the Atlantic, among them the Beat Writers and Existentialists of the early 1950s, responding to his unrelenting search for creative and sexual freedom, and his nihilistic pleasure-drive. Again, even during the relative “down-time” of the 1930s, it seems that the inspiration of Paris, with all its dark corners and dirty secrets, just as much as its glittering social life, was a vital ingredient in the mix from which Miller, and these later acolytes, would emerge.

Another émigré—from Russia, to Europe, then America, and finally back to Europe—who took full advantage of Paris’s more permissive publishing regime was Vladimir Nabokov. In fact, his best-known, and most controversial English-language novel, Lolita, would be published by the city’s Olympia Press three full years before it was released in New York by Putnam’s. As many critics have pointed out, Lolita represents the epitome of the author’s career-long love-affair with everything polyglot and cosmopolitan, and a late-flowering work of experimental Modernism, in the tradition of Kafka and Borges. Its subject-matter—European émigréHumbert Humbert’s obsessive pursuit of his prepubescent muse across the mental and literal landscapes of 1950s’ America—essentially reverses the direction of one of the age-old features of “transatlantic fiction”.

From Hawthorne, through Poe and Twain, it is Henry James’s innocent American heroines like Daisy Miller, Isobel Archer, and Milly Theale, who most resemble virginal precursors to Nabokov’s Dolores Haze, the quintessential American teenager of the 1950s. Again, it is ironic, but oddly appropriate given the history sketched above, that Nabokov—a White Russian who became an American citizen in 1945—achieved much of his formidable reputation outside his adopted country. In this, too, he resembled James, Stein, Hemingway, and all those other pioneers of the American avant-garde who sought to test prevailing concepts of American innocence in the cauldron of European experience.

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (Paris: Obelisk Press, 1935)

Tropic of Cancer Henry Miller

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Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (Paris: Olympia Press, 1955)

Lolita p13

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