By Amy Lay
A Russian author, writing an American novel, published in France and banned in Australia: Lolita created a global stir that reverberated through the second half of the 20th century.
Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian émigré, lived in the north-east United States and wrote his novel Lolita while travelling on butterfly-collection trips around America. He had already published nine Russian language novels, having been raised trilingual in tsarist Russia. Minor members of the nobility, his family fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution and eventually settled in America after a period in western Europe.
After completing the novel Nabokov sought an American publisher, but was met with uncertainty from publishers, mainly due to the novel’s controversial content. Instead, Nabokov found a willing publisher in Paris; however he was unaware at the time that Olympia Press was mostly known for publishing pornographic pulp novels.
Despite the French publisher, the novel was banned in France in 1955. It was banned in Australia the same year, and was heatedly discussed in British Parliament as well, after Graham Greene named it one of the best novels of the year. A copy was detained by Customs in Sydney in 1957, a year before the book was published in New York.
The Lolita ban was reviewed in 1959 by request of British publishers Weidenfeld and Nicolson. By 1959, the book had been published in the US, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Japan and had been recognised for its literary merit. Despite the publisher’s claim that the cost of 26/- would price most regular readers out of the market and leave Lolita as a work of high-brow readership, the ban remained.
Lolita’s prohibition was not seriously challenged again until 1964. The book was set as required reading for a course on American literature by Dr Bob Brissenden at the Australian National University. There was an explosion of interest in Lolita, from the media, the government, and the public.
This put Customs and the government in an unusual position – if the request for study was approved, then any other university could potentially place banned books on its reading lists and reasonably expect to be allowed to import them.
Dr Brissenden argued ‘the ban on a book, which has been applauded elsewhere, is detrimental to a study of literature to Australian students’. The university proposed that the book would only be available to a group of about 30 students aged 17–18 years old, and even then only in tutorials and in the library under supervision.
The Liberal and Country Party State Council disagreed with the book’s inclusion on a university reading list. One member wondered why students should not study books such as the Bible, or works by Milton, Shakespeare and Dickens; despite the course being American literature. This objection was ridiculed by the Herald newspaper in Melbourne, labelling the council a group of ‘rather pompous busybodies’.
Dr Brissenden’s request was denied and he was not allowed to import Lolita.
In 1965, Dr BR Elliott at the University of Adelaide had his own copy of Lolita seized at Customs after attempting to import it to ‘round off’ his personal library. Elliot was appalled by number of hoops through which he would have to jump to have the book returned, and refused to complete the requisite forms for release. In the end, the forms were unnecessary: on 21 July the ban on Lolita was lifted.
Despite lifting the ban, it appears the Australian Government wasn’t completely convinced. The 1997 film was held for two years before it was released in Australia in 1999, over 40 years since the original ban on the novel.
Prohibited publication – ‘Lolita’, 1957-65
Decision for ‘Lolita’, 1958-64
Prohibited publications – seizure of ‘Lolita’ (Port Adelaide), 1965