On July 13th, 1948, Sally Horner stole a five cent notebook from a local supply shop. The act was a rite of passage, the token for admittance to a girl’s club whose ranks she was eager to join. It may have been a far cry from establishing a street cred or sorority hazing, but the act did throw her into a destructive spiral – and set the stage for one of the 20th centuries greatest literary achievements.
“Light of my life, fire of my loins…” most of us are familiar with the introductory poetics of Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious novel, Lolita. The book is one that has sparked controversy over the past sixty plus years for it’s taboo content – paedophilia, let’s just say it – and debates concerning the young girl’s character in her interactions with the protagonist, Humber Humbert. Is she characterized as an adult or as a child? Is the romance that unfolds consensual or rape? The moral questions the book gives rise to causes many readers to tiptoe around the subject matter, but there’s one thing that readers rarely question: Nabokov carries out the novel with impeccable skill and the story is compelling – albeit disturbing. However, few people (myself included until today) know that Lolita is based on a the story of Sally Horner.
As Horner was leaving the supply shop, notebook tucked in her bag, a man named Frank La Salle grabbed her by the arm. He claimed to be an FBI agent, and told Sally she was under arrest. He told her that she would be charged and taken to reform school unless she agreed to report to him every now and then. Sobbing, she agreed. But the following day, the man approached her again with a new set of rules. Sally must come with him, immediately, to Atlantic City – the law insisted.
It was 21 months until Sally was able to break away from her perpetrator. The story is equal parts eerie, disturbing, and overdone – the latter probably due to the clichéd milk-carton abduction stories upheld in film and fiction alike, including none other than Lolita.
In his 1956 essay, “On a Book Titled Lolita” Nabokov explains the context of his novel and refutes the claim that his renowned piece of fiction was based on the atrocity.
“For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
Nabokov did not like to map nonfiction templates to fictional stories, nor was he a fan of searching for rooted morals in his work. Fiction was a creative whim that carried him into his various literary pursuits, and by no means a lurid retelling of Sally Horner’s case. But who’s to say fiction and nonfiction are mutually exclusive genres? Imagination hems on the real, after all.
Within the text itself, Nabokov references the tragedy. Humbert finds himself in Lolita’s hometown many years later and asks himself “had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle [sic], a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” It’s a pretty explicit nod to the abduction. Furthermore, the physical resemblance and parentage of Lolita and Sally are striking, and writer’s notes suggest Nabokov considered even more explicit references to the abduction.
There’s no question that Lolita is a mutli-layered book, but it tints the narrative in a new light when we find the story of Sally Horner nestled in all its complexity. It’s easy to dismiss Lolita in the book and focus solely on Humbert, but the same can’t be quite as easily done with the real story it mirrors. When the parallel is drawn between book and reality, it makes it hard to not focus on Lolita, as the reader hopes to tease out every piece of fact that lies within the fiction. Horner’s story is a haunting one and the ghost of it lives on in the flickering presence Lolita holds in the novel and the ever-present shadow she casts over Humbert and the reader. Whether it immortalizes Horner or merely moves her entrapment from La Salle to Nabokov’s pages is up to the reader.
Images courtesy of Hazlitt.