Lolita's Time Leaks and transatlantic decadence

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In this article, I investigate the matrix of transatlantic literary exchange in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955) in order to suggest how the novel's rehabilitation of an international decadent aesthetics constitutes a radical challenge to the American literary establishment in the post-war. I begin by identifying the figures of Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Swinburne as the key constellation for Nabokov in his plotting of Lolita's ambivalent engagement with the ethics of temporality and artistic autonomy. I then go on to situate Lolita's composition within debates current in the American academy from the late 1930s to the early 1950s over the value of decadent aesthetics within the modernist project and anxieties over Poe's place within American national literary culture. Read alongside the critical writings of T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate and the New Criticism, Lolita emerges as the risky reinstatement of a transatlantic decadent tradition, in which the failure of temporal and ethical containment disrupts a dominant narrative of modernism's history in American letters.

Keywords: Lolita; Nabokov, Vladimir; decadence; modernism; time; transatlanticsm

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Kent.

Publication date: July 1, 2009

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  • The European Journal of American Culture (EJAC) is an academic, refereed journal for scholars, academics and students from many disciplines with a common involvement in the interdisciplinary study of America and American culture, drawing on a variety of approaches and encompassing the whole evolution of the country.
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