• Vladimir Nabokov played a crucial role in the cultural shift I have described. Lolita was a taboo-breaking book, which caused great controversy when it was first published in 1955 – in France, since no American or British publisher would touch it for fear of prosecution – and for some years after. It was soon banned in France, and its importation into Britain forbidden. The acclaim the novel received from writers and critics, starting with Graham Greene’s selection of it as one of his books of the year, eventually overcame protests that it was pornographic, and it was published in the US in 1958 and in Britain in 1959. This was a landmark in the liberation of writers from censorship, consolidated in the following year when Penguin was prosecuted for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover and acquitted. Nabokov himself emphatically denied that Lolita was pornographic on the grounds of both its structure and style, but he deplored much of the sexually explicit literary fiction that was published in the changed climate of opinion his novel helped to create. Lolita still provokes disapproval and controversy not because of the explicitness of its sexual passages, which are restrained by today’s standards, but because they describe a relationship between a mature man and a girl well under the age of consent, this being one of the few kinds of sexual behaviour that are almost universally anathematised and punished by law.

    • A new book, Nabokov’s Eros, written by Maurice Couturier, the leading authority on the novelist in France (and, I should declare, the translator of several of my own novels) handles this issue, and similar ones raised by Nabokov’s oeuvre, frankly and with discrimination. There is little doubt that sexual attraction to a certain kind of prepubescent girl was an important element in Nabokov’s sexuality, whether or not he ever acted on it, and the novelist was well aware of the risks he was running in giving imaginative expression to this kind of sexual desire. He hesitated to publish Lolita, and at one point nearly destroyed it.

    • Couturier is surely right to trace in Nabokov’s style the influence of French libertine fiction, in which elegant variation and metaphorical figures of speech were applied lavishly to sexual parts and acts. The aesthetic pleasure of decoding the tropes and noting their felicity is an essential part of the pleasure of the erotic text

    • Couturier accurately describes his critical method as that of “a reader and a quoter, a bit like Nabokov in his lectures on literature”. His book escorts us through the novels and stories with a mixture of quotation and summary, not in chronological order but grouped together in various sets: for example, fictions in which sex is linked to sadism and cruelty, fictions that demonise women, fictions in which the main character is signally lacking in sexual desire, and so on.

      les thèmes de nabokov...