LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Unprecedented mobility is one of the 20th & 21st Centuries’ most characteristic attributes, accellerated by the invention of the automobile, propeller planes and then the jet airliners that have brought the distant corners of the Earth ever closer together. Mass emigrations, immigration, refugees from war and political upheavals, displacements of populations and voluntary emigration, either in “pursuit of happiness” or in forced exile from persecution have reshaped nation-states and transformed the face of the globe. Writers and artists have often been at the forefront of such mass movements, sometimes arising from the “push factors” of political persecution resulting from their expression of their views in the face of hostile governments or societies, but also from the “pull factors” of attraction to the cosmopolitan centers of culture such as Paris, London or New York where they might hope to find inspiration, adventure, fellows in art, recognition, or a supportive environment.

Cosmopolitan centers have existed from earliest antiquity in such places as Athens, Rome, Alexandria, Baghdad and Chang’An in Tang China. The First Century Greek biographer Plutarch wrote to his young friend Menemechus who was grieving over recent exile from his native Sardis in modern Turkey, that “the exclusion from one city is the freedom to choose from all….On this account you will find that few men of the greatest good sense and wisdom have allowed themselves to be buried in their own country.” Thus exile, voluntary or involuntary, has always proved a double-edged sword, bringing both grief and wider opportunity.

The roll of renown authors who have either been forced into or have voluntarily chosen “exile” for a significant part or the bulk of their lives is legion. Examples include Vladimir Nabokov and Ayn Rand, fleeing from the Russian Revolution, Czeslaw Milos在 and Joseph Conrad, fleeing from occupation of their native Poland by Russia or Germany, Latin American writers from Cesar Vallejo to Ruben Dario, voluntary expatriates such as V.S. Naipaul, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and countless others. Throughout the history of World Literature the same fate or choice has affected writers as diverse as Emile Zola, Dante, Ovid, Chu Yuan (Qu Yuan), Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway, Trotsky, Marx, Cervantes, Thomas Mann, Adonis (Ali Ahmad Sa’id) and Salman Rushdie.


At the same time the condition of exile in various forms and connotations has been the subject matter of countless novels, stories and poems, to the extent that the character of the exile, or the condition of exile has taken on symbolic, even archetypal force in World Literature. Odysseus of Homer is a classical case of a hero driven from his home and homeland by forces beyond his control, either war, as in the “Iliad” or the invisible hand of fate or hostile gods such as Poseidon and Hera in the “Odyssey.” Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s reconfiguration of the Odysseus theme in “Ulysses” have become archetypal exiles, either in the form of the “Wandering Jew” or the displaced and outcast artist.

The Archetype of the Exile thus may potentially becomes a powerful symbol emblematic of inherent contradictions in the human condition capable of embodying the inescapable fate of Everyman. Adam and Eve, the ultimate mother and father of us all were the first exiles. What is birth itself but an expulsion and forced exile from the infantile unconscious “paradise,” provision and all-enveloping protection of the mothering womb? What are the pains, worries and responsibilities of adulthood and increasing old age but an exile from the “childhood,” to which Thomas Wolfe reminds us we can’t go home again, and from which we find ourselves farther and farther from our beginnings, more and more alone? What is death but a violent and involuntary forced exile from the world of the living and the persons and things we have loved? Who is not an exile?

Everyman, Freud would tall us, is an involuntary exile from the blissful sexual union of mother and son enforced through the Oedipus Complex. Everywoman, is a an implicit exile from the family of her mother and father which she is forced to leave behind to join that of her husband in an inescapably patriarchal world. Even the American Dream of fulfillment as a “reborn” free person in a new land casts a shadow of exile from a past or homeland displaced and disowned even by our aspirations.


In the Western Tradition exile has been a central theme since time immemorial. Ovid, author of the “Metamorphoses” and “Art of Love” (Ars Amorata) is often seen as the exemplary case of the writer in exile in classical antiquity. Once feted and celebrated in the highest court circles of Rome, at the end of his life he was banished by the Emperor Augustus to the farthest corner of the Empire, Pontus on the Black Sea, and died in loneliness. His exile produced the works “Tristia” (Sadness) and “Epistolae ex Ponto” (Letters from the Black Sea) in which he poured out his loneliness and sufferings.

Like Odysseus is the parallel case of Aeneas in Vergil’s “Aeneid,” who himself is exiled from his homeland Troy by the Greek victory enabled by Odysseus’ Trojan Horse strategem. Aeneas then “wanders in strange lands” with his father and son, including Dido’s Carthage, before realizing his destiny of founding a new homeland, the great empire of Rome. For some like Odysseus the dilemma of exile is to find the means of return to the lost homeland. For some, like Aeneas, the possibility of return does not exist, and for it must be subsituted the possibility of finding a new life, destiny, and homeland elsewhere.

Often the fate of exile is not the fate on a single individual only, but is bound up with the fate of entire nations or peoples. Vergil’s epic involves the destruction of the Trojan nation and its re-birth as the greater nation of Rome. In the Bible, the Jewish people as a whole and indiviudal Jews suffer repeated conditions of exile, exodus and return. In Exodus the exile of the Jewish people in Egypt as slaves and their rescue by Moses is recounted, preceded by accounts of Joseph’s involuntary exile to Egypt at the hands of his brothers, and followed by accounts of the Jewish people’s wanderings in Sinai and the desert prior to entry to the “Promised Land” of Caanan, and the founding, like Aeneas, of a new land of destiny. Later the Jews suffer the Babylonian Exile, then return under the Persians.

Exile as punishment, just or unjust, is also a familiar theme of the literature of exile. Adam and Eve became the first exiles (if we do not count Satan) as the presumably just punishment of God for their transgression of His laws with regard to eating the Apple of the Tree of Knowledge. The Prophets continuously warned the Jews of the just wrath of God in puniment for their inequity, of which exile of the whole people was an expected chastisement in the Old Testament. Suffering in exile, even from the time of Adam and Eve is also concomitantly seen as atonement for prior sins and inequity.

Exile and displacement played a prominent role in later Christian literature as well. Most of the Apostles such a Peter and Paul were martyred in exile. The great Medieval Christian epic, “Divina Commedia” or the “Divine Comedy” was composed in Dante’s exile from his native Florence, a fate he also shared with many others in the discords between the Black Guelphs, White Guelphs and Ghibellines, such as Machiavelli, and even Petrarch, who was born in exile after his father’s banishment and exile from Florence.

In other Ancient traditions exiles also abound. China celebrates the life and death of the archetypal Chinese literary exile, the poet Chu Yuan (Qu Yuan) author of the “Li Sao,” or “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”
who was banished by the Emperor, like Ovid, to the extreme wilds of the empire in the south after being defamed by rival courtiers. The Chinese people celebrate the martyrdom of the great poet and patriot in the Dragon Boat Festival, in which offerings of “zongzi” are made to protect his body in the Miluo River, in which he drowned himself in despair during his exile. Siddhartha, Buddha, underwent voluntary exile in search of Enlightenment upon leaving his father’s palace upon his first recognition of the existence of death and suffering in the world. Islam is a religion born in exile as Mohammad fled from Mecca to Medina to establish his following, the Ummah, ultimately to return from exile triumphant.


In modern World Literature cases of writers’ exile abound. Emile Zola fled to London to escape unjust imprisonment for the “libel” of telling the truth in the Dreyfus Affair. Voltaire, imprisoned in the Bastille twice for his cutting criticisms of the despotic French King, church and corrupt aristocracy, escaped to London, where he penned his
complimentary “Letters Concerning the English Nation,” praising many points of its superiority and desirability to his own. His “Candide” also features the meeting of four deposed kings in exile. Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, famously in Reading Jail, for homosexual offenses committed with Lord Alfred Douglas, after which public scorn and pressure drove him to live in exile from England, protectively changing his public name to Sebastian Melmoth, after “Melmoth the Wanderer.”

Scandal drove Lord Byron into exile, including public condemnation of his incestuous sexual affair with his half-sister, He took to wandering across the face of Europe, including residence in Geneva where he befriended Shelley and his wife Mary, author of “Frankenstein,” fathering a child out of wedlock with Mary’s sister before taking up the cause of Greek national independence from the Turks, a cause in which he fought and died in Greece.

Henry James and T.S. Eliot felt more at home in cosmopolitan London than in the parochial America of their birth, and both ultimately became British citizens. Ezra Pound also lived for long periods in London and Paris, until famously rejecting what he felt were corrupt Western money-driven democracies by siding with Mussolini in World War II, including making radio broadcasts for the Italian regime during the war, which brought about his arrest and forced repatriation to be charged with treason, had not the case been diverted by a convenient commitment to a mental hospital in Washington, D.C. He remained in involuntary commitment working on his immortal “Cantos” until years later he was released, only to return to Italy. D.H. Lawrence, also went into voluntary exile, travelling to and writing of Australia, Mexico, Italy, France, Ceylon and the USA, rejecting the money-corrupted West and his native England where he was persecuted during World War I for his pacifist anti-war views and for his novels of sexual consciousness, exploration and liberation, most of which were suppressed as alleged “pornography,” a fate he shared with James Joyce with regard to “Ulysses,” another lifetime exile from his native land.

Hemingway joined the exodus of American writers of the “Lost Generation to Europe, where he in his classic “The Sun Also Rises” descrobed the bittersweet and deteriorating condition of the cultural exile:

“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all of your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around in cafes.”


The experience of exile is as crucial to Vladimir Nabokov own experience as a writer as it is to that of many of the characters in His novels. We have already explored his exiled flight from the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, which he shared with his family from London to Berlin, and then again fleeing the Nazis to Paris and the United States. His most famous novel set in America is “Lolita” in which a middle-aged man, Humbert Humbert, who had previously lost his own teen-aged love, becomes enmeshed in an illicit passion for a pubescent teen-aged girl, which was subsequently made into a famous movie. Humbert, like the exiled Nabokov, arrives in a small college town where he rents a room with a widow, then falling perversely in love with the daughter Lolita he marries the mother to be near the girl, becoming her stepfather. He then molests the girl, taking over her life and going on the road with her to avoid police and social condemnation. Nabokov’s protagonists are often homeless or exiled, and as such they often out of nostalgia for what they have lost in their lives, like Humbert, yield themselves to odd and perverse obsessions to deal with their loss and lonliness. Other of his novels, such as “Pale Fire,” touching on homosexuality, and “Ada, or Ardor” dealing with incest follow similar dynamics.


Cesar Vallejo was born of a Spanish priest and an Incan-Indian mother in Peru, but spent most of his life in exile. His first book, “The Black Messengers” raises the inconsolable plaint of the Inca heritage of his maternal geneology. In 1920 he was imprisoned for political reasons, then abandoned his country never to return, living in Paris, Madrid and other European cities in poverty, or eking a scant living as a journalist or writer. He became a committed socialist, and his writing during the Spanish Civil War, such as “Tungsteno” expressed solidarity with the Anti-Fascist cause.

Ruben Dario (1867-1916) was one of the great poets of Latin American literature, often recognized as the father of “Modernismo” or Modernism in Hispanic Literature. Born in Nicaragua, his life as a writer and journalist took him on a journey of forced or voluntary exile through El Salvador, Chile, Buenos Aires, Peru, Mexico and Spain. In Spain he covered the Spanish-American War from the Spanish perspective and later served as Ambassador.


Czeslaw Milosz is one of the greatest Polish poets and in 1980 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had the honor to know him personally when I studied in the Ph.D. Program at the University of California at Berkeley. His leftist views made him a target after the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and he fought in the Resistance. Under the Communist government he served as a diplomat until, like Orwell and many others being disillusioned by the excesses of Stalinism, he defected to France and then the USA. His book “The Captive Mind” was a criticism of Stalinism and the mentality that sustained it. One of Milosz’s renown poems, “Fear-Dream” speaks in the voice of the exile, concluding with: “A refugee from fictitious States, who will want me here?”


V.S. Naipaul, Trinidadian-Indian Nobel Prize winner left his home in Trinidad to take up studies in England, later becoming a novelist expressing the overseas Indian experience in “A House for Mr. Biswas” and author of global travel narratives, including visits to his ancestral India in “An Area of Darkess” and the experience of black slaves in exile in “The Middle Passage.” In his Wriston lecture he called on the world’s writers to be the voice of “Universal Civilization” in World Literature.


Alia Ahmand Sa’id, a socialist and revolutionary writing under the penname Adonis was imprisoned in Syria then took up permanent exile in Lebanon, where he became a leading poet through such works as “The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene” inspiring a school of modernist visionary poetry inspired by the tradition of the Sufi’s. A controversial figure in Arabic poetry, he supported the Khomeini Islamic Revolution in Iran, while supporting elements of socialism, revolution and anarchy.


The experience of exile informs also my own work, especially the Contemporary and Futurist Epic, Spiritus Mundi. Spiritus Mundi was composed entirely in Beijing, China, where I served as a Professor in the fields of World Literature, International Law and other subjects for twenty years during the development and rise of China. Its protagonist, Sartorius, literally circumnavigates the world, from New York to Beijing, the Maldives, London, Berlin, Mexico City, Washington, D.C., Jerusalem, Iran, and Africa in his quest to bring global democracy and peace to the world through the establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, a globalized version of the EU European Parliament, as a new organ of the United Nations.

All literature carries exile with it. At least at a symbolic level, and often beyond, any true writer is more than an exile. He dwells in a dimension of imagination that, like the kingdom of Jesus, can never be of this world. He transcends geography. In some real, though inevitably partial sense, books are the only homeland of the true writer, books that may lay on shelves or in memory. Nonetheless, the true artist, maker and creator cannot be fully exiled in any real sense: His hands are his homeland.

Even beyond this, it seems to me, the writer’s relationship with Nation-States is even more pointed. A true writer of genius is symbolically and even actually a Sovereignty unto himself. He is a creator of worlds and of peoples and speaks, like Kings, for a multitude, worthy of the “Royal We.” When a great writer like Goethe or Tolstoy meets with mere Kings, Prime Ministers, Presidents or heads of state, we feel that he speaks not as a subject of any state, but perhaps on a par with a Pope who may take diplomatic, moral and spiritual precedence over all of them. Shelley called writers and artists “the true legislators of the world” in the sense that through their imagination and persuasive force they shape the ultimate visions and values which politicians only decades later embody in new laws and constitutions when they have permeated the common consciousness of the people. When a Goethe or Tolstoy or any true writer meets with a mere Frederick the Great or Tsar, we know that it is they who are passing judgment on on those heads of state, and not vice-versa, and that like Quakers, it would be a perversion of truest decorum for the former to bow, or unhat themselves towards the latter.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog:
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:… Mundi on Amazon, Book I:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

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About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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