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Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum
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From the Prologue

What is at stake in the argument over quantum mechanics? Why does it matter if our fundamental theory of the natural world is mysterious and paradoxical?

Behind the century-long argument over quantum mechanics is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of reality—a dis­agreement which, unresolved, escalates into an argument about the nature of science.

Two questions underlie the schism.

First off, does the natural world exist independently of our minds? More precisely, does matter have a stable set of properties in and of itself, without regard to our perceptions and knowledge?

Second, can those properties be comprehended and described by us? Can we understand enough about the laws of nature to ex­plain the history of our universe and predict its future?

The answers we give to these two questions have implications for larger questions about the nature and aim of science, and the role of science in the larger human project. These are, indeed, questions about the boundary between reality and fantasy.

People who answer yes to these two questions are called real­ists. Einstein was a realist. I am also a realist. We realists believe that there is a real world out there, whose properties in no way depend on our knowledge or perception of it. This is nature—as it would be, and mostly is, in our absence. We also believe that the world may be understood and described precisely enough to ex­plain how any system in the natural world behaves. 

If you are a realist, you believe that science is the systematic search for that explanation. This is based on a naive notion of truth. Assertions about objects or systems in nature are true to the extent that they correspond to genuine properties of nature.

If you answer no to one or both of these questions, you are an anti-realist.

Most scientists are realists about everyday objects on the human scale. Things we can see, pick up, and throw around have simple and easily comprehended properties. They exist at each moment somewhere in space. When they move, they follow a trajectory, and that trajectory has, relative to someone describing them, a definite speed. They have mass and weight.

When we tell our partner that the red notebook they are look­ing for is on the table, we expect that this is simply true or false, absolutely independent of our knowledge or perception.

The description of matter at this level, from the smallest scales we can see with our eyes up to stars and planets, is called classical physics. It was invented by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. Einstein’s theories of relativity are its crowning achievements.
But it is not easy, or obvious, for us to be realists about matter on the scale of individual atoms. This is because of quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is presently our best theory of nature at the atomic scale. That theory has, as I have alluded to, certain very puz­zling features. It is widely believed that those features preclude real­ism. That is, quantum mechanics requires that we say no to one or both of the two questions I asked above. To the extent that quantum mechanics is the correct description of nature, we are forced to give up realism.

Most physicists are not realists about atoms, radiation, and ele­mentary particles. Their belief, for the most part, does not stem from a desire to reject realism on the basis of radical philosophical positions. Instead, it is because they are convinced quantum me­chanics is correct and they believe, as they have been taught, that quantum mechanics precludes realism.

If it is true that quantum mechanics requires that we give up realism, then, if you are a realist, you must believe that quantum mechanics is false. It may be temporarily successful, but it cannot be the fully correct description of nature at an atomic scale. This led Einstein to reject quantum mechanics as anything more than a temporary expedient.

Einstein and other realists believe that quantum mechanics gives us an incomplete description of nature, which is missing fea­tures necessary for a full understanding of the world. Einstein sometimes imagined that there were “hidden variables” which would complete the description of the world given by quantum theory. He believed that the full description, including those miss­ing features, would be consistent with realism.

Thus, if you are a realist and a physicist, there is one overriding imperative, which is to go beyond quantum mechanics to discover those missing features and use that knowledge to construct a true theory of the atoms. This was Einstein’s unfinished mission, and it is mine.


This all matters because science is under attack in the early twenty- first century. Science is under attack, and with it the belief in a real world in which facts are either true or false. Quite literally, parts of our society appear to be losing their grip on the boundary between reality and fantasy.

Science is under attack from those who find its conclusions in­convenient for their political and business objectives. Climate change should not be a political issue; it is not a matter of ideology, but an issue of national security, and should be treated as such. It is a real problem, which will require evidence- based solutions. Sci­ence is also under attack from religious fundamentalists who insist ancient texts are the teachings of unchanging truths by God.

In my view, there is little reason for conflict between most reli­gions and science. Many religions accept— and even celebrate— science as the way to knowledge about the natural world. Beyond that, there is mystery enough in the existence and meaning of the world, which both science and religion can inspire us to discuss, but neither can resolve.

All that is required is that religions not attack or seek to under­mine those scientific discoveries which are considered to be estab­lished knowledge because they are supported by overwhelming evidence, as judged by those educated sufficiently to evaluate their validity. This is indeed the view of many religious leaders from all faiths. In return, scientists should view these enlightened leaders as allies in the work for a better world.

In addition, science is under attack from a fashion among some humanist academics— who should know better—who hold that science is no more than a social construction that yields only one of an array of equally valid perspectives.

For science to respond clearly and strongly to these challenges, it must itself be uncorrupted by its own practitioners’ mystical yearnings and metaphysical agendas. Individual scientists may be—and, let’s face it, sometimes are—motivated by mystical feelings and metaphysical preconceptions. This doesn’t hurt science as long as the narrow criteria that distinguish hypothesis and hunch from established truth are universally understood and adhered to.

But when fundamental physics itself gets hijacked by an anti- realist philosophy, we are in danger. We risk giving up on the centuries- old project of realism, which is nothing less than the con­tinual adjustment, bit by bit as knowledge progresses, of the bound­ary between our knowledge of reality and the realm of fantasy.

One danger of anti- realism is to the practice of physics itself. Anti- realism lowers our ambition for a totally clear understanding of nature, and hence weakens our standards as to what constitutes an understanding of a physical system.

In the wake of the triumph of anti-realism about the atomic world, we have had to contend with anti- realist speculations about nature on the largest possible scale. A vocal minority of cosmolo­gists proclaims that the universe we see around us is only a bubble in a vast ocean called the multiverse that contains an infinity of other bubbles. And, whereas it is safe to hypothesize that the gal­axies we can see are typical of the rest of our universe, one must regard the other invisible bubbles as governed by diverse and randomly assigned laws, so our universe is far from typical of the whole. This, together with the fact that all, or almost all, of the other bubbles are forever out of range of our observations, means the multiverse hypothesis can never be tested or falsified. This puts this fantasy outside the bounds of science. Nonetheless, this idea is championed by not a few highly regarded physicists and mathematicians.

It would be a mistake to confuse this multiverse fantasy for the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. They are dis­tinct ideas. Nonetheless, they share a magical- realist subversion of the aim of science to explain the world we see around us in terms of only itself. I would suggest that the harm done to clarity about the aim and purpose of science by the enthusiastic proponents of the multiverse would not have been possible had not the majority of physicists uncritically adopted anti- realist versions of quantum physics.

Certainly, quantum mechanics explains many aspects of na­ture, and it does so with supreme elegance. Physicists have devel­oped a very powerful tool kit for explaining diverse phenomena in terms of quantum mechanics, so when you master quantum me­chanics you control a lot about nature. At the same time, physicists are always dancing around the gaping holes that quantum mechan­ics leaves in our understanding of nature. The theory fails to pro­vide a picture of what is going on in individual processes, and it often fails to explain why an experiment turns out one way rather than another.

These gaps and failures matter because they underlie the fact that we have gotten only partway toward solving the central prob­lems in science before seeming to run out of steam. I believe that we have not yet succeeded in unifying quantum theory with grav­ity and spacetime (which is what we mean by quantizing gravity), or in unifying the interactions, because we have been working with an incomplete and incorrect quantum theory.

But I suspect that the implications of building science on incor­rect foundations go further and deeper. The trust in science as a method to resolve disagreements and locate truth is undermined when a radical strand of anti-realism flourishes at the foundations of science. When those who set the standard for what constitutes explanation are seduced by a virulent mysticism, the resulting con­fusion is felt throughout the culture. 

I was privileged to meet a few of the second generation of the founders of twentieth- century physics. One of the most contradic­tory was John Archibald Wheeler. A nuclear theorist and a mystic, he transmitted the legacies of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr to my generation through the stories he told us of his friendships with them. Wheeler was a committed cold warrior who worked on the hydrogen bomb even as he pioneered the study of quantum uni­verses and black holes. He was also a great mentor who counted among his students Richard Feynman, Hugh Everett, and several of the pioneers of quantum gravity. And he might have been my men­tor, had I had better judgment.

A true student of Bohr, Wheeler spoke in riddles and paradoxes. His blackboard was unlike any I’d ever encountered. It had no equations, and only a few elegantly written aphorisms, each set out in a box, distilling a lifetime of seeking the reason why our world is a quantum universe. A typical example was “It from bit.” (Yes, read it again— slowly! Wheeler was an early adopter of the current fashion to regard the world as constituted of information, so that information is more fundamental than what it describes. This is a form of anti- realism we will discuss later.) Here is another: “No phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenom­enon.” Here is the kind of conversation one had with Wheeler: He asked me, “Suppose when you die and go up before Saint Peter for your final, final exam, he asks you just one question: ‘Why the quantum?’ ” (I.e., why do we live in a world described by quantum mechanics?) “What will you say to him?”
Much of my life has been spent searching for a satisfying answer to that question. As I write these pages, I find myself vividly recalling my first encounters with quantum physics. When I was a seventeen- year- old high school dropout, I used to browse the shelves at the University of Cincinnati Physics Library. There I came upon a book with a chapter by Louis de Broglie (we will meet him in chapter 7), who was the first to propose that electrons are waves as well as particles. That chapter introduced his pilot wave theory, which was the first realist formulation of quantum me­chanics. It was in French, a language I read fitfully after two years of high school study, but I recall well my excitement as I under­stood the basics. I still can close my eyes and see a page of the book, displaying the equation that relates wavelength to momentum.

My first actual course in quantum mechanics was the next spring at Hampshire College. That course, taught by Herbert Bernstein, ended with a presentation of the fundamental theorem of John Bell, which, in brief, demonstrates that the quantum world fits uneasily into space. I vividly recall that when I understood the proof of the theorem, I went outside in the warm afternoon and sat on the steps of the college library, stunned. I pulled out a notebook and immediately wrote a poem to a girl I had a crush on, in which I told her that each time we touched there were electrons in our hands which from then on would be entangled with each other. I no longer recall who she was or what she made of my poem, or if I even showed it to her. But my obsession with penetrating the mys­tery of nonlocal entanglement, which began that day, has never left me; nor has my urgency to make better sense of the quantum di­minished over the decades since. In my career, the puzzles of quan­tum physics have been the central mystery to which I’ve returned again and again. I hope in these pages to inspire in you a similar fascination.

Welcome to the quantum world. Feel at home, for it is our world, and it is our good fortune that its mysteries remain for us to solve.

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A Novel in Warnings
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I always found fellas very difficult. I never got tangled up in them for that reason. I put my head down and lived a rea­sonable life. Or rather once I put the head down, I lived a reasonable life.

Women are no easier. So don’t be fooled thinking other­wise.

They are all awful, awful, awful.

All humans are awful.

All of us are awful.

Be very suspicious.

Stick to cats or carp.

Goats are less trouble than humans.

He’s mad as a goat, they’ll say. Yet I never met a goat as mad as a man.

Goats never caused me mounds of grief.

Goats never sat like a pile of rank mush in my kitchen.

Worse thing they ever did was eat something they couldn’t digest, yet you’d no more go down their throat after it. You leave them be. You let them decide, do you want to live or die? Do you want to carry on or take a left turn?

A man though, he could get into your kidneys and irritate them & you in a very special way. It’s why women are up in the night to go to the toilet as they age. They are widdling the confused strain of anger gathered up in there all day. I’ve no explanation as to why men are up piddling all night too, except perhaps it’s God’s subtle way of tormenting them. He goes straight for the pipe does our Saviour.

Out of the toilet quick, Bina!

Before I’m distracted.

I’m an awful woman for distraction.

Curiosity was my downfall.

You’ll see yet.
But let us return to the goats.

Not demanding, goats.

Unless they sneak out.

Then and even then, and only then, it’s the humans cause a big fuss. The goats don’t much mind the humans; they carry on doing what they do, a simple desire to eat briars unim­peded. Armoured tongues. Clipping nibbles. Head in. Chomp crunch. Down. Down. You could be dying on the ground and a goat would eat all the way around you, and not take a lick or a bare sniff at you. He’d follow the feed.

Not the humans! Oh no, big fuss when goats escape. They’re out on the road! Mad. Arms waving. Phones ringing. Thumb-stabbing slipped texts to the wrong farmer. They raise their voices. They’ll shout at any man who’ll hear. Any ear. Or woman. And amid shrieking carnival and lifeboat dispatch you’d wonder wherever did they think goats were before we put them into fields and sheds? Where do they think the wild goats are? The goats just keep on eating and buck about. They don’t mind your trumpet or your texts.

I’ve had to give up my goats on account of the humans. Let me be clear on that, it wasn’t the other way round. I haven’t given up my goats for any reason aside from Eddie. Don’t listen when they say oh it’s her age or her health or the diabetes or she needs to lose weight. I haven’t the diabetes. It’s Joanie, God rest her, who had the diabetes. None of us knew. She kept it quiet and now she’s dead and that’s what happens when you keep things quiet. Though I do believe in keeping some things quiet. Phil had it too, the diabetes.[1]

I am as strong as steel. Unbendable Bina. It’s just the humans are doing me in. Not the goats, not the diabetes. I don’t even eat cakes. If I start eating cakes, it’s because they drove me to it. Eddie would drive you to eat cakes. I’m surprised I didn’t plunge my face down into a Victoria sponge, with him and now this other tall fella breaking my brain to crumb.

* * *

There has to be a plan. I’ll have to kill the cat if I’m to go. That’s a pity. For the best. Nice cat though. Except when it piddled all over the place early on. Including on my new pil­lows, because Eddie locked the poor craytur in my bedroom. Them’s the sort of stupid thing Eddies do.

I didn’t want it to get out, he said.
You locked him in my bedroom for two days and gave him no food because you didn’t want him to get out?

He didn’t get out tho’, he said.

He couldn’t get out! He was locked in!

That cat’s not dead, said he. As if there were some fear the cat would be dead if it lived a normal
cat’s life.

It’s very hard to get run over when you are locked inside my bedroom.

Most cats die. Most cats let out die. They die on the road.

And he believes it. He holds fast. Plain, dry, seasoned obliv­ious. Smothered with fungal oblivion. He could live, die and rise again entirely oblivious that man. Every time the thought revisits me that I should have left him in that ditch. I am thinking it as I write this to you. I’m warning you not to lift men out of ditches and don’t trust the common declaration “all he needs is a bang on the head.” Eddie received a big bang on the head when he landed off his motorbike in my ditch and there is no evidence of it improving him. I don’t know how I didn’t take the cat and brain him with it. Except the poor crea­ture had suffered enough. My pillows never recovered and the smell of cat piss still lingers. It’s a reminder. Heed your remind­ers. Your mistakes always come with reminders. Often there’s a smell of a reminder. Log it. Sniff it. Choke on it. Make your nose passport and border control. Let no one in.

Since Eddie’s gone, I’ve put items in his bed to remind myself he is gone. But I had to throw out the mattress,[2] the pillows and sheets he’d slept on for years, because he was filthy anytime he lay down on them. You could never wash the smell of him away. I’ve one room stinks of cat’s piss and another of Eddie. I hesitated though, because according to my prophecy I thought the smell of him could, if I left it, serve as a warning. I’m happy to say I’m past needing a warning, which is why I am able to batter this out to yourselves. I’ve transcended.

I often wonder at the women who give birth to awful young fellas like Eddie. I think there’s a case to be heard for shoving the likes of Eddie back up and starting all over again. I believe in abortion since I met Eddie. It’s only a shame you can’t abort a 40-year-old.

* * *

I believe in obliteration. I believe in removing useless speci­mens from the planet. I don’t say it aloud, but I’m committed. You can only say it aloud if God has told you to do it. He hasn’t, but On My Oath if I were called I would serve. Likewise, I believe that the more useful amongst us should also have some choice about when we go. That is why I joined the Group when the Tall Man came to my door.
Eddie’s gone quiet now.

So we are waiting. That’s all I do now.




[1] See, Malarky: A Novel in Episodes.  
[2] I wonder now if I hadn’t had the delay on needing to get a new mat­tress might I have saved Phil. Maybe, in the end, Eddie will have killed the pair of us without even trying.

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The Real Lolita

The Real Lolita

A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece
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I FIRST READ LOLITA at sixteen, as a high school junior whose intellectual curiosity far exceeded her emotional maturity. It was something of a self-imposed dare. Only a few months earlier I’d breezed through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Some months later I’d reckon with Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. I thought I could handle what transpired between Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert. I thought I could appreciate the language and not be affected by the story. I pretended I was ready for Lolita, but I was nowhere close.
Those iconic opening lines, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta,”sent a frisson down my adolescent spine. I didn’t like that feeling, but I wasn’t supposed to. I was soon in thrall to Humbert Humbert’s voice, the silken veneer barely concealing a loathsome predilection.
I kept reading, hoping there might be some salvation for Dolores, even though I should have known from the foreword, supplied by the fictional narrator John Ray, Jr., PhD, that it does not arrive for a long time. And when she finally escapes from Humbert’s clutches to embrace her own life, her freedom
is short-lived.
I realized, though I could not properly articulate it, that Vladimir Nabokov had pulled off something remarkable. Lolita was my first encounter with an unreliable narrator, one who must be regarded with suspicion. The whole book relies upon the mounting tension between what Humbert Humbert wants the reader to know and what the reader can discern. It is all too easy to be seduced by his sophisticated narration, his panoramic descriptions of America, circa 1947, and his observations of the girl he nicknames Lolita. Those who love language and literature are rewarded richly, but also duped. If you’re not being careful, you lose sight of the fact that Humbert raped a twelve-year-old child repeatedly over the course of nearly two years, and got away with it.
It happened to the writer Mikita Brottman, who in The Maximum Security Book Club described her own cognitive dissonance discussing Lolita with the discussion group she led at a Maryland maximum-security prison. Brottman, reading the novel in advance, had “immediately fallen in love with the narrator,” so much so that Humbert Humbert’s “style, humor, and sophistication blind[ed] me to his faults.” Brottman knew she shouldn’t sympathize with a pedophile, but she couldn’t help
being mesmerized.
The prisoners in her book club were nowhere near so enchanted. An hour into the discussion, one of them looked up at Brottman and cried, “He’s just an old pedo!” A second prisoner added: “It’s all bullshit, all his long, fancy words. I can see through it. It’s all a cover-up. I know what he wants to do with her.” A third prisoner drove home the point that Lolita “isn’t a love story. Get rid of all the fancy language, bring it down to thelower [sic] common denominator, and it’s a grown man molesting
a little girl.”
Brottman, grappling with the prisoners’ blunt responses, realized her foolishness. She wasn’t the first, nor the last, to be seduced by style or manipulated by language. Millions of readers missed how Lolita folded in the story of a girl who experienced in real life what Dolores Haze suffered on the page. The appreciation of art can make a sucker out of those who forget the darkness of real life.
Knowing about Sally Horner does not diminish Lolita’s brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel.
WRITING ABOUT VLADIMIR NABOKOV daunted me, and still does. Reading his work and researching in his archives was like coming up against an electrified fence designed to keep me away from the truth. Clues would present themselves and then evaporate. Letters and diary entries would hint at larger meanings without supporting evidence. My central quest with respect to Nabokov was to figure out what he knew about Sally Horner and when he knew it. Through a lifetime, and afterlife, of denials and omissions about the sources of his fiction, he made my pursuit as difficult as possible.
Nabokov loathed people scavenging for biographical details that would explain his work. “I hate tampering with the precious lives of great writers and I hate Tom-peeping over the fence of those lives,” he once declared in a lecture about Russian literature to his students at Cornell University, where he taught from 1948 through 1959. “I hate the vulgarity of ‘human interest,’ I hate the rustle of skirts and giggles in the corridors of time—and no biographer will ever catch a glimpse of my private life.”
He made his public distaste for the literal mapping of fiction to real life known as early as 1944, in his idiosyncratic, highly selective, and sharply critical biography of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. “It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a ‘true story,’ ” Nabokov chided. “Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself?”
The Gogol biography was more a window into Nabokov’s own thinking than a treatise on the Russian master. With respect to his own work, Nabokov did not want critics, academics, students, and readers to look for literal meanings or real-life influences. Whatever source material he’d relied on was grist for his own literary mill, to be used as only he saw fit. His insistence on the utter command of his craft served Nabokov well as his reputation and fame grew after the American publication of Lolita in 1958. Scores of interviewers, whether they wrote him letters, interrogated him on television, or visited him at his house, abided by his rules of engagement. They handed over their questions in advance and accepted his answers, written at leisure, cobbling them together to mimic spontaneous conversation.
Nabokov erected roadblocks barring access to his private life for deeper, more complex reasons than to protect his inalienable right to tell stories. He kept family secrets, quotidian and gargantuan, that he did not wish anyone to air in public. And no wonder, when you consider what he lived through: the Russian Revolution, multiple emigrations, the rise of the Nazis, and the fruits of international bestselling success. After he immigrated to the United States in 1940, Nabokov also abandoned Russian, the language of the first half of his literary career, for English. He equated losing his mother tongue to losing a limb, even though, in terms of style and syntax, his English dazzled beyond the imagination of most native speakers.
Always by his side, aiding Nabokov with his lifelong quest to keep nosy people at bay, was his wife, Véra. She took on all of the tasks Nabokov wouldn’t or couldn’t do: assistant, chief letter writer, first reader, driver, subsidiary rights agent, and many other less-defined roles. She subsumed herself, willingly, for his art, and anyone who poked too deeply at her undying devotion looking for contrary feelings was rewarded with fierce denials, stonewalling, or outright untruths.
Yet this book exists in part because the Nabokovs’ roadblocks eventually crumbled. Other people did gain access to his private life. There were three increasingly tendentious biographies by Andrew Field, whose relationship with his subject began in harmony but curdled into acrimony well before Nabokov died in 1977. A two-part definitive study by Brian Boyd is still the biographical standard, a quarter century after its publication, with which any Nabokov scholar must reckon. And Stacy Schiff’s 1999 portrayal of Véra Nabokov illuminated so much about their partnership and teased out the fragments of Véra’s inner life.
We’ve also learned more about what made Nabokov tick since the Library of Congress lifted its fifty-year Restriction upon his papers in 2009, opening the entire collection to the public. The more substantive trove at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection still has some restrictions, but I was able to immerse myself in Nabokov’s work, his notes, his manuscripts, and also the ephemera—newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, diaries.
A strange thing happened as I looked for clues in his published work and his archives: Nabokov grew less knowable. Such is the paradox of a writer whose work is so filled with metaphor and allusion, so dissected by literary scholars and ordinary readers. Even Boyd claimed, more than a decade and a half after writing his biography of Nabokov, that he still did not fully understand Lolita.
What helped me grapple with the book was to reread it, again and again. Sometimes like a potboiler, in a single gulp, and other times slowing down to cross-check each sentence. No one could get every reference and recursion on the first try; the novel rewards repeated reading. Nabokov himself believed the only novels worth reading are the ones that demand to be read on multiple occasions. Once you grasp it, the contradictions of Lolita’s narrative and plot structure reveal a logic true to itself.
During one Lolita reread, I was reminded of the narrator of an earlier Nabokov story, “Spring in Fialta”: “Personally, I never could understand the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other . . . were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest to rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.”
Nabokov himself never openly admitted to such an attitude himself. But the clues are all there in his work. Particularly so in Lolita, with its careful attention to popular culture, the habits of preadolescent girls, and the banalities of then-modern American life. Searching out these signs of real-life happenings was no easy task. I found myself probing absence as much as presence, relying on inference and informed speculation as much as fact.
Some cases drop all the direct evidence into your lap. Some cases are more circumstantial. The case for what Vladimir Nabokov knew of Sally Horner and when he knew it falls squarely into the latter category. Investigating it, and how he incorporated Sally’s story into Lolita, led me to uncover deeper ties between reality and fiction, and to the thematic compulsion Nabokov spent more than two decades exploring, in fits and starts, before finding full fruition in Lolita.
Lolita’s narrative, it turns out, depended more on a real-life crime than Nabokov would ever admit.
OVER THE FOUR OR SO YEARS I spent working on this book project, I spoke with a great many people about Lolita. For some it was their favorite novel, or one of their favorites. Others had never read the book but ventured an opinion nonetheless. Some loathed it, or the idea of it. No one was neutral. Considering the subject matter, this was not a surprise. Not a single person, when I quoted the passage about Sally Horner, remembered it.
I can’t say Nabokov designed the book to hide Sally from the reader. Given that the story moves so quickly, perhaps an homage to the highways Humbert and Dolores traverse over many thousands of miles in their cross-country odyssey, it’s easy to miss a lot as you go. But I would argue that even casual readers of Lolita, who number in the tens of millions, plus the many more millions with some awareness of the novel, the two film versions, or its place in the culture these past six decades, should pay attention to the story of Sally Horner because it is the story of so many girls and women, not just in America, but everywhere. So many of these stories seem like everyday injustices—young women denied opportunity to advance, tethered to marriage and motherhood. Others are more horrific, girls and women abused, brutalized, kidnapped, or worse.
Yet Sally Horner’s plight is also uniquely American, unfolding in the shadows of the Second World War, after victory had created a solid, prosperous middle class that could not compensate for terrible future decline. Her abduction is woven into the fabric of her hometown of Camden, New Jersey, which at the time believed itself to be at the apex of the American Dream. Wandering its streets today, as I did on several occasions, was a stark reminder of how Camden has changed for the worse. Sally should have been able to travel America of her own volition, a culmination of the Dream. Instead she was taken against her will, and the road trip became a nightmare. Sally’s life ended too soon. But her story helped inspire a novel people are still discussing and debating more than sixty years after its initial publication. Vladimir Nabokov, through his use of language and formal invention, gave fictional authority to a pedophile and charmed and revolted millions of readers in the process. By exploring the life of Sally Horner, I reveal the truth behind the curtain of fiction. What Humbert Humbert did to Dolores Haze is, in fact, what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner in 1948.
With this book, Sally Horner takes precedence. Like the butterflies that Vladimir Nabokov so loved, she emerges from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free.

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