The Nymphet Speaks

Nabokov still wins, hands down.

THAT THERE WILL never cease to be a battle over Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is a testament to both its dangerousness and its power. Nabokov, no dummy, cleverly masks the terms of the argument so that we passionately argue against the very thing we believe in. Such is his seduction. Lo's Diary

by Pia Pera translated by Ann Goldstein Foxrock, $22.95 By contrast, the argument over Pia Pera's novel, Lo's Diary—a presumptuous reimagining of Lolita—is limited to the legal obstacles thrown up and then removed by Nabokov's son Dmitri. (He objected, it seems, to the harm caused to his father's masterpiece by a novel at cross-purposes with it.) This legal fury and subsequent compromise (Dmitri Nabokov allowed Lo's Diary to be published—with an icy introduction by himself and half the book's profits donated to International PEN) caused a stir in the publishing world, but the novel itself asks no questions difficult enough to keep it in the public's mind, let alone its eye, for long. It's no longer a matter of Pera's right to publish Lo's Diary, but a question of why. While Pera ostensibly wanted to give Dolores Haze a voice, to bring her out from under the intricately manipulative shadow of her seducer, this impulse to retell stories in order to hear the victim's side seems horribly misguided. It suggests that literature sets out to be fair, and that the awfulness of a story like Lolita should be resolved so that we can all sleep better. Pera contrives her plot by writing against the original: It's the mid-'90s, and both Dolores and Humbert are alive. Dolly never died in childbirth; rather, her death in the book was one of Humbert's cruel manipulations: "You know," she says, "how much fun he had sticking me in all those awful situations." We meet her as she comes to Paris and seeks out John Ray—an editor at the Olympia Press—with her diary, "cramped writing, without margins, slightly slanting along the pages . . . obscene little drawings of women with enormous protuberances front and back . . . curses written in big block letters . . . scraps of paper stuck inside, containing hastily scribbled notes or long, anguished outbursts." Here is the real version of events, however artlessly tossed off. In it, we aren't surprised to find that Humbert is a clueless dirty old man and Lolita the cunning seducer. Well, she's more or less cunning—she vacillates between the thrill of her lioness act and feelings of disgust and shame for her predicament. The nymphet speaks, and her mood swings would probably be defended by any child psychologist as average for the victim of sexual abuse, recipient of mental suffering, or prisoner in a terrible foster family. This see-sawing heroine—blunt and then inarticulate, seductress and then victim—should, I suppose, work in opposition to the narcotic spell of Nabokov's prose, but it doesn't. Pera's version is just plain boring. To think that she could answer back to Nabokov simply by revealing another side of the story misses the mark entirely by ignoring Nabokov's real achievement: his seduction of the reader through language. Thus the only battlefield on which to fight him is that of language, and Pera seems uninterested in doing so. Instead, she attempts to puncture the very shell of Nabokov's artifice, but ends up further exposing her inferiority as a writer. For example, she changes the characters' names, but makes clear that they are being changed back from the ridiculous inventions of Humbert's version. Humbert Humbert is now Humbert Guibert, Charlotte Haze is now Isabel Maze (ne鬠for some reason, Tonguefish), and Clare Quilty is, unbelievably, Gerry Sue Filthy. These names are all wrong, and I couldn't help but wonder if this had anything to do with Pera writing in Italian and lacking, somehow, an ear for names in English. If she wanted to restore the characters' dignity by giving them back their names, she certainly hasn't done so. "In reading," Nabokov wrote in Lectures on Literature, "one should notice and fondle details." The details that attest, in Lolita, to the plight of Dolores Haze are already there. Her character is too bright, too real to disappear completely, even at the moment of her deflowering: "There would have been a file dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool," Humbert muses, "a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child." Humbert's apologia already contains evidence of his guilt, which he cannot—no matter how clever—fully hide from himself. Lo doesn't need her own apologia. If one goes on the assumption that everything Pera does works somehow against what Nabokov did, then it wouldn't take long to reach the conclusion that where he seduces and attracts, she repels. Nothing in Lolita was accidental; Lo's Diary is a train wreck.

 
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