Archive for August, 2009

nabokov and kubrick

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

August 18, 1958 was Lolita‘s US publication date. Less than a month later, Kubrick purchased the movie rights for $150,000 plus 15% of the producer’s profits. That represented a huge sum for Nabokov, given the fact that at the time his compensation at Cornell University was $11,000 per year (it had recently been raised from $9,000). In addition, Nabokov was paid $40,000 for writing the screenplay for Lolita with an additional $35,000 to be paid if it were a solo screenplay in addition to travel and living expenses (All of this, of course, made Nabokov a rich man to which he famously responded by retiring from teaching and moving to Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life). In fact, Kubrick used very little of Nabokov’s screenplay (which was ultimately published in 1974), although Nabokov labored over it for most of 1960, supplying Kubrick with extensive revisions.

Nabokov’s commented that “only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used” and the relationship between the film and his novel was “a lovely misty view seen through mosquito netting” and “a scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance.”

From Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years by Brian Boyd:

“…with Sue Lyon looking seventeen and Humbert’s passion for nymphets entirely omitted, the film lost all the horror and tension of the novel. Under the eye-catching photos of Sue Lyon and the lollipop had appeared the question: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” Critics answered: “They didn’t.”…Years later Kubrick himself confessed: “Had I realized how severe the [censorship] limitations were going to be, I probably wouldn’t have made the film.” He also named the film his only manifest failure, and explained it by the fact that the book was simply too good to adapt for the screen.”

Over at The Kubrick Site there are two fascinating essays, which have me rethinking my ambivalence towards the film.

nabokov and hitchcock

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

In late 1964, Alfred Hitchcock approached Nabokov with the idea of having him provide the story for for a future film project. In a letter dated 19 November, Hitchock includes two outlines for possible movie scenarios, one a rather conventional spy thriller, the other involving a young girl enmeshed in a hotel run be her crooked relatives, apparently neither of which appealed to Nabokov. He responded on 28 November with a few ideas of his own, including this one:

“A girl, a rising star of not quite the first magnitude, is courted by a budding astronaut. She is slightly condescending to him; has an affair with him but may have other lovers, or lover, at the same time. One day he is sent on the first expedition to a distant star; goes there and makes a successful return. Their positions now have changed. He is the most famous man in the country while her starrise has come to a stop at a moderate level. She is only too glad to have him now, but soon realizes that he is not the same as he was before his flight. She cannot make out what the change is. Time goes, and she becomes concerened, then frightened, then panicky. I have more than one interesting denoument for this plot.”

Hitchcock replied that the story was not in his genre, and it does seem more of an idea for an episode of The Twilight Zone. Still, it is intriguing to imagine how such a story would develop when fleshed out by Nabokov and made into a film by Hitchcock.

nabokov and salinger

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

I’ve always been a fan of Salinger, especially the Glass family stories, though recently I’ve found I am no longer quite as enchanted as I once was. What impressed me about the Glass family as a young adult reader now seems in middle age excruciatingly self-congratulatory. That being said, I still appreciate the narrator’s overwhelming prescence in some of the stories and the almost constant parenthetical digressions in most. I’ve always felt that Salinger shared a bit of Nabokov’s cleverness, and for years I harbored, in one of my more protracted bouts of magical thinking,  the ridiculous fantasy that Salinger, like John Ray, Jr. and Vivian Darkbloom, was but another sly fabrication of Nabokov’s.

Conversely, several years ago, a rather hilarious article appeared in the Village Voice entitled Humbert: An Introduction with the subtitle Jerome David Salinger, Author of Lolita. It begins with this preface:

“Editor’s note: In July of this year, cleaning out my “N” file, I discovered the pristine galleys for Mercy Pang’s foreword to a book on Nabokov—one, to my knowledge, never published. Pang was a friend, later enemy, of the family; her current whereabouts are unknown. In truth she drove me up the wall. The title above, after Borges, is my own. I do not know “Chad Ravioli.” —E.P.”

This unpublished book, authored by one “Leif D. Warden” of Ursinus College reveals that Salinger was Lolita‘s ghostwiter and that Salinger’s short story A Perfect Day For Bananafish is its companion piece :

“Citing a cache of letters belonging to his niece, Esmé Rockhead, Warden claims that Nabokov—though indubitably the author of such works as The Eye—did not, in fact, write Lolita. Warden sets about to prove that the author was none other than one J.D. Salinger.” 

The article is worth reading for those who may be easily amused. Far more satisfying, is the letter to the editor that appeared the following week, from Richard G. DiFeliciantonio of Ursinus College:

On behalf of the faculty and staff at Ursinus College I’d like to express my pleasure with Ed Park’s bang-up research for his work “H.H.: An Introduction,” [Voice Literary Supplement, November 9–15]. Leif D. Warden was a phony and a snob, and Park is absolutely correct that he never taught in any conventional classroom, choosing instead, smelling of Yuengling, to loiter among the coeds at Wazzner Student Center. However, I want to point out that it was actually Warden’s wife with whom Salinger was allegedly intimate, not his niece. But that’s not important anymore as all the papers were burned at a homecoming bonfire. What is important is that our gem of a college, named for the great German Latinist and theologian Zacharias Baer, sits in the suburbs of Philadelphia; it never has been nor ever will be an institution in western Pennsylvania.

Richard G. DiFeliciantonio
Collegeville, Pennsylvania

All About Vladimir Nabokov in Print, Michael Juliar

Friday, August 14th, 2009

I ran across this most interesting website today, wherein the author, Michael Juliar (author of Vladimir Nabokov: A Descriptive Bibliography) blogs about VN in print:

“This blog is a crossroads where the trivia (in both its original and modern senses) of bibliography, collecting, and commerce will meet. I will post information about my latest bibliographic discoveries, corrections, and additions to the first version of my bibliography. I will answer your questions about Nabokov bibliography. I will ask questions of you when I need help, such as information on a volume that I have not been able to examine. I will point to stores, dealers, and auctions that have Nabokov books you may be looking for. I will have comments about collecting Nabokov in Russian, English, and French and the 41 other languages in which his works have appeared.”

Among his posts are fascinating commentaries on fake inscriptions and foreign translations.

corny trash, vulgar clichés

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

 From an interview with Nabokov in The Paris Review 1967 Summer/Fall:

““Poshlust” or in a better translation poshlost, has many nuances, and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature –these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. 

…One of poshlost’s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots –all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airplane ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple –she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.”

Emendations to Annotated Editions of Lolita, Leland de la Durantaye

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

In The Nabokovian Number 58  Spring 2007 Leland de la Durantaye further illuminates the text by commenting on a dozen and a half  notes in Alfred Appel, Jr.’s indispensable The Annotated Lolita. I found this quite interesting:

43. “Monday. Delectatio morosa. I spend my doleful days in dumps and dolors.” Appel offers the following note to this passage: “Latin; morose pleasure, a monastic term” (AL, 357; note 43/2). Delectatio morosa is indeed Latin and is indeed a monastic term, but does not mean morose pleasure. The term is part of the technical vocabulary of Christian doctrine. Delectatio morosa is pleasure taken in sinful thinking wihout desiring it, and is thus classified alongside of gaudium, dwelling with complacency on sins already committed, and desiderium, the desire for what is sinful, as “internal sins” in Catholic orthodoxy (since Aquinas). That Humbert’s sin is at this point only “internal” is not irrelevant to the story he tells.

Full text here:

Lolita book cover contest

Monday, August 10th, 2009

After perusing Dieter Zimmer’s exhaustive online exhibit, Covering Lolita (see sidebar),  I am disappointed, as interesting as the various depictions of Lolita are, by how very few correspond thematically to the novel. Nabokov’s work is masterful in its clarity and overflows with powerful and finely-wrought imagery and yet so few of the covers attempt to capture any of this richness, and many of them are merely absurd, or banal or a laughable combination of both. There are, as is to be expected, the Balthus and Balthus-like images, not to mention other examples of fine art maidens drafted to portray poor Lolita, and there is of course a panoply of expected lolipops, Sue Lyon -and to a lesser extent Dominique Swain – photos,  body parts (lips, legs, breasts), short white socks, saddle shoes, Mary Janes, short skirts, an endless parade of hairstyles, and the too-old Lolitas and the too-young Lolitas. Then there are the butterflies, and the images of the author, and an entire universe of typefaces.  

So Venus febriculosa is holding a Lolita book cover competition. The winning entry will receive $350. Deadline is October 2. Rules (pdf):

Lolita Book Cover Contest Rules

Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald, Part 3

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

“…if am walking through the city and look into one of the quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last…And might it not be…that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time…?”

Style is Matter, The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov, Leland de la Durantaye, Part 2

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

So, how shall we read Lolita and what may we learn in the reading? Leland de la Durantaye’s elegant theses revolve primarily around these questions. In particular, I respond to the clarity of the following passage, which reduces the novel to something conceptually more incisive than “Humbert Humbert, narrator of ‘Lolita‘, is a sadist, narcissist and sexual deviant”, (from the title of Martin Amis’ 1992 review of Lolita in The Independent):

“Entranced by his senses and pursuing his image of Lolita as if she were an inspiring image of art, Humbert fails to see that “there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a place gate.” These “dim and adorable regions” are forbidden to him because of the intensity and the single-mindedness with which he occludes them, with which he concentrates on “another Lolita,” an “image” created in his sensual haze that his desperation and desire lead him to call “more real” than the little girl in his charge. In this, Nabokov has Humbert fail to observe the line that divides art from life – that same line that Nabokov’s compatriot Khodasevich identified decades before Lolita as lying at the heart of the burgeoning writer’s aesthetics.

In works early and late – and nowhere more spectacularly than Lolita – Nabokov asked how the artist was to live in the world, how to balance fierce independence of vision with the necessity of seeing the world from the standpoint of others. This is a question of judgment: the question of how to balance the aesthetic with the ethical, the disinterested remove of aesthetic judgment with the interested proximity of moral judgment.”

Maurice Girodias, Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Maurice Girodias, founder of the Olympia Press, was the first to publish Lolita. In September 1965 the Evergreen Review (Evergreen #37)  published an article by Girodias entitled Lolita, Nabokov and I, which was Girodias’ accounting of the events surrounding the publication of Nabokov’s novel. What followed was a exchange, in Evergreen #45 and #47 between the always clever Nabokov and Girodias (Links below).


“I had not been in Europe since 1940, was not interested in pornographic books, and thus knew nothing about the obscene novelettes which Mr. Girodias was hiring hacks to confect with his assistance, as he relates elsewhere. I have pondered the painful question whether I would have agreed so cheerfully to his publishing Lolita had I been aware in May, 1955, of what formed the supple backbone of his production. Alas, I probably would, though less cheerfully.”

But I must also point out to him that he was not the right person to undertake the thing; he lacked the means to launch Lolita properly – a book that differed so utterly in vocabulary, structure, and purpose (or rather absence of purpose) from his other much simpler commercial ventures, such as Debby’s Bidet or Tender Thighs.”



“Then – not everyone has the privilege of acceding during one’s lifetime to Nabokov’s inverted Pantheon! Nabokov’s victims have always been anonymous, at best pseudonymous: am I really the first of the great man’s fantasies of hate to be identified with a live person?

Am I really – could I really be! – that delirious, evil character, that chameleonic tormentor? Draped in “an aura of negligence, evasiveness, procrastination and falsity,” did I conspire to capture my helpless, struggling Nabokov in “a tissue of haggling manoeuvres and abstruse prevarications“? Did I haunt him in dark recesses “with the sneer of a hoodlum following an innocent passerby“? As a “flexible memoirist” (animated with “undulatory motions“), was I guilty of those countless “insolent and vulgar remarks,” those “idiotic insinuations” peppered with “nasty and silly passages” and freely disgorging “discrepancies typical of apocrypha,” not to mention the mere “guileful inexactitudes“? (Unless otherwise occupied in concocting “obscene novelettes” in the company of snivelling hacks – couched, that goes without saying, “in intolerably bad English”?) How far can one go? Could that remarkable person be me? Would those darkest “depths of my personality” be the cause of Nabokov’s “obligation to endure the elusiveness, the procrastination (sic…), the dodges, the duplicity, and the utter irresponsibility of the man“?”