Nabokov Reads Lolita, and Names the Greatest Books of the 20th Century

If you heard our inter­view on The John Batch­e­lor Show tonight (catch it at the 29:50 mark), and if you want to check out the mar­velous clip of Vladimir Nabokov read­ing Loli­ta, here it is. Don’t for­get to find us on Twit­ter and Face­book:

Orig­i­nal­ly aired on 1950s French tele­vi­sion, this clip gives you some vin­tage Vladimir Nabokov. Ear­ly on, the Russ­ian nov­el­ist reads the won­der­ful­ly poet­ic first lines of Loli­ta:

Loli­ta, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue tak­ing a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Then we get down to real busi­ness. Putting on his lit­er­ary crit­ic cap, Nabokov tells us what 20th nov­els make real or pre­tend claims to great­ness. First the fak­ers:

I’ve been per­plexed and amused by fab­ri­cat­ed notions about so-called “great books.” That, for instance, Mann’s asi­nine Death in Venice, or Pasternak’s melo­dra­mat­ic, vile­ly writ­ten Doc­tor Zhiva­go, or Faulkner’s corn­cob­by chron­i­cles can be con­sid­ered mas­ter­pieces, or at least what jour­nal­ists term “great books,” is to me the same sort of absurd delu­sion as when a hyp­no­tized per­son makes love to a chair.

And then the true greats in order of per­son­al pref­er­ence:

1) James Joyce’s Ulysses

2) Kafka’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis

3) Andrei Bely’s St. Peters­burg

4) The first half of Proust’s fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time

We’re adding this video to our Cul­tur­al Icons col­lec­tion, which fea­tures great writ­ers, artists and thinkers speak­ing in their own words. And if we have piqued your inter­est, don’t miss these oth­er Nabokov gems:

Nabokov Tweaks Kafka’s “The Meta­mor­pho­sis”

Vladimir Nabokov Mar­vels Over Dif­fer­ent “Loli­ta” Book Cov­ers

Vladimir Nabokov on Loli­ta: Just Anoth­er Great Love Sto­ry?

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  • Kim says:

    Nabokov’s read­ing is high­ly con­tro­ver­sial, I have many friends who still refuse to read Lolita…But beyond doubt, the real art should touch even such tiny (and weird) spheres of per­son­al­i­ty.

  • Tim says:

    Kim, I hope you’ve made some bet­ter friends in the last two years.n

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.