How Vladimir Nabokov Wrote Lolita, “My Most Difficult Book”: A 1989 Documentary

How many of us could write a book with the impact of Loli­ta? The task, as revealed in the BBC Omnibus doc­u­men­tary above, lay almost beyond even the for­mi­da­ble lit­er­ary pow­ers of Vladimir Nabokov — almost, but obvi­ous­ly not quite. It did push him into new aes­thet­ic, cul­tur­al, and com­po­si­tion­al realms, as evi­denced by his mem­o­ries of draft­ing the nov­el on index cards in road­side motels (and when faced with espe­cial­ly noisy or drafty accom­mo­da­tions, in the back­seat of the parked car) while road-trip­ping though the Unit­ed States. The doc­u­men­tary’s sub­ject is the exiled aris­to­crat nov­el­ist’s expe­ri­ence writ­ing and pub­lish­ing Loli­ta, the book that would make him world-famous — as well as the expe­ri­ence that brought him to the time and place that made such a cul­tur­al coup pos­si­ble.

Aired in 1989, a dozen years after Nabokov’s death, My Most Dif­fi­cult Book fea­tures inter­views with the nov­el­ist’s Fer­rari-dri­ving son and trans­la­tor Dmitri, his schol­ar-biog­ra­ph­er Bri­an Boyd, and his younger admir­er-col­leagues includ­ing Mar­tin Amis, A.S. Byatt, and Edmund White. That last describes Nabokov’s nov­els as “great sys­tems of mean­ing in which every ele­ment refers to every oth­er one,” and Loli­ta marked a new height in his achieve­ment in that form.

But the book’s pop­u­lar­i­ty, or at least its ini­tial wave of pop­u­lar­i­ty, may be bet­ter explained by the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the ele­ments of its by now well-known premise: the refined mid­dle-aged Euro­pean nar­ra­tor, the coarse twelve-year-old step­daugh­ter whom he con­trives to sex­u­al­ly pos­sess — and suc­ceeds in sex­u­al­ly pos­sess­ing — as they dri­ve across Amer­i­ca, a vast land whose look, feel, and lan­guage Nabokov took pains to cap­ture and repur­pose.

“There are a lot of lit­er­al­ists out there,” says Amis, “who will think that you can’t write a nov­el like Loli­ta with­out being a secret slaver after young girls.” That was as true in 1989 as it was in 1955, when the book was first pub­lished, and indeed as true as it is today. Well into mid­dle age, we learn in the doc­u­men­tary, strangers would ask Dmitri what it was like to be the son of a “dirty old man,” and in archive inter­view footage we see Nabokov address the pub­lic con­fla­tion of him­self and Hum­bert Hum­bert, Loli­ta’s pedophil­i­ac nar­ra­tor. A seri­ous chess enthu­si­ast, Nabokov describes him­self as writ­ing nov­els as he would solve chess prob­lems he posed to him­self. What could present a more rig­or­ous chal­lenge than to tell a sto­ry, at a high artis­tic lev­el, from the per­spec­tive of a mon­ster? But Nabokov, as he admit­ted to one inter­view­er, was indeed a mon­ster, at least accord­ing to one def­i­n­i­tion offered by his much-con­sult­ed Eng­lish dic­tio­nary: “A per­son of unnat­ur­al excel­lence.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Hear Vladimir Nabokov Read From the Penul­ti­mate Chap­ter of Loli­ta

Vladimir Nabokov on Loli­ta: Just Anoth­er Great Love Sto­ry?

The Note­cards on Which Vladimir Nabokov Wrote Loli­ta: A Look Inside the Author’s Cre­ative Process

Vladimir Nabokov’s Script for Stan­ley Kubrick’s Loli­ta: See Pages from His Orig­i­nal Draft

Vladimir Nabokov Mar­vels Over Dif­fer­ent Loli­ta Book Cov­ers

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Sharon D. Olson says:

    Invi­ta­tion to a Behead­ing was a much bet­ter book. Loli­ta is the only book I have ever thrown away. No idea why it was so pop­u­lar but could­n’t under­stand the pop­u­lar­i­ty of 50 Shades of Grey, either.

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