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.”
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.