By Pia Pera
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Fox Rock. 292 pp. $22.95
Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita has inspired other novels before this one by Italian journalist Pia Pera. In Ekaterina Donald Harington deftly reverses the original: A middle-aged emigre finds herself entangled with a young American boy. Last year, Lee Siegel's playfully Nabokovian Love in a Dead Language portrayed a university scholar's infatuation for his Indian student, Lalita Gupta. And one of the most delightful chapters of Julian Rios's Loves That Bind -- an alphabetical homage to the most seductive heroines of world literature -- focuses on Humbert Humbert's sun-glassed nymphet.
Of course, like Ulysses or Sherlock Holmes, Lolita has become a name, passed into the language, and been consequently distorted by the popular imagination, in her case from a victimized young girl into a brazen underage sexpot. Humbert Humbert -- the murderer with a fancy prose style -- has in that sense triumphed: The orphan Dolores Haze, who cries herself to sleep each night, every night, who has absolutely nowhere else to go, is the overlooked reality upon which the world now dresses the cheap finery of a teeny-bopper White Goddess, adept at come-hither smiles and intimate caresses. In fact, that siren remains largely the fictive creation of a perverted, self-deluding obsessive: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul . . . "
Adept readers of Nabokov's classic -- it certainly ranks high among the dozen or so finest American novels since World War II -- soon realize that the ingratiating Humbert is both an unreliable and a limited narrator, one whose views of his darling are warped by lust and possessiveness, even as his interpretations of events, especially those involving his shadowy nemesis, Clare Quilty, display more blindness than insight. As a result, Lolita herself remains something of an elusive Proustian fugitive, both a young girl in bloom and a sexy, unknowable Odette or Albertine who escapes her lover's grasp in every sense.
Lo's Diary aims to change all that by endowing our exploited heroine with a voice and a mind and feelings, by allowing pubescent Dolores to present her side of this mesmerizing and sordid tale. In general, Pera's novel mines Nabokov's original for lightly outlined backstory that she then fills in -- usually with the equivalent of a thick dark crayon. Here young Lo is devastated by the death of her father; despises her widowed mother for wanting another man; and regards her own brassy 12-year-old self as an accomplished femme fatale. In due course, the nefarious Quilty meets Charlotte Haze and her pretty little child at a book club luncheon, years before the arrival of Humbert. Lolita's erotic flowering -- in the original suspected to be through the ministrations of other girls, later known to be with Charlie Holmes -- now blossoms into a bucolic interlude of threesome sex on a wooded island: soft-focused soft-core. Occasionally, Pera does surprise by replicating a famous line from Nabokov's classic: For instance, we arrive at the sentence "It's called incest" as at a familiar vista seen from an unexpected angle. Occasionally, the Italian author also plays her own windy riff on some passage from the earlier book: While Humbert fantasized about murdering Charlotte to possess Lolita, this Lolita imagines that her mother wants to kill her own daughter because she's become the rival for their scholarly lodger's affections.
Due to copyright issues, I suspect, Lo's Diary scrupulously renames all the main characters: Charlotte Haze becomes Isabel Maze; Clare Quilty is saddled with the grotesquely ugly handle Gerry Sue Filthy; piano teacher Miss Emperor is called Miss Vicompte (a sad diminution there, like so many other aspects of this book); and Monsieur Humbert finds himself dubbed Monsieur Guibert. The name Lolita is assiduously avoided throughout and I noted only a single use of nymphet; even the Enchanted Hunters is transmuted into the Enchanted Forest.
Occasionally, however, one wonders about in-jokes. Dolores's special camp mate is called Rowe; W.W. Rowe is a leading Nabokovian. Is the new novel's Glass family an oblique homage, without apparent reason, to J.D. Salinger's troubled clan? (Nabokov did admire Salinger, and perhaps this provides a sufficient explanation.) And when Lo notices a woman with glasses, wearing men's hiking boots, then a bald guy with a potbelly, who winks as he goes by, should we suspect a Hitchcock-like cameo of Vera and Vladimir N?
More amusing are the send-ups of Freudianism, always Nabokov's own bete noir. After tricking a young camper into thinking she's seeing things, Lo probes her victim's past for an explanation of these supposed hallucinations: "Once a dog bit me," confesses Chloe, and a triumphant Lo responds: "That explains everything." Now and again, Pera turns a nice phrase (at least in this smooth-reading English translation): Lo's mother has the sulky expression of someone who's just bought a carton of broken eggs. Too much sight-seeing leads to indigestion of the eyes. And "As my dear dad used to say, a woman doesn't have to be different to make a man go wild. She simply has to have more of what all other women have." But such neat phrases and observations remain scattered and too few; most of the book seems dominated by Lo's imaginary conversations with her recently dead father and her hatred for, or identification with, her soon dead mother. All too often, Pera's style balloons into puffed-up lyricism or vague philosophizing while remaining relatively chaste about sexual matters: Certain special effects merely whispered about in Lolita are here spoken aloud, though never described with the titillating precision we might expect from a private diary, or a modern novel. Alas, this eschewal of a contemporary sensibility doesn't extend to some egregious historical foreshadowings: Dolores meets a young man who plans to practice civil disobedience in the cause of civil rights, another who is an Earth First-style environmental activist. There's a soupcon of European moral correctness about these portentous encounters.
Ultimately, though, Lo's Diary displays the worst fault possible: It's surprisingly dull, and hardly deserves serious attention, except by those who fanatically read virtually everything relating to Nabokov (e.g., this reviewer). Earlier this year Pera's book did garner a fair amount of publicity because Dmitri Nabokov, the novelist's son, complained about copyright infringement. Eventually, though, he cut a deal with Pera and Fox Rock: Rather than undergo an elaborate court proceeding, Nabokov fils offers a brief preface -- "On a Book Entitled Lo's Diary" (a rather bathetic allusion to his father's celebrated essay on Lolita) -- to make clear that "my permission to publish was required by law, in the hope of setting a precedent without spending years and millions on trials and appeals." Perhaps. But aren't nearly all copyright disputes less about intellectual property or the law than about money and greed?
In a foreword we are told that the manuscript of this diary was originally rejected by the publisher's reader. Sadly, this proves only to be another literary device, an unsuccessful ploy for sympathy. All in all, Lo's Diary should have been left in its author's sock drawer, next to her old sunglasses: It adds nothing to our understanding of the original Lolita and is in itself little more than an exercise in wan and tedious pastiche.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Perilous Magic of Nymphets: How They Compare
Model yourself after Lolita and you're likely to be measured at her side. The following are comparable passages in Pia Pera's Lo's Diary and Nabokov's original:
Lo's Diary: "It's called incest," I explain . . . He turns white. Brutal to call things by their name, isn't it? Indelicate, very indelicate. He takes out a suitcase loaded with presents for me. Not bad stuff, a sexy shirt, perfect for going to see Mom in the hospital: low-necked, of copper-colored silk, like my skin, more or less, which makes a super effect of nakedness, diamond (fake) belt."
Lolita: " `The word is incest,' said Lo . . . She walked up to the open suitcase as if stalking it from afar. . . She stepped up to it, lifting her rather high-heeled feet rather high, and bending her beautiful boy-knees while she walked through dilating space witih the lentor of one walking under water or in a flight dream. Then she raised by the armlets a copper-colored charming and quite expensive vest, very slowly stretching it between her silent hands as if she were a bemused bird-hunter holding his breath over the incredible bird he spreads out by the tips of its flaming wings. Then (while I stood waiting for her) she pulled out the slow snake of a brilliant belt and tried it on."
Lo's Diary: "That's that. Hummie's definitely a bore in bed. He doesn't know anything interesting. In spite of his vast `experience' he's way below Roger. He lies there like a straw man. A real sexual parasite. Aside from stammering some French poetry, he brings nothing of himself. And that's only quotations anyway. Nevertheless, a truly historic night: Miss Dolores Maze possessed Monsieur Humbert Guibert."
Lolita: "I shall not bore my learned readers with a detailed account of Lolita's presumption. Suffice it to say that not a trace of modesty did I perceive in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had utterly and hopeless depraved. . . . I feigned supreme stupidity and had her have her way -- at least while I could still bear it. But really these are irrelevant matters; I am not concerned with so-called `sex' at all. Anybody can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeavor lures me on: to fix once and for all the perilous magic of nymphets."