Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003415, Sun, 11 Oct 1998 13:58:03 -0700

Dmitri Nabokov Sues an American Publisher (fwd)
In Oct. 10 New York Times:

Nabokov's Son Files Suit to Block a Retold `Lolita'


What if Lolita didn't die at the end? What if she kept a diary and had her
own story to tell?

With that premise, a distaff version of Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel
"Lolita" has set off a legal battle over copyright infringement and the limits
of artistic borrowing. The story about a middle-aged professor's sexual
obsession with a 12-year-old nymphet, originally told from the man's
perspective, is now recounted by a vampish and disaffected girl.

Long before Shakespeare, writers appropriated each other's historical
themes, plots and characters, refashioning them into new works. At issue here,
apparently for the first time, is whether a work fresh enough to be still
covered by copyright can be used as extensively as "Lolita" has been.

The new book, "Lo's Diary," a first novel by Pia Pera, a 42-year-old Italian
short-story writer, has been published in Italy and the Netherlands. But with
the licensing of English-language rights in Britain and the United States, the
Nabokov estate, represented by the author's son, Dmitri, filed suit on
Thursday in Federal court in Manhattan to block American publication by
Farrar, Straus & Giroux next July.

"It is, in a word, a rip-off," according to court documents filed by the
estate's lawyer, Peter L. Skolnik, of Roseland, N.J. The estate also said that
Pera's "inferior and amateurish merchandise" harms the reputation of Nabokov,
who died in 1977, and seeks to capitalize on his work, which has been
translated into at least 20 languages, sold 50 million copies and been made
into two movies.

Leon Friedman, a Manhattan lawyer representing Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said
the way "Lo's Diary" grew out of "Lolita" fell within "fair use" standards set
by the United States Supreme Court, and that Pera's novel was
"transformative," supplanting the original work with "a further purpose" and
"new expression."

In a statement from her home in San Loren Giudice in Tuscany, released
through her publisher, Pera said: " 'Lolita' belongs not just to literature
but to everyday language and contemporary mythology. This suit makes one
wonder whether new light can be cast on our cultural heritage only after the
term of copyright has expired."

She said that Nabokov had opened the door to her book by having his
narrator, Humbert Humbert, admit, "I simply did not know a thing about my
darling's mind." Speaking of Lolita, Humbert also says, "Oh, that I were a
lady writer who could have her pose naked in a naked light."

"All I did," Pera said, "was to accept Nabokov's challenge, his implied
invitation to a literary tennis match that, it seems to me, has a long and
well-established tradition behind it."

Jonathan Galassi, executive vice president and editor in chief of Farrar,
Straus, called Pera's book "a dynamic and original work of art which reacts to
and comments on a provocative precursor -- a time-honored tradition in Western
literature from the classical period on down."

Dmitri Nabokov, who divides his time between Switzerland and Florida, was
said by Skolnik to be in Sebring, Fla., racing cars and not available for

Both Skolnik and Friedman said they could think of no litigation that quite
matched the issues in this case.

The protection of intellectual property through copyright was written into
the Constitution, but the terms have been amended over the years. The
copyright on "Lolita" runs 75 years from its first publication by Olympia
Press in France in 1955, until 2030.

Nabokov's novel opens with a (fictional) literary editor, John Ray Jr.,
explaining how he came to possess the ensuing memoir by Humbert, who had died
in custody awaiting trial. The memoir details Humbert's passion for young
girls, beginning with a delirious youthful love for a doomed sweetheart. As a
bachelor professor, he boards with a lovelorn widow, Charlotte Haze, and her
daughter, Dolores, called Lolita. He marries Charlotte to pursue the girl and,
after Charlotte unmasks his secret and is killed in an accident, Humbert
enacts his erotic fantasies as Lolita's stepfather, guardian and lover.
Finally, Lolita is lured away by another pedophile, whom Humbert murders in

Lolita marries someone else and dies in childbirth.

"Lo's Diary," first published in 1995 in Italy, also begins with the editor
John Ray, but this time he is visited by a young woman with her husband and
son. She is Lolita, the former Dolores Maze -- the real Humbert Guibert
disguised her name as he did his own, she relates -- and offers him her diary
for publication. She never died in childbirth as Guibert wrote. Nor did
Guibert murder her new seducer. The editor takes the diary, forgets about it,
rediscovers it later and has it published, while Humbert Guibert, retired on
the Riviera at 85, lives with a young mulatto wife and plays tennis and
correspondence chess.

Pera's book fills in Lolita's life before she met Humbert, relating the
deaths of her father and young brother and her sexual escapades. It also
details the bitter Oedipal rivalry with her mother, whom she describes with
often scatological epithets.

Most significant, perhaps, is that in this telling Lolita is a blatant
seductress. From the moment she sees Humbert, she covets him.

Calling him a guinea pig for her seduction technique, she says, "Possible
variants: swing a foot back and forth, flutter your eyelids, fan yourself,
snap your fingers to the music, blow a bubble then suck the gum slowly back
into your mouth."

After their first sexual encounter, she writes, "Maybe he hasn't yet
realized what happened to him: that I seduced him."

Later she finds him a bore in bed, then abusive and hateful. She takes her
revenge with a fountain pen in a particularly graphic way.

Although lawyers for both sides said this case seemed to break new legal
ground, countless literary and dramatic creations have drawn on earlier works
in the public domain, from "Ulysses" ("The Odyssey") to "West Side Story"
("Romeo and Juliet") and "Wide Sargasso Sea" ("Jane Eyre").

Peter Carey, feeling that Dickens shortchanged the convict Magwitch in
"Great Expectations," rewrote him as the hero of his recent novel, "Jack
Maggs;" Jane Smiley retold the King Lear legend in "A Thousand Acres;" Philip
Roth wrote Anne Frank into "The Ghost Writer" and John Updike, in "S," retold
Hester Prynne's story from "The Scarlet Letter."

The difference, Updike said yesterday, was that "Hawthorne is not under
copyright." He said his sympathies lay with Nabokov. "I would be upset," he
said. "I think of my characters as mine. I wouldn't want someone handling them
with dirty fingers."

Strikingly, in its new catalogue, Random House, publisher of "Lolita," lists
a forthcoming novel by Emily Prager, "Roger Fishbite," about a 13-year-old
girl seduced by her mother's husband. She is described as capturing "the
combined personalities of Eloise and Lolita."

From 'Lolita'

She had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful,
banal, Eden-red apple. She was not shod, however, for church. And her white
Sunday purse lay discarded near the phonograph. My heart beat like a drum as
she sat down, cool skirt ballooning, subsiding, on the sofa next to me, and
played with her glossy fruit. She tossed it up into the sun-dusted air, and
caught it - it made a cupped polished plop.

Humbert Humbert intercepted the apple.

"Give it back," she pleaded, showing the marbled flush of her palms. I
produced Delicious. She grasped it and bit into it, and my heart was like snow
under thin crimson skin, and with the monkeyish nimbleness that was so typical
of that American nymphet, she snatched out of my abstract grip the magazine I
had opened. . . ."

1955; (reprinted from Vintage International's 1997 edition)

From 'Lo's Diary'

Anyway, armed with my two red patches, lips and apple, and wearing my dress
with dark and light pink checks, I go and sit on the sofa next to Hummie, who,
poor guy, tries not to notice me for a while. And I seem to be there for
reasons having nothing to do with him. Eventually I get tired of that, and
start throwing the apple up in the air and catching it, concentrating so it's
like I'm not even aware of Hummie sitting there next to me. The apple flies up
in the air, and I catch it with a thwack, skin against peel. Finally he grabs
it out of my hand, and I yell at him to give it back. Give it back right now,
I yell, hurling myself at him. . . . The action begins! Battle! I grab the
apple, being more alert than he is, and stronger and a hundred times more
agile. I bite it, and it's like breaking a jar containing a love potion - the
air is pierced with fragrance. Acidic apple and blood-sweet mouth warmth. But
since I conceal the main frontal attack from him I take his hand off the
magazine (diversionary tactic), and while I'm looking around for something or
other for him to look at - to see better I stretch across him - my smell stuns
him completely. I find a dumb but funny photograph of a naked lady, in marble,
so then Hummie, who seems stupid yet very happy to keep playing the game,
throws the magazine aside.

(To be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in July 1999)

Saturday, October 10, 1998