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Seminar 6: Brian Boyd on Vladimir Nabokov

Thursday, December 1, 2005, 5:30pm for 6pm

Metcalfe Auditorium
State Library of NSW
Macquarie St, Sydney
Admission $11
Bookings: (02) 9273 1770

The Writing and Society Group at the University of Western Sydney
in association with the State Library of NSW present:

Brian Boyd on Vladimir Nabokov

Brian Boyd (Distinguished Professor, University of Auckland)

Anthony Uhlmann (Humanities, University of Western Sydney)

Convenor's Introduction

2005 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous and controversial novels of the 20th century: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. When Nabokov completed this book he was well into his 50s and, due to the subject matter, he did not expect this novel to reach print. Having fled Russia following the Bolshevik revolution and joined the émigré population in Berlin, Nabokov had established himself through the 1930s as the shining light of Russian émigré literature with several major works (including The Gift, The Defence, Despair, and Invitation to a Beheading) under the pen name of Vladimir Sirin. Forced to flee once again by the rise of Hitler he struggled to build a new reputation writing in English in America. The inspiration for Lolita first came to him when he was still Sirin, in Paris around 1940. As he writes in his afterword to Lolita:

As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawings ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage (Lolita, London: Penguin. 1984. 309)

Brian Boyd, in his magnificent two-volume biography of Nabokov (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1990; Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1991) shows how Nabokov developed a unique aesthetic method: one which developed both a meticulous focus on the particular, the individual, and stressed the importance of pattern. With this aesthetic Nabokov created works which, like life, were interfused with deception, offering profoundly complex puzzles which both slowly resolve into focus as one approaches and begin to move to levels of still greater complexity as the focus intensifies.

Lolita takes us inside the mind of a master of self-deception: the solipsistic paedophile Humbert Humbert. Rather than offering us the complacent comfort of a commonplace critique we are made to feel the texture of this mind, an apparently rich fabric, which, in chafing against itself turns in patches to near transparency, allowing us, now and again, to glimpse the abyss beneath.

Brian Boyd, University Distinguished Professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, is not only Nabokov’s biographer but also one of the foremost scholars in the world of his works. In this lecture he will compare a scene from Lolita with versions of the same scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film Lolita (1962), Adrian Lyne’s film Lolita (1997), and in Nabokov's own screenplay version of Lolita, to make a number of points about the novel. He will also discuss Nabokov’s synesthesia (his ability to hear sounds and words as colours).