Barney Rosset Fights to Publish Lolita Spinoff With Bad Reputation

A recent afternoon found Barney Rosset in his loft on Fourth Avenue, a leg slung over the arm of a black leather Mies van der Rohe chair, talking about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and a night flight Mr. Rosset took from Idlewild International Airport in 1958. It was just after Mr. Rosset’s young publishing house, Grove Press, had made history by publishing D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover , which had been deemed obscene material by the U.S. Postal Service. And it was three years after Maurice Girodias had published, in Paris, the first edition of Nabokov’s modern masterpiece about a pedophile and the dewy object of his affection. But no American edition of Lolita had followed. So Mr. Rosset was taking a plane to London with Jason Epstein, then an editor at Doubleday & Company, with the plan to buy the British publishing house Penguin Books from founder Allen Lane–and maybe even publish Lolita themselves. Mr. Epstein had excerpted the book in Doubleday’s literary magazine, The Anchor Review , but Doubleday refused to publish the book. “Jason called me and said, ‘I’m quitting Doubleday,’” said Mr. Rosset. “We took a sleeper plane–I think it was El Al–to London that night to see what we could do in England. We decided to buy Penguin. Jason was a part-time drinker, but that night he was a full-time drinker. All night we were drinking Scotch, and the ladies were screaming out of their berths, ‘Shut up!’” Mr. Rosset laughed in great gulps.

But Mr. Lane wasn’t selling, and the first American edition of Lolita was published by G.P. Putnam & Sons in 1958. Now the 76-year-old Mr. Rosset is getting another crack at publishing Lolita’s tale, although not the one that Nabokov wrote–a tale, in fact, which Nabokov’s son and sole heir, Dmitri, has gone to court in France and the United States to squelch. It is Lo’s Diary , a 1995 novel by an Italian woman named Pia Pera, which retells Lolita from the nymphet’s point of view. In addition to Italy, where it was titled Diario di Lo , the novel has been published in five countries. On the morning of his interview with The Observer , Mr. Rosset had obtained the rights from Italian publisher Marsilio Editori to publish the American edition. And on March 19, Mr. Rosset, assisted by First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus and some tweedy expert witnesses, will try to convince Judge Sidney Stein of Federal District Court in Manhattan to let him publish. Mr. Garbus, who predicts the case will go to the Supreme Court, said Lo’s Diary is ” Lolita from a feminist perspective.”

Other publishers have already taken a pass, after Dmitri Nabokov, who lives in Montreux, Switzerland, and has translated much of his father’s work, screamed copyright infringement. Macmillan U.K. was going to publish Lo’s Diary , but backed off. Mr. Nabokov also succeeded in convincing Alfred A. Knopf to scuttle plans to publish the book. “We were always somewhat concerned about the legal aspects of publishing the book, and finally decided not to proceed,” said William Loverd, a spokesman for Knopf president Sonny Mehta. Then Farrar, Straus & Giroux, after announcing it would publish the book, pulled out. “I think it’s a mistake morally,” said Farrar president Roger Straus. “It smells wrong to me. It’s poaching on someone else’s territory.”

Mr. Nabokov declined to be interviewed for this article. His lawyer, Peter Skolnik, spoke on behalf of his client about Lo’s Diary . “No. 1, it’s a very bad book,” said Mr. Skolnik. “He felt it was vulgar, and badly done. Whereas the allusions to sexuality in Nabokov’s Lolita are eloquent and brilliantly written, the parallels in the Pera are lewd and tawdry, stripped of the elegance of Nabokov’s prose. It’s cheap and crass.”

But when Mr. Rosset first read about Ms. Pera’s book in The New York Times last October, he was captivated. “I was astounded first of all because of its affinity to Lolita ,” he said. “I was astounded that it had been bought by Macmillan, Knopf was also involved, I believe, and then Farrar Straus–and then all three walked away from it. That was very intriguing, because I had respect for all three companies and their editors. I couldn’t believe they had decided to do a book that was inferior just to exploit its name–and then to walk away from it! It amazed me. So I decided I better find out about it.”

He read it and liked it. “Humbert’s idealizing a girl as a sex object–he’s not worried about her feelings,” said Mr. Rosset. “Here’s the object reacting and giving her feelings and insights into why he’s doing what he’s doing and she’s doing what she’s doing. She’s extremely intelligent. Gradually, we get that the girl is extraordinarily pretty, and also a little bit of an exhibitionist.”

“I respect Roger Straus, but I think he is wrong,” said Mr. Rosset. “Somebody has to challenge [Mr. Nabokov].” Referring to Farrar, Knopf and Macmillan, he said, “Their birthright as publishers is to publish.”

So the publication of Lo’s Diary has taken on a personal meaning for Mr. Rosset. “I saw an opportunity to make up for lost time. I saw my chance,” he said.

Hedy Lamarr, Naked

If Mr. Rosset gets the all-clear from Judge Stein, Lo’s Diary will come out from Foxrock Books, Mr. Rosset’s independent publishing house, which operates out of his loft and which recently published Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen and J and Samuel Beckett’s Eleuthéria . The space, which has a warm, slightly 1970′s Oriental feel, also serves as home to Evergreen Review , Mr. Rosset’s on-line literary magazine. The loft’s dual uses were evident in the bathroom, which boasts tasteful paintings of naked women and a wall phone opposite the toilet.

In the main room, the bookcases are lined with Beckett, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Alexander Trocchi, Hubert Selby, Allen Ginsberg and Heinrich Böll. There is a set of framed black-and-white photographs Mr. Rosset took in western China in 1944 and 1945, while serving in the Army Photographic Division (one of his teachers was the director John Huston). The kitchen area is separated by fringe of hanging wooden beads from the 1970′s tchotchke store Azuma.

Mr. Rosset moved about the loft with the contained frenzy of a featherweight prizefighter. His common-law wife, Astrid Myers, a petite woman of 60 with light eyes and calm bearing, works alongside him on his endeavors. “I’ve repeatedly asked her to marry me,” said Mr. Rosset, who has been married four times previously.

“My first impulse is always ‘Do it!’ then figure out how to do it,” said Mr. Rosset, of his instinct to publish Lo’s Diary . “I happen to loathe the mayor of our city, but I saw a cartoon in Newsday of him saying, ‘Ready, fire, aim!’ That’s Giuliani, but it’s also me.” He sat back down in the Mies van der Rohe and drank some cola from a tall glass tumbler. He gestured toward the chair he was sitting on. “I don’t like them, but they’re real.”

Barnet L. Rosset Jr. grew up in a privileged Chicago household–his father was a wealthy banker–and went to Swarthmore College to be near his high school sweetheart. Meanwhile, a British publisher named Jack Kahane, father of Maurice Girodias, the man who would later publish Lolita , had published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer , a book the Swarthmore freshman picked up at the Gotham Book Mart. Mr. Rosset had never read anything like it. Soon enough he dropped out, studied film for a semester at the University of California at Los Angeles, and by 1942 he was an infantryman overseas. When the war was over, he eventually ended up in New York taking night classes at the New School. “I took a class on Proust from Alfred Kazin,” he said. His first wife, Joan Mitchell, was a well-known painter, and the couple hung out at the Cedar Tavern with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. They bought painter Robert Motherwell’s East Hampton, L.I., home. “It was a Quonset hut,” said Mr. Rosset. “Think of a barrel made out of metal and you cut it in half. It was used as an emergency shelter during World War II.” And they entertained. “My wife didn’t know how to cook an egg,” said Mr. Rosset. “I did the cooking and she did the washing.” In 1951, he bought the fledgling Grove Press for about $3,000.

In the early 1960′s, Mr. Rosset wanted to publish Tropic of Cancer in America. He challenged the obscenity laws, in a case titled Grove Press v. Richard Gerstein as State Attorney, State of Florida which went to the Supreme Court. He won.

Mr. Garbus said his plan is to invite experts to testify that Lo’s Diary is a “transformative” work and not a “derivative” one. “It has many of the same events, but it has other things, too,” said Mr. Garbus. “There are no paragraphs from the other book. There are no sentences from the other book.” He added that Mr. Rosset “would be agreeable to paying the estate, and putting on the cover that the book is not authorized by Nabokov.”

Mr. Rosset sat back and told a story.

“I remember this sort of apocryphal story,” he said. “In the film Ecstasy , Hedy Lamarr was very beautiful and maybe or maybe not a great actress, and the film was made in Europe with glimpses of her sort of nude. It was a very interesting film, and it was the story of an old man in love with a young woman. Henry Miller wrote a great deal about it. Hedy Lamarr is running around in the fields, a free spirit, and the husband is incredibly jealous.

“So Hedy Lamarr’s real husband was a top steelmaker in Europe who was Jewish, and he tried to buy up every copy of that film. He succeeding in doing nothing. He did buy a lot of copies, but other people had copies and they ripped them up and made new films. I saw at least four or five versions myself. And eventually he died in a concentration camp, and the film was banned–here, everywhere. He carried on a battle against that film until the fascists killed him. It was an incredible tragedy. He was more involved in stopping that film which maybe showed his wife nude than he was in saving his own life! Ultimately, what he did was sort of destroy the film, because it got so chopped up that nobody really now knows what the exact version was of the original film. It was a young woman just wanting to express herself freely. She wasn’t having intercourse with somebody. It was very philosophical, very beautiful. What it resulted in was censorship, ruined as a work of art. Dmitri is now trying to prevent Hedy Lamarr’s prototype from expressing herself.

“I’m not saying I don’t believe in copyright protecting authors,” Mr. Rosset said. “But it’s an interesting problem, where a thing has gone on and become a property of the world. People are doing something creatively, and to try and stop it is futile.… It’s like Picasso claiming he owns the city of Guernica.”

Mr. Rosset shook his empty glass so that the ice clinked. Ms. Myers appeared at his elbow. Mr. Rosset held the tumbler aloft.

“Do you want this freshened?” Ms. Myers asked.

Mr. Rosset turned. “Hmm? Yes.”

Tribute or Disaster?

Dmitri Nabokov’s lawyer said that if Lo’s Diary is allowed to be published, it will be a “disaster” for publishing.

“What you will see is every time a publisher comes out with a successful book, the next publisher, who knows that successful books are hard enough to come by, will say, ‘Oh, well, let’s just take that book and put it into the point of view of another character–the law will allow us to do that,’” said Mr. Skolnik. “It will set a terrible precedent for publishers, if every time there’s a success, it can simply be ripped off in this way by somebody saying, ‘It’s a different perspective, it’s a different work.’”

The court fight is coming at a fortuitous time: The New York Public Library is mounting a Nabokov exhibit honoring his centennial year.

Whether Barney Rosset, like Humbert Humbert, can recapture his first love, Lolita , “by incarnating her in another” remains to be seen. The English translation of Lo’s Diary is ready to be sent to the printers. If Mr. Rosset defeats Dmitri Nabokov’s legal challenge, the book could be in stores by fall.

“I think he’s working against his own self-interest,” Mr. Rosset said of Mr. Nabokov. “This is a compliment to his father, a tribute to him.”

The Publishing column may be reached at emanus@observer.com.