Lolita’s Newest Creator Tries To Pluck Her From the Porn Heap

“My Lolita does not speak in Nabokov’s language,” said Pia Pera.

It was 4 P.M. on a Friday, about the time one’s blood sugar faints away, and Ms. Pera was at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, on West 12th Street, for an “espresso talk.” The subject was her new novel, Lo’s Diary , a retelling of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita from the nymphet’s point of view. Thirteen members of the university community faced the 43-year-old author, who came to talk about the book that no American reviewer wants to praise.

One after the other, Salon , The Washington Post Book World , Time magazine, Los Angeles Times Book Review , Newsweek , The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review took umbrage with Ms. Pera’s novel. First flay, then filet.

Ms. Pera seemed to be taking in stride their criticism of her creative powers and writing style. “If Time magazine cuts me to pieces, this is the way it should be,” she said. “It was not a surprise.”

But perhaps the second part of her North American tour was feeling a bit light. New York City was Ms. Pera’s only stop in the United States, and the schedule was shaping up like so: an interview with the trade magazine Publishers Weekly , the N.Y.U. visit and a chat with The Observer . Ms. Pera had spent the previous week in Canada, where she had been interviewed by two daily newspapers, visited with some university folks and attended the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival. There had been four book signings in Toronto and Vancouver; there were no book signings in New York. Also no television appearances; once scheduled, they had evaporated. “The negative reviews obviously had an effect on people not being interested in talking to her,” said Ellen Ryder, an independent publicist hired by Publishers Group West, which distributes titles for Foxrock Inc., Ms. Pera’s American publisher.

But here on West 12th Street, people were very interested in hearing from Ms. Pera and had followed the history of her book, from its 1995 publication in her native Italy (where the book has sold about 20,000 copies) to its American debut on Oct. 29. Nabokov’s son and sole proprietor of the literary estate, Dmitri, had tried to block the book on its way to English-language publication, claiming copyright infringement. Then he worked out a settlement and wrote a preface to Ms. Pera’s novel. Ms. Pera wrote an afterword, but she withdrew after learning Mr. Nabokov had read it; she was not given the opportunity to read his. She hopes to publish the afterword in a periodical.

“There was a lot of copyright problems, a lot of debate,” Ms. Pera told her audience. “If Vladimir Nabokov had been alive, copyright problems probably wouldn’t have arisen. I think he would’ve had a sense of humor. I would’ve sent it to him, shyly, to a great writer.” She smiled and raised her eyebrows.

Ms. Pera’s book and its journey to the printing press represents a sort of Gordian knot of legal and esthetic issues. Does Lolita belong to the world, or to the Nabokov estate? Is Ms. Pera’s book a ripoff or a reimagining? Esthetic judgment pulls things a bit tighter: If an author “borrows” a recognizable character for a book, does it have any bearing on copyright whether the book is considered bad or good? Several recent novels that revisit famous works-for instance, Ahab’s Wife , by Sena Jeter Naslund, and The Hours , by Michael Cunningham-have thrown such questions into greater relief. (In Ms. Naslund’s case, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is in the public domain.) Lo’s Diary visits a work whose copyright doesn’t expire until 2050.

Other recent books have resuscitated little Lo, among them Roger Fishbite , by Emily Prager, and Love in a Dead Language: A Romance , by Lee Siegel. But Ms. Pera’s book is the one that stirred Nabokov fils to action.

Ms. Pera told her N.Y.U. audience a story she had heard, about a visit Nabokov père once made to Cambridge University. “Apparently, Véra [Nabokov's wife and secretary] interrupted the lecture and started ordering students to stop taking notes: ‘You’re taking my husband’s ideas.’ Dmitri is following in the family business,” Ms. Pera quipped.

She went on. “My book is a protest of the easy way of killing the heroine by having her die. There was a great need to talk about Lolita. Lolita is a book about the desire of a man, a desire for things young and immature and defenseless, a longing for this kind of unattainable youth. I incarnate his ‘bad reader,’ a character who takes the story at face value and takes on a life of her own. I take Lolita out of Nabokov’s world. My Lolita is not a nice girl, not mother loving. She’s not normal. The child cannot be loved because she did not have the chance to develop a personality that would be lovable. My book is not about lust, it’s a lot about mother hatred. Another big taboo, I discovered.”

The audience, nine of whom were women, sat in silence.

Ms. Pera said things were fine until the book approached the English language market. “Finnish, who cares? Greek, who cares? But English, that’s a lot of money,” said Ms. Pera.

At 4:30, she said, “I read a little.” She rolled her R a little. “The first passage is about a day she’s not yet succeeded in seducing Humbert Humbert. Some of the reviews, she was seen as too aggressive, too calculating. I think it’s rubbish. That’s what young people are like, they think they can conquer people.” She began to read. She gestured as she read. She tossed her head, wrinkled her forehead, shrugged her shoulders.

Ms. Pera stopped to talk about her research for the book. “I wanted to know what the times were like. I read quite a few diaries of girls of the time. I got a hold of photographs of the time, magazines of the time. Lolita is a myth, an emblem of our time, of this postwar period, the most important one. And she is a coeval to atomic energy,” said Ms. Pera “She’s a tough kid but has the kind of abnormal energy that you cut, like when an atom is split. Writing about Lolita is a lot about writing about the violence of our time and surviving it.

“Some people said she’s horrible because she’s cynical and I thought, Do you write the truth in a diary? I doubt it. If you are to write the truth, that you’re helpless in the hands of someone else, you wouldn’t be able to go on. The diary is like armor. The novel begins at the end of the book, after she gets out of the armor.”

Soon it was time for espresso and butter cookies.

Francesca Magniani, a 27-year-old, third-year doctoral student from Padua, did not think Lo’s Diary in any way slighted Nabokov’s masterpiece. “Not at all,” she said. “It’s like a pretext for reading the book. It’s always an homage to an author when you take their world and work on it, even when it’s a polemical approach.”

A man who had not read Ms. Pera’s work was similarly sanguine. “I think you’d be able to enjoy it more if you read Nabokov first,” said Livio Caroli, 55, who plays oboe with the New York City Opera. “There are many Lolitas in opera,” said Mr. Caroli. “Carmen. There is also Manon. La Traviata , by Verdi. A woman always the symbol,” he said. “There’s a Lolita at least a couple of productions a week.”

Francesco Erspamer, the 45-year-old chair of the Italian department at N.Y.U. who arranged Ms. Pera’s talk, said he did not consider Lo’s Diary a “rewriting” of Lolita . He read the book in Italian. “It’s a very postmodern book, because there’s heavy use in postmodernism literature of characters by other people,” said Mr. Erspamer. “Decontextualizing is typical.” But if the book didn’t have the Nabokov connection, would he have been interested in the book? “I enjoyed reading the book,” he said. “I didn’t have in mind Lolita .” And yet, “Without that, it’s weaker or less interesting. It needs another text to refer to. You have to know Lolita is already a literary character.”

The group dispersed, and Ms. Pera sat down to talk a bit more about her literary mission. “I felt a kind of anger the way she was so easily disposed off and killed.” And swept into pornography’s lexicon. “You go on the Internet and find lots of porno sites with Lolita,” said Ms. Pera. She named some: “Lolita Land, Lolita Bootymania, Lolita X-Com, with tons of rape pics and Kosovo Lolita rape.”

To the charge that her book does not even begin to approach Nabokov’s mastery, Ms. Pera said, “Of course it’s not the same Lolita. I’m not trying to compete with Nabokov, I’m trying to get people to think anew. Why a new opera? Why a new movie? You want to express something in the own sensibility of your time.”

Is Ms. Pera working on another book? “Yes, Dmitri Nabokov’s true diary,” she quipped. Actually, her next one “is a book of nonfiction on utopian socialists in Europe.” She is also working on another work of fiction; it “is not taking issue with any other book or character.”

Even if it did, this is a different thing than the kind of appropriation that really gets under her skin: “When you use beautiful, famous music, the climax of a musical piece, for instance, with all its power, and use it to sell commodities. Wagner’s Valkyrian song can be used for a car. And then the sense of the music is distorted by this unwanted subconscious association, and it’s all ruined for you this pleasure. And I get angry about that,” she said, “because no one asked Wagner or Rossini or Beethoven. Here is a common culture we all share, it’s being distorted and no one can protect it. The reception of this music has no defense. It’s been banalized, trivialized.”

Could the same argument be made against Lo’s Diary ? “I don’t feel I’m doing that,” said Ms. Pera. “I feel I’m really seriously taking on something that concerns all of us in a serious way. I’m not making commodity, not making commercial. If anything, I am rescuing this Lolita image from this worn-out porno exploitation. I’m not using Lolita to advertise a condom line or an erotic lingerie line.”

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