Sunday, January 2, 2000

“Lo’s Diary” by Pia Pera

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

The legal issues raised by the retelling of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” from the pubescent child’s point of view are, unfortunately, more interesting than this first novel by Italian journalist and short-story writer Pia Pera.

Dmitri Nabokov, son of Vladimir and executor of his literary estate, chose not to sue when “Lo’s Diary” was first published in Italy in 1995. However, when Farrar, Straus & Giroux was preparing to publish the book in English, Dmitri Nabokov asserted copyright infringement.

The law was not – and still is not – clear. Parody does not require permission, while sequels or prequels do if there is an existing copyright. Once the copyright expires and the work passes into public domain, it can be legally ripped off. Consider “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “Clueless” and, most recently, “Ahab’s Wife.” “Lolita,” however, is still under copyright protection, and “Lo’s Diary” is neither parody, sequel or prequel. So the legal question becomes whether “Lo’s Diary” is “derivative” and, therefore, requires permission, or “transformative” and, therefore, a new and independent property.

A court decision would have set a precedent, and could have opened the door to endless literary thievery.

Imagine the possibilities: “The Great Gatsby” from Daisy’s point of view, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” from Nurse Ratched’s, “The Old Man and the Sea” from the marlin’s, and so on.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux dropped out of the budding legal battle. Barney Rossett, the former publisher of Grove Press, stepped in with Fox Rock Books, his new enterprise. Rather than gamble with the court, a compromise agreement was reached, whereby royalties were divided and both sides won something: The Nabokov estate protected its copyright, and Pia Pera’s book was published here. Also, Dimitri Nabokov was allowed to write a preface to the novel, the main purpose of which seems to be to portray Pia Pera as a “would-be plagiarist.”

Plagiarism “Lo’s Diary” may be, but it is not particularly artful plagiarism. Pera inexplicably decided to portray the 11-year-old “nymphet” as bitter and manipulative, almost sociopathic, and highly sexualized before meeting pedophile Humbert Humbert.

The rivalry between mother and daughter, clear enough in the original, is expanded upon at length by Pera: “Mom may be pretty, but I’m prettier.” “True beauty vanishes by the time a woman gets to be her age.” “The only way for an older woman to get herself married is to get the absent-minded man to fall in love with the child first.”

Lolita sets out to seduce Humbert shortly after he enters the story on page 71. “Hummie is practically mine. I really know what it takes with men.” Lolita’s calculations offer an interesting counterpoint to Humbert’s delirious and unreliable recounting of their interactions.

“Lo’s Diary” is most interesting when Pera mirrors Nabokov’s passages, such as the red apple encounter. In the original, Humbert grabs an apple from the 12-year-old and exploits the resulting wrestling match to work himself into a verbal and sexual frenzy. Humbert appears to believe that he has gotten away with “the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.” Nabokov ends the chapter with “Blessed be the Lord, she had noticed nothing.”

In Pera’s telling, Lolita knows exactly what Humbert is up to, even leads him there, and afterward thinks, “He looks around confused and satisfied, maybe he hasn’t yet realized what happened to him: that I seduced him. That now he’s mine.”

Later, during the road trip across America, when Lolita has tired of the game, when the seduction is over and the raping has begun, Pera effectively captures some of Lo’s trauma and helplessness. “A minor is a person the law doesn’t protect.”

The moments that work in “Lo’s Diary” directly riff on the original, while the freshly imagined scenes – such as a clumsy and gratuitous scene where Lolita tortures a hamster – mostly fail, particularly when contrasted with Nabokov’s artistry.

The best thing about “Lo’s Diary” is that it begs the reader back to “Lolita,” one of the benchmark masterpieces of this last century.


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