The nymphet strikes back

In a controversial new novel told from Lolita's point of view, the girl is vicious, conniving and not very convincing.

Published October 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Puberty stood me up until I was about 15 or 16. Forget the "late bloomer" rhetoric: If we're going to use floral metaphors, I'd have to say that when I first entered the emotional fray of adolescent sexuality, I was armed without so much as a pistil. My cadaverous body rendered me sexually invisible for a long time. (Why, oh why is the waif look desirable to the opposite sex only after you're too old to come by it naturally?) This kept me out of trouble but was agonizing nonetheless.

In particular, I recall an eighth-grade party at which none of the boys tried to kiss me or fondle my backside as they did to the other girls. By the time my mother came to drive me home, I was so overwhelmed with a hopelessly snarled mixture of rejection and relief that I burst into tears and asked why nobody wanted to touch me. My mom -- who didn't, to her credit, ban me from coed parties right then and there -- offered me some kind white lie that might even have had a kernel of truth to it: The boys, she said, didn't touch me that way because they respected me. (Mmm-hmm.) "But I don't want them to respect me!" I wailed, and dismissed her insistence that I might change my tune in a few years.

Then an interesting thing happened: During my junior year, I developed both my long-awaited bust and a habit of bursting into hysterical and seemingly unprovoked laughter in the middle of my classes. By this time, the promise of sex seemed to carry with it an implicit threat of violence. A few boys in my school were routinely rough with their girlfriends in moments of anger. I knew a girl who'd lost her virginity at 14 to a date-rapist. And outside the local Friendly's one night, a crowd of kids watched two boys hold a screaming girl by the arms as a third tried to lift her skirt. My yearning for someone to touch me was tempered by the fear that someone actually would. So I laughed, loudly and often, with a horribly desperate edge to my giggle. My Spanish teacher thought I was on drugs. My classmates thought I was crazy, and I was inclined to agree. It was only in college -- shortly after I'd lost my virginity, and long after the laughing fits had subsided -- that I realized that I was laughing because boys had begun to notice me, and I was trying to smother the impulse to scream or cry every time one looked at me or passed me a note.

Now, there are plenty of teenagers and even preadolescents who have active, happy sex lives. But I relate these anecdotes because I think that certain aspects of my experience are universal: ambivalence about sex, anxiety about the changes in one's body and the push-pull response to adult advisors.

These complexities are largely absent from "Lo's Diary," a novel about a prematurely and inappropriately sexualized girl -- who just happens to be Lolita. The author, Italian writer Pia Pera, ostensibly wanted to give Vladimir Nabokov's nymphet a voice: to retell the story through the girl's eyes. But what a disappointing voice the author has bestowed upon one of the most intriguing characters of all time. In Pera's version, Nabokov's mercurial, sexually precocious preteen is reduced to a caricature: a conniving, narcissistic, heartless vixen.

Much has been made in the publishing industry of the skirmish between Pera and Nabokov's son Dmitri, executor of his father's estate, who filed a lawsuit against her original American publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, claiming that attempts to publish the novel in the States and the United Kingdom constituted copyright infringement. Farrar pulled out, and Foxrock -- a publishing company founded by Barney Rossett, whose Grove Press first published "Lolita" in the United States in 1955 -- took over after reaching a settlement with Dmitri Nabokov: The book could be published, but Pera would have to split royalties with Nabokov, and each would provide commentary regarding the legal issues involved. Dmitri Nabokov's preface gets in some good insults under the guise of being generous ("I try to be a nice guy"); Pera has reneged on her promise to write an afterword, but that didn't stop her from accusing Dmitri Nabokov, in an e-mail written to a New York Times reporter, of a second-rate imitation of his father's grandstanding.

"Lo's Diary" is largely contrapuntal to "Lolita." In each, there is a foreword by fictional editor John Ray. In Lolita, Ray tells us that Humbert "died in legal captivity." In "Lo's Diary," he tells us that after editing and publishing "Lolita," he was approached by the "real" Lo: Dolores Schlegel (Schiller in "Lolita"), nee Maze (not Haze, thank you), who did not die in childbirth as Humbert Humbert would have us believe, but is rather happily pregnant with her second child by her sweet, deaf husband, Richard.

Mrs. Schlegel forks over the journal entries she scribbled on scraps of paper while on the can. (She feigned GI distress fairly often during her cross-country flight with Humbert Guibert so she could have the privacy to write.) Humbert, apparently, is not dead either, but rather living out his last days fairly peacefully in Paris with his younger wife. He never even killed Gerry Sue Filthy (Clare Quilty). Indeed, Dolly Schlegel has come a long way since meeting Humbert at 231 Grassy St. in Goatscreek (342 Lawn St. in Ramsdale), and she wants the world to know what really happened.

If these dopey names, with their strained, literal-minded, one-to-one correspondence to Nabokov's, strike you as silly, congratulate yourself on your discerning mind. There's much about "Lo's Diary" that's unsophisticated, and that's not because of the narrator's age. Nor is the novel's callowness excused by the adult Dolly's acknowledgement that her adolescent musings are "definitely less literary" than Humbert's. (It's never a good sign when a book apologizes for itself in the prologue.)

The book reads like it was written by a grad student who took her MFA-program exercises ("Reimagine a scene from 'Lolita' from another character's POV" -- yawn) way too seriously. There are so many squandered opportunities here, it's almost criminal. Why trot out Dolly's husband and son in the prologue if we're never to learn how she met him (according to Pera, anyway), and how she managed to overcome years of psychic damage after fleeing the depravity of Filthy/Quilty? Didn't it occur to Pera that we might want to know whether, in this supposedly feminist version, Dolly ever tried her hand at a career before becoming a stay-at-home mom? Or whether her experience as a pedophile's sex slave at all invades the marital bed or taints the joy she derives from her own children?

Indeed, if anything, Pera takes too much of Humbert's version for granted -- particularly Lolita's "nymphean evil." Because Nabokov tells his story through an increasingly unreliable narrator, the character of Lolita is sometimes preternaturally devilish, sometimes a mere cipher. Instead of fleshing out the girl Nabokov called "the little deadly demon among the wholesome children," Pera has made Lo even more of a cunning, vicious monster. This is a little girl who tortures animals and people with so little remorse that she's a veritable sociopath, with the classic case history of a serial killer. The Long Island Lolita, Amy Fisher, is more sympathetic.

Not that Lo's home life is a breeding ground for happiness. At the start of "Lo's Diary" proper, Dolores Maze is a 12-year-old preoccupied with the A-bomb and nuclear physics. The possibility of radioactive mutation doesn't seem to scare her as it does others, and little wonder: Most people in Lo's world are horrible or already dead. Her mother is an abusive, man-hunting harpy who's not above shoving her daughter's face in the toilet; her brother died by an accidental but gruesome electrocution when she was 4; and just last year, her father -- who expressed affection by hugging her in the garage as they electrocuted lizards together -- dropped dead as well. Mom (whom Lo secretly calls "Plasticmom" or "the hen" or "the pig") tells her, "In this family only the males die."

Not that the females fare much better. The level of hatred between Isabel and Dolly Maze is not only shocking but left unexplained. Granted, many teenage girls trying to separate from their moms lash out in often unwarranted anger and disgust. But most big-mouthed teenagers also really need their mothers at times and have their tender moments, too. Lo does not. She sabotages her mother's love life, badmouths her to Isabel's best friend, dumps dead spiders in her mother's bed and is convinced that "when I'm sick she's happy."

When Humbert later picks Lo up from camp with the bogus story that Isabel's in the hospital, Lo explains to him, "All we can do is kill her, pull out the I.V., give her the wrong medicine, whatever, since a shit like her for sure doesn't deserve to go on living ... But maybe we don't actually have to murder her: When I show up in all these sexy clothes that her second and last husband bought me, she'll die in a burst of rage. She'll choke on it. Definitely." Nice kid.

But we've discovered long before this point that Lo is not only disturbed but profoundly dangerous. She tortures her pet hamster -- named for her dead brother Nelson -- after the hapless animal bites her on the finger. This scene is one of the book's most harrowing: "I invent a new game: I take him by the scruff of the neck and put him on the light bulb, which is boiling hot, and he jumps. It's fun ... Nelson looks angry when he jumps: he'd bite all of me if he could, gnaw me to the bone and send me bloodless to the other world. But it so happens that I'm stronger, so he has to perform a cute comic number, because if he doesn't get busy he'll get burned. He pulls up his paws so fast it's a scream -- he wants to run away, but he's stuck. My friend, I say, it's pointless to try and escape, because ... you can't escape until I say so." When she discovers Nelson dead in his cage the next day, covered in blisters, her remorse amounts to a shrug.

I could go on to describe how Lo psychologically brutalizes a nerdy, sensitive girl at camp, but the hamster scene is enough, I think, to illustrate how Pera hammers home that this girl's warped attempts to counteract her feelings of powerlessness make her not just receptive to Humbert but downright predatory. She's the antithesis of the vulnerable, too-trusting molestation victim.

Perhaps Pera believes that going to this extreme is the only way to give Lolita any autonomy. And indeed, Lo's sexual savvy does initially give her some power over Humbert. But the result is a cartoon. Pera doesn't create a realistic portrait of a teen's sexuality -- the volatile mixture of awkwardness and daring, fear and excitement, desire and revulsion. How much more affecting and tragic Pera's novel would have been had she created a Lolita who was sexual, and perhaps immoral on occasion, but also a feeling creature, a girl with both a conscience and some insecurity.

Pera's Lo cannot -- will not -- experience most ordinary emotions. Even when Humbert anally rapes her, Lo short-circuits her feelings: "I am plunged into such disgust that I say to myself, What difference does it make in the end, isn't it all the same horror, and then, what do I care ... maybe it's more advantageous to know how to do even that ... better to practice, to be used to everything."

Even when Lo enjoys sex, Pera depicts her emotions as stunted. Granted, lots of people -- both straight and gay -- experiment with homosexuality as kids, but even those who enjoy these adventures experience some anxiety or confusion about what it "means" about them. Not Lo, even though this is 1946, some 50 years before Lesbian Chic. As long as it feels good, she does it without a second thought. When a female friend and sometime sexual playmate at her camp professes her love for Lo and begins crying about their imminent parting, Lo "comforted her a little, but at the same time, it didn't seem like such a big deal ... anyway it seems weird for her to be so in love with me." (There's that shrug again.)

And when Lo loses her virginity -- in front of yet another fellow camper, to the girl's own lover -- she immediately likes the sex: "There's no pain at all, only the sensation that I am made of a thousand layers that he is unfolding one after another ... I only want to keep lying here." I don't know, even if a torn hymen isn't enough to make a 13-year-old wince, you'd think the presence of a third person might make things a little awkward.

The kid is as preternaturally responsive as the fantasy women in pornography: Lo alludes to "the electronic atomic supersonic orgasm, that, to my extreme amazement, stunned me when I was sliding down the pole at recess." Uh, yeah, I'm stunned too, even though I'm a bit of a Molotov cocktail myself. Considering that it takes fewer than 10 seconds to shimmy down a playground pole, I don't see how she could possibly climax, unless her clitoris is as reflexive as a knee that's struck by a physician's rubber hammer.

Pera gives Lo a ridiculous, pneumatic sort of sexuality wholly unencumbered by self-doubt or shame. Lo says that sex is great for the figure and the complexion, but she's never troubled by the changes in her body, never struggles with understanding her true desires, never worries about whether she's "normal," a famous preoccupation of teenagers (and adults, too, for that matter).

Pera chooses to interpret Lolita as a girl who knows how to come during intercourse at the age of 13, but is devoid of a single benevolent impulse. Can't she be sexual and flawed and yet still more than the "vile and beloved slut" that Humbert called her in Nabokov's version? Why would someone go to the trouble of writing from Lolita's point of view if she's only going to turn Lo into a cartoonish femme fatale who ridicules Humbert behind his back for being a "lousy" lover who just "lies there like a straw man"? Part of the beauty of "Lolita" is that Nabokov illustrated how closely Humbert's profound sickness and cruelty are intertwined with his loving and nurturing impulses. There is no such three-dimensionality here.

Lo's smug triumph in seducing Humbert is quickly dispelled when she realizes what a selfish fuck he is. Even when she's running fever, "he's happy as a clam, touching me where I'm burning and absorbing the heat from me as if I'm a hot-water bottle, like the ... parasite he is."

She laments, "It's nauseating to see a grown man, with curls of white hair on his chest, thick eyebrows, and on his face that slightly doglike expression, with only one purpose in life, only one interest: to get inside me." Well, yes. But how about some more tender moments, too?

At the risk of sounding perverse, it seems obvious that Lo might entertain some real feelings of attachment to Humbert, as contemptible and exploitative as he is. In real life, incest and other abuse survivors are often tormented by the positive feelings tangled up with their humiliation and the rage they feel for their perpetrators. On the other hand, although Lo wonders whether Humbert will "try to eliminate me" once she passes a certain age, she never seems to experience any real terror that this man might kill her, or, more likely, abandon her without a cent.

At the book's end, ensconced in Filthy's manse, she overhears the perverse playwright telling his merry band of hedonists, "I'm already bored by her."

Seems that he's deemed Lo a "foolish and whimsical girl who imagines she has the world at her feet" and Humbert "an old man so lacking in imagination that he thinks the greatest thing in life is to fuck her." Ah, a dismissive synopsis at the novel's end to balance the apology in the prologue. So glad I bothered to read what lay between.

By Jennifer Kornreich

Jennifer Kornreich is a freelance features reporter, a sex-and-relationships advice columnist for MSNBC Interactive News and a dating columnist for Cosmopolitan.

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