BBC 4 Documentary, ‘How do you solve a problem like Lolita?’


How did I nearly miss this?

‘How do you solve a problem like Lolita’? 

A 1hr BBC 4 documentary that explores the moral life and lifestyle of Vladimir Nabokov.  Some charges against the writer: Aristocratic and sentimental? Pusher of an amoral literary agenda?

Quell your surging anticipations. It begins slowly.  The journalist – Stephen Smith – comes across as clumsy at the outset but he shows us some wonderful things – such as  the scientifically respected Nabokovian butterfly collection – as the documentary develops nearer the end. Most enjoyable of all are the clips of Nabokov himself; a man of perplexing opacity and gentle playfulness. In interview as he is on the page: highly serious and sublimely silly in a single sentence. The historic Nabokov family home makes an appearance ( at about 17 mins), helping us to process the degree of wealth into which the writer was born.

The documentary plays detective amongst Nabokov’s other works for predecessors or duplicates of Dolores Haze to uncover the good or evil intentions behind  Lolita. Martin Amis weighs in and casts his doubts. 

Lolita is a great book. It is an emotionally lop-sided charge into destruction written through the eyes of an individual incapable of empathy that could never be described as a love story (that implies a degree of reciprocity). Nabokov writes sensitively about young Dolores’ plight as the initial director of her natural sexual experiments and the sudden hijacking of her developement and destiny.   It is written with breathtaking intelligence on the subject of the problems of adolescence – so much so as to be able to nearly cover its own firm morality.

 If it fits into any genre it is also a road trip novel. Early nineteen fifties America whirls past in a boom of soda fountains, gossip magazines and motels full of suspect characters.

The documentary explores Nabokov’s other recurrent theme of the mannered European in post-war America, visiting Nabokov’s American touchstones with varying degrees of success in finding the writer’s essence haunting an office. Interviews with former colleagues and staff are more elucidating than the scenes of the journalist standing in a room connected to the writer and ‘taking it in’.

For Smith, the butterflies are the missing link. There is joyful (if very comfortable) completeness to the idea that distorted Humbert loves a plain child and therefore stunts her growth into a beautiful and autonomous adult and that butterfly larvae are known as ‘nymphal’ in their caterpillar stage. No firm conclusions about his character -Nabokov remains perfectly enigmatic for the earnest though slightly superficial efforts of this documentary but it is still worth watching for the archive material.

More on Nabokov in future. You can read a rabble of ideas on what and why Lolita and Humbert are, here at the Nabokov resource page Zembla.

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