On a Book Entitled Lo's Diary
Vladimir Nabokov (henceforth "VN") has received many splendid tributes in his centennial year -
loving ceremonies throughout the world by which he, a non-ceremonious person, would nevertheless
have been deeply touched.
VN has appeared on all the famous lists, and interesting works by and about him continue to proliferate - the first Pléiade volume is on its way; Nabokov's Butterflies is soon to be issued by Penguin in England and Beacon Press in America. It will contain his invented but plausible dedication butterflies, his scientific articles, and the butterflies in his fiction, including a substantial, never-published, projected off-shoot of The Gift.
Some events leading up to the centennial year have been less jolly, although I guess nearly everything has its jolly side. Outright piracy persists in Russia, and in the Western world, as some readers may know, one Pia Pera (henceforth "PP"), an Italian journalist, author of some stories that I have not read and of a translation of Eugene Onegin into Italian which I have, decided to seek inspiration, fortune and fame from a book called Lolita.
Lolita, VN's third novel in English, has been translated into some 20 languages, and sold over 50 million copies. During my father's lifetime and thereafter, my family has been approached by a perpetual stream of artists from around the world - filmmakers, playwrights, composers, choreographers, a graphic artist or two - who had been inspired, moved, touched by Lolita. These suitors wanted to pay homage: to take the novel, filter it through a personal vision, and transform it into what the law of copyright defines as a "derivative work" - one that "recasts, transforms or adapts" something that has come before. Recognizing the derivative nature of their enterprise, would-be transformers - regardless of their celebrity or stature - gave a figurative knock on my family's door in Ithaca or Montreux seeking permission to offer their new works based on Lolita to an ever-curious public.
Like their works, Lo's Diary is based on my father's novel - as will be instantly apparent to anyone who knows Lolita. By explicit design, the characters, incidents, sequences of events, settings, articles of clothing, hair styles, personal effects, pets, gifts, even the bacon purloined from a breakfast tray - all of these ingredients and more will immediately seem familiar. Nevertheless, although PP has recast, transformed and adapted Lolita, she and her Italian publisher declined to seek permission, declined to acknowledge that Lo's Diary is a derivative work.
Depending upon whose flag was flapping, the resulting work was dubbed a legally permissible girl's eye view written in response to a challenge from VN, a sort of latter - day Rashomon, and/or an honorable addition to the catalogue of such "transformative" works as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Updike's S, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. When the New York Times presented the same seduction scene drawn from VN and from PP in parallel columns, stylistic considerations apart, feminists had mixed feelings about the calculating harpy that emerged. What PP called VN's "challenge to a literary tennis match," was, she quite forgot, a raving wish of Humbert's, not Nabokov's, to examine Lolita as a female doctor might. The comparison to Rashomon might have been persuasive if Kurosawa himself had not written all four versions of the rape/murder scene that figures in his own masterpiece: and as for the comparisons to earlier transformations - Pygmalion, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet,The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre - all had been safely tucked into the public domain when the "transformations" were penned.
Lolita isn't in the public domain, and won't be until well into the next millennium when its copyright expires - notwithstanding which the Washington Post advanced the view that I should lighten up: Lolita, their editors urged, should be fair game in the fields of copyright because it has "come inescapably into common consciousness."
I thought then, and think now, that this is silly. Is Lolita to pay this price because it is too good, too famous? Are writers to strive for mediocrity lest their works similarly enter the "common consciousness?" Are icons of popular culture - Star Wars perhaps - to be made subject to plundering by free riders because they have entered the common consciousness? The Post urged me to "rethink" my stance, asking whether books like Madam Pera's "can truly do the original anything but homage?" By ignoring the fact that homage to Lolita can be and has been paid with bona fide licenses, the question seems naïve.
It is only fair to mention that before she published, PP did send her text to me in Sardinia. While there was no mention of permission or copyright, hope seemed to glimmer for evaluation and support from me. I try to be a nice guy. I did not know how to reply and therefore, if I recollect correctly, said nothing. My attorney, however, did advise PP's publisher that although Lo's Diary constituted copyright infringement, if they stuck to Italian, I would be disinclined to sue.
When Lo's Diary journeyed beyond its original Italian bailiwick, into Finnish, Dutch, then - courtesy of Macmillan of London and Farrar, Straus & Giroux of New York - into English translation, time came to put a stop to it. Menaced by serious court proceedings, the British and US publishers withdrew, for they understood that what was on the endangered list was not freedom of inspiration and expression, but the very principle of copyright that protects their own authors as well. As other pretenders to publication began to loom like ominous kinglets from Macbeth, it became evident that a new policy was needed. So a compromise was reached at the suggestion of Barney Rosset and Foxrock whereby, regardless of its literary merit, the Diary would not be denied publication, and I would not appear as a possessive, censoring ogre. A brief preface of mine would make it clear that my permission to publish was required by law, in the hope of setting a precedent without spending years and millions on trials and appeals, and of going on to more productive matters. To reinforce the notion of copyright protection, a portion of the proceeds would go to me. In order to banish any misunderstanding, that portion would be transmitted in its entirety to the International Pen Club for literary - philanthropic use. PP would be entitled to an afterword, a privilege that, after some vacillation, she decided to forego.
I see in today's All the News That's Fit to Print, however, that PP has had it both ways. Not only has her final attempt at an afterword been published, but so have her (odd) comments on this piece. I shall leave the matter in its mole - hole, other than to point out that it is not my intent to be ungracious, or to emulate my late father. It is simply to apprise the reader and the would - be plagiarist of the dry, legal aspects of the copyright issue. The rest may come soon, in a different forum. I also note that no mention has been made of the totally philanthropic destination of the meager proceeds one foresees. Perhaps that did not fit.
The path has been a rather tortured one; but the copyright to Lolita has been honored. Lo's Diary is in your hands.
August 23, 1999