Tomer Hanuka’s film posters for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita


Lolita (Nabokov’s Pale Fire)


Lolita, Reading — Stanley Kubrick

Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson Gets the 33 1/3 Treatment (Book Acquired, 10.23.2013)


Things I am a fan of: Serge Gainsbourg, Darran Anderson, and the 33 1/3 series. The 33 1/3 imprint focuses on specific albums, and the results are usually far more engaging than standard biographical fare. Histoire de Melody Nelson is the series’s latest entry; here, Darran Anderson takes on Serge Gainsbourg’s dark, moody, sexy, weird album (listen to it/see it here). I still remember the first time I heard Melody, back in college. Gainsbourg’s track with a breathy, orgasmic Brigitte Bardot “Je t’aime… moi non plus” was pretty much a party standard for my friends and me, and “Bonnie & Clyde” found its way onto plenty of mixtapes in the late ’90s. These bubblegum vamps didn’t really prepare me for Melody. I remember going to a friend’s apartment; he had just bought the album and had it playing on repeat. Dark, spacious, very short and full of strange shifts, from orchestral bombast to odd moments of quiet, the album made me feel weird. Such a weird album is a worthy topic for a book, and Anderson’s entry is a marvelous description and analysis of the artistic, cultural, and philosophical sources that Gainsbourg synthesized in Melody. Check out some of Anderson’s blog entries; they provide a compelling overview of his book:

The Origins of Melody – Nabokov’s LolitaBarbarella, Boris Vian, Sibelius, Mondo Cane.

The Avant Garde or Nothing – Gainsbourg and Vannier as innovators and a focus on their lost classics.

Initials O.G. – Serge Gainsbourg’s Hip-hop afterlife.

Connan Mockasin – Kiwi Psychedelia and the Ghost of Melody Nelson.

The book’s blurb:

Outside his native France, the view of Serge Gainsbourg was once of a one-hit wonder lothario. This has been slowly replaced by an awareness of how talented and innovative a songwriter he was. Gainsbourg was an eclectic, protean figure; a Dadaist, poète maudit, Pop-Artist, libertine and anti-hero. An icon and iconoclast.

His masterpiece is arguably Histoire de Melody Nelson, an album suite combining many of his signature themes; sex, taboo, provocation, humour, exoticism and ultimately tragedy. Composed and arranged with the great Jean-Claude Vannier, its score of lush cinematic strings and proto-hip hop beats, combined with Serge’s spoken-word poetry, has become remarkably influential across a vast musical spectrum; inspiring soundtracks, indie groups and electronic artists. In recent years, the album’s reputation has grown from cult status to that of a modern classic with the likes of Beck, Portishead, Mike Patton, Air and Pulp paying tribute.

How did the son of Jewish Russian immigrants, hounded during the Nazi Occupation, rise to such notoriety and acclaim, being celebrated by President François Mitterand as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire”? How did the early chanson singer evolve into a musical visionary incorporating samples, breakbeats and dub into his music, decades ahead of the curve? And what are the roots and legacy of a concept album about a Rolls Royce, a red-haired Lolita muse, otherworldly mansions, plane crashes and Cargo Cults?


Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita, Languages, Lepidoptera (1964 LIFE Magazine Profile)

(From a 1964 LIFE profile; my favorite line: “It is odd, and probably my fault, that no people seem to name their daughters Lolita anymore. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.”)

Book Acquired, 11.14.2011


Stalking Nabokov by Brian Boyd. Publisher Columbia UP’s description—

At the age of twenty-one, Brian Boyd wrote a thesis on Vladimir Nabokov that the famous author called “brilliant.” After gaining exclusive access to the writer’s archives, he wrote a two-part, award-winning biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990) and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1991). This collection features essays written by Boyd since completing the biography, incorporating material he gleaned from his research as well as new discoveries and formulations.

Boyd confronts Nabokov’s life, career, and legacy; his art, science, and thought; his subtle humor and puzzle-like storytelling; his complex psychological portraits; and his inheritance from, reworking of, and affinities with Shakespeare, Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Machado de Assis. Boyd offers new ways of reading Nabokov’s best English-language works: LolitaPale FireAda, and the unparalleled autobiography, Speak, Memory, and he discloses otherwise unknown information about the author’s world. Sharing his personal reflections, Boyd recounts the adventures, hardships, and revelations of researching Nabokov’s biography and his unusual finds in the archives, including materials still awaiting publication. The first to focus on Nabokov’s metaphysics, Boyd cautions against their being used as the key to unlock all of the author’s secrets, showing instead the many other rooms in Nabokov’s castle of fiction that need exploring, such as his humor, narrative invention, and psychological insight into characters and readers alike. Appreciating Nabokov as novelist, memoirist, poet, translator, scientist, and individual, Boyd helps us understand more than ever the author’s multifaceted genius.

Nabokov Shows Off Different Lolita Covers

“Style and Content Must Match” — William Gaddis on Voice and Risk in His Novels

From a brief  1982 interview with William Gaddis

Q: The pervasive and distinctive authorial voice of The Recognitions gives way in J R to a self-effacing voice that seems to serve only functional purposes. Also in J R there is an increased dependence on dialogue. For verisimilitude in Lolita, Nabokov “travelled in school buses to listen to the talk of schoolgirls.” Did you take any special measures to hear and note the speech patterns of any of the wide variety of people who speak in “J R”?

William Gaddis: Style and content must match, must be complementary, accounting in part for a difference between the two books, though the lack of a conventional narrative style had already jarred a good many readers of The Recognitions when it appeared, as its hapless reviews show. J R was started as a story which quickly proved unsatisfactory, inspired- here’s the legitimate gossip—-by the postwar desecration of the Long Island village of Massapequa where my family had had property since around 1910, take a look at it now and you’ll see all the book’s worst hopes realized. In approaching J R as a novel, I was at pains to remove the author’s presence from the start as must be obvious. This was partly by way of what I mentioned earlier, obliging the thing to stand on own, take its own chances. But it was also by way of setting up a problem, a risk, in order to sustain my own interest, especially since the largely uninterrupted dialogue raised the further risk of presenting a convincing sense of real time without the conventional chapter breaks, white spaces, such narrative intrusions as “A week later . . .” How some of the writers I come across get through their books without dying of boredom is beyond me. As for what you call speech patterns, one is always listening and has got an ear or hasn’t, and without one, unless perhaps in dealing with an unfamiliar language and culture, no amount of your special measures like riding around on school buses will get you out of the swamp.

Nabokov Discusses Lolita Covers

See more Lolita covers.

Vladimir Nabokov, Butterfly Hunter

Oh my god. Look at that poise. That athleticism. That self-assurance. That spark of incandescent grace vibrating through his form. The lower lip lunging over the upper. The short pants.  Vladimir Nabokov, hunting butterflies. See the whole set.

Lolita Cover Archive

Checkout this great cover gallery archiving over 150 covers of Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece Lolita. A few favorites–

This 1957 Swedish cover is a pretty subtle/creepy upskirt.

1962, Brazil.

A 1964 LP with Pop Art undertones–seems a little too frank.

This 1970 Italian cover seems to be the earliest “girl in socks” theme that pops up again and again in the archive.

This 1972 Norwegian cover picks up the voyeur theme again, but it seems awfully goofy.

The poster for the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation inspired a rash of bad covers, but I think that this 1977 German cover works really well.

A Lebanese edition from 1988. Pretty and simple.

Balthus and Lolita seem like a natural fit, if a bit too obvious. I counted two other covers sporting Balthus paintings in addition to this 1995 English edition.

This Polish cover from 1997 is nine kinds of creepy.

Hotel Iris — Yoko Ogawa

Seventeen-year-old Mari, the narrator and subject of Yoko Ogawa’s new novel Hotel Iris, is something of a Cinderella figure. Her dad dies a violent death when she is only eight years old and her grandparents soon pass on as well, leaving her in the sole custody of her money-grubbing mother who works poor Mari like a slave in the upkeep of their shabby hotel. The titular Iris is a crumbling structure with only one seaside view, frequented in the off-season by prostitutes and only bustling in the sweltering summer months. It’s in the off-season when Mari first spies the transformative figure in her life–a man fifty years her senior who gets into a raucous fight with a hooker in the hotel. Transfixed by his commanding voice, Mari follows the man the next day as he performs banal errands. When he confronts her, the two strike up a strange friendship (very strange, it will turn out). The man lives on a small island where he works translating mundane Russian texts like tourist pamphlets–although he is hard at work at a passion project, translating a strange Russian novel. The translator begins writing Mari letters and she eventually sneaks away to meet him. In the seaside town he treats her with quiet deference, but when Mari visits his small, austere home on the island she undergoes a bizarre, sadistic sexual awakening. To continue a proper review of Hotel Iris will necessitate some mild spoilers. I won’t reveal any major plot points, but those intrigued may wish to stop reading here. Otherwise, on to the aforementioned bizarre, sadistic sexual awakening.

It’s pretty simple, really. The translator, a sexual sadist, has found in Mari a perfect masochist, a young girl so alienated and lonely that she can only find pleasure in extreme pain, beauty in brutal ugliness, and freedom in bondage. Her initial attraction to the translator, his commanding voice, goes to extremes in his isolated house on the island, where he strips her naked, ties her up, and forces her into all sorts of sexual humiliations. In a strange mirror of her Cinderella-life at Hotel Iris, he forces her to clean his house while strapped to a chair. He takes thousands of degrading photographs of her. In a scene reminiscent of “Bluebeard” he hangs her from the ceiling of a tiny pantry and whips her with a riding crop. He never engages in direct coitus with her; in fact, he never even removes the suit and tie he wears even in the sweltering summer. In each scenario Mari expresses the true happiness and pleasure she finds in the translator’s torture. “Only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure,” she tells us.

That young, naïve Mari should narrate the novel is the genius of Ogawa’s program. Her first-person immediacy communicates the confusion and despair of a neglected, overworked teen trapped in a dead-end job in a Podunk town. As the plot spirals it tempts the reader to endorse the “love” that Mari feels for the old man who tortures her. Just as Nabokov manipulates his readers via the charms of Humbert Humbert, Ogawa, writing her reverse-Lolita, repeatedly cons us into normalizing the relationship, in viewing it only from Mari’s perspective. It’s through the slipped, oblique details of Mari’s past that we construct a more coherent image of a long pattern of abuse. Her mother, always bragging about Mari’s beauty, tells the story of a sculptor who used Mari as a model (Mari, of course, believes herself ugly). “The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly raped me.” The only maid in the hotel repeatedly claims to be “like a mother” to Mari, yet she attempts to blackmail and humiliate the poor girl, and even tells her that she was Mari’s father’s “first lover.” Late in the novel, a drunken hotel guest gropes Mari’s breast and her mother brushes the abuse off, blaming implicitly on her daughter. The focused, purposeful sadism of the translator–a result of the man’s own painful past–is thus a form of love for Mari. Yet we see what Mari can’t see, even as we accept the savage doom of their romance.

Hotel Iris recalls the dread creepiness of David Lynch, as well as that director’s subversion of fairy tale structures (perhaps “subversion” is not the right word–aren’t fairy tales by nature subversive?). There are also obvious parallels between Mari’s story and The Story of O and Peter Greenaway’s fantastic film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover. But these are perhaps lazy comparisons–I should talk about Ogawa’s deft writing, her supple, slippy sentences, her sharpness of details, the exquisite ugliness of her depictions of sex and eating. She’s a very good writer, and translator Stephen Snyder has done a marvelous job rendering Ogawa’s Japanese into smooth, rhythmic sentences that resist idiomatic placeholders. Hotel Iris is not for everyone, but if you’ve read this far you’ve probably figured that out already. Readers who venture into Ogawa’s dark world will find themselves rewarded with a complex text that warrants close re-reading. Recommended.

Hotel Iris, a Picador trade paperback original, is available today.

More Alphabet Soup: Brought to You Today by the Letter H


H is for Humbert Humbert, the rascally narrator of Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita. Throughout the novel HH, a sardonic European, provides a running critique of conformist 1950s America, his adopted home. Pining for the haunting, ineffable feeling associated with a brief, tragic childhood love, HH engineers a series of unfortunate events in order to abscond with (and eventually seduce) twelve-year old Lolita Haze. Yep. That’s right. A child-molester made this list. But if you’ve ever read Lolita, you know how charming and funny this son-of-bitch is. Lolita is in a special class of books in the Biblioklept library; it’s one of those books that I’ve read in full at least four times, and one that I pick up and read parts of every year. The first time I read Lolita, I didn’t even realize what a monster HH was–in fact, I tended to sympathize with him, even to the point of sharing his condemnation of Lolita’s bratty, manipulative nature toward the end of the novel. Like Catcher in the Rye, I first read Lolita when I was 16; like Catcher in the Rye, Lolita was an entirely different book when I read it at 21. Somehow the book managed to change again, four or five years later. I’m sure Lolita will be completely different in a year or two when I’m thirty. In fact, I vow here and now to re-read it in full right after my 30th birthday. Who knows what will have happened to it by then? How these books change on you…

Narratological shape-shifting aside Lolita deserves to be read, and read repeatedly. Nabokov’s highly alliterative prose reverberates with lyrical gymnastics, multi-lingual puns, and allusions that will make you feel oh-so clever (if you are indeed oh-so clever enough to get them, of course). Neither Kubrick’s toothless 1962 film adaption or Adrian Lyne’s gauzy 1997 attempt do any justice at all to Nabokov’s words–this is one you simply have to read. Great stuff.


H is also for Hand, zany foil to Will, the tormented narrator of Dave Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity!. In this book, the pair embarks on a futile attempt to travel the globe giving away an enormous amount of money Will has recently received as part of an injury settlement. This scheme turns out to be much more difficult and much more complicated than they had imagined. Hand is one of my favorite characters because he’s just really damn cool–a strange combination of someone’s hip older brother mixed with someone’s annoying younger brother. My favorite part of Velocity is the fifty page section where Hand takes over the narrative, casting doubt on everything that Will has previously told the reader. Will then resumes the narrative, but at that point, the book–and Will’s status as a reliable narrator–has taken an entirely different shape. Although the story ends at a wedding, Velocity is ultimately a tragedy; the very first page announces Will’s death. But again, the whole narrative is cast in ambiguity and doubt. I loved this book so much that I bought it for a friend.

(Incidentally, Hand also tuns up in “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,” one of Eggers’s short stories collected in How We Are Hungry).