I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of this film was. Was it to reignite interest in the work or to ‘prove’ that Nabokov wasn’t in fact, a dirty old man who committed his fantasies to print?
I guess it depends on your point of view of the original piece that Stephen Smith sought to investigate the origins of. He suggested, albeit by intimation, that Nabokov’s Lolita was a representation of the author’s first – and lost – love, Tamara.
Smith raked over the coals of the notoriety of Lolita and asked questions about the semantics of the plot as well as Humbert’s role in loving his “nymphet” and seemed to want to stress that Nabokov did indeed see to it that he was suitably punished for his ‘love’ for Lolita, but can a story that basically amounts to a tale of paedophilia really be worthy of such a programme about it?
It was again insinuated that the taboo of the book’s subject matter should be ignored in order to celebrate what many consider to be a masterpiece, even some half a century after it was written, but my own opinion is that it might’ve been no loss to literature had Nabokov’s wife not rescued the controversial manuscript from the flames into which the author threw them.
He wanted to rid himself of the work, though it did of course provide him with a living for the rest of his life, and a good living at that, residing as he and his wife did in a suite at a Swiss hotel.
There were though some very interesting clips of archive footage showing the author defending his work, which, given he wanted to burn it, seemed a tad like spin doctoring; he didn’t believe it should’ve seen the light of day, but once it had, he had to defend it.
Nabokov was seen in this documentary largely as an unpleasant figure who was most of the time on the defensive, but according to those who knew him personally, that side of him was only a reaction to public condemnation. They were at pains to stress that in his private life, Nabokov was a kind, personable and caring man.
And there’s no doubt that he suffered greatly following the loss of Tamara during the Russian revolution. Arguably, it’s this depth of feeling that inspired Lolita and the lack of it which left his other works in something of a literary no-man’s-land.
Kingsley Amis empathetically described Lolita – and several other Nabokov works – as being about “sexual despoliation”, and that puts it very succinctly. But again, I’d have to say, I don’t personally believe the work is the “masterpiece” it’s touted to be. Yes it may be technically a superb piece, but surely it’s the content rather than the mechanics of presenting it that matter?
That said, this film wasn’t without historical value in that it went behind the aggressive façade of a man who was clearly troubled and anti-establishment. And anti-establishmentarianism wasn’t as popular in his day as it was to become for others later, so perhaps that’s also why Lolita still carries the prefix, “notorious” even now.
The film ended with a look at Nabokov’s obsession with collecting butterflies, and again, the inference being that his yearning to capture the fragile, beautiful but fleeting creatures was a sublimation of, and an attempt to, recapture his unrequited love for Tamara.
Symbolism abounded and perhaps it’s true; maybe Lolita was only a representation of innocent love, but I myself can’t agree that that’s the case. And in closing, the film suggested that if more people read the book, the stigma surrounding it would be negated and we could then truly and openly appreciate it. Again, I disagree but hey, that’s just my opinion. Valuable though that is, which goes without saying of course 😉