Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reappraising Nabokov

Stephen Smith's brilliant Broomfield style documentary travelogue in search of the essence of Nabokov was an exemplary TV take on literature, despite its punning title, "How do you solve a problem like Lolita?" It's also full of surprises. The somewhat odd decision to refer to Nabokov, as NabOkov aside (that was how Nabokov said his own name, yet I've never heard anyone say it that way before), the footage of Nabokov himself was revelatory. I hadn't realise he spoke English with an English, not American accent, presumably from him having studied at Cambridge in the early 1920s. England left little impression on a travelling life that began as a rich and privileged Russian, saw him live in both Germany and America, and ended with 17 years living in a hotel in Switzerland. When I read "Lolita" in the mid-eighties, there wasn't the same notoriety as maybe there is these days, or rather, discussions about it were a little more adult. It's clearly, as Smith tries to prove, a moral tale, first and foremost. Interestingly, Martin Amis, an articulate Nabokovian, points out that it is not Lolita itself that is troublesome, but that Nabokov went back time and again to the story of an older man and a young girl, the subject almost obsessively revisited.

Yet, Nabokov the artist does seem to be a man of continual obsessions, whether through his writing or his butterfly collecting. Rightly, I think, the capture and pinning down of elusive beauty, which the butterfly collector does, is seen by Smith as pivotal to Nabokov's vision. He's referred to as a writer of contradictions; as if such a thing is in itself unusual. Writers, I think, are inevitably contradictory, at least the very best are. There is something contradictory in the very art of doing it: sitting in solitary confinement writing something that is then shared with the world. A man who was born in 1899, Nabokov, in this documentary, seems a clear internationalist, one who spanned the century, yet chose carefully his obsessions, his interests and his aesthetic. In a town house in St. Petersburg a few streets away from revolution happening, Nabakov wrote love poems instead of journalism. Such an aesthetic sensibility can sometimes be seen as the worst kind of dilettanteism, yet when the work is so lasting, it makes one consider again the utilitarianism of art. A utilitarian art has very little to recommend compared with something more rarified.

Stephen Smith's obsession with his quarry (and at one point an interviewee, the literary editor at Playboy, says "you are beginning to look like him") seems perfectly at one with the subject. Lolita, in my memory of the book, but also echoed in the Kubrick film version, seems both hymn to and elegy for American life. Lolita prefigures David Lynch's dark fables of what goes on behind the picket fence. A perfectly judged documentary, catch it whilst you can.


Anonymous said...

This programme was appalling - an insult to intelligence and to Nabokov. Very lazy stupid journalism that offered little insight into a fascinating writer. Who on earth is Stephen Smith? Why did the BBC commission such an intellectual pygmy? I'll console myself for the waste of an hour of my life by rereading the novels.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Obviously I didn't agree with you - enjoyed the programme thoroughly, though Smith was annoying. The footage of Nabakov I'd never seen, great stuff. The Broomfield-style travelogue is a little gimmicky, but its rare to see anything substantial (which this was) on TV about any writer. You're right about it offering little insight, but I felt the viewer could make up their own mind.