Vladimir Nabokov discusses “Lolita"

Thanks to Cynical-C blog for finding this video of Vladimir Nabokov answering questions about his novel Lolita on NBC's Close Up in the mid-1950s.

Here's Part 2.


  1. wow, the set is just amazing. library, smoking room, parlor.

    I want all this in my home.

    tv shows now stink.

  2. If Cory were to gain a few pounds and develop the accent he could totally be a dead ringer for Nabokov. :)

    I saw Dimitri Nabokov talk about his father once in college. The family position is that Nabokov was generally unpleased with the way Lolita was fetishized and iconized in American culture, which I can understand. His Lolita is a victim of a terrible crime, not an object of forbidden desire.

    That having been said, Nabokov is doing a lot of stonewalling in the interview. He’s trying very hard to not say anything concrete that people can attach to. I think what he wanted most is for people to approach the book with as open a mind as possible and without any preconceived notions as to what’s in it and why. I also think that he’s much more interested in the book’s construction and the unreliability of its narrator, the meta-aspects of the book, the language, etc than any sexual themes that most people seem to find immediately.

    Finally I wish there were these in depth discussions on books on TV today. Sets aside, this kind of deep and revealing discussion about a major work of literature are completely nonexistent.

  3. I am struck by the similarities between Nabakov in this clip and Peter Seller’s portrayal of more than one of the oddball characters in the film version of “Lolita”.

    I was recently wondering if Lolita could even produced now? Who would they cast? Would it even make it past the censors?

  4. “It is a very small monument, but is a delicate monument, and it is pleasant to have somewhere in the garden, in the shade.”

    Thanks for posting this link. That quote alone was worth the torture of listening to Trilling’s bloviation.

    And now I must prove, once again, that I’m more than a shade. It’s unfortunate that oft-promised Artificial Intelligence cannot parse N.’s ethereal voice dropped like a pot shard into the nets.

  5. Never mind the content of the interview – I just love the fact that after sitting for two minutes in one set, they abandon it and move to another one.

  6. Uhh… That would be CBC, as in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, not NBC. The host is Pierre Burton.

  7. #6 MTMACPHEE That’s definitely Pierre Berton and your assertion that the broadcaster was CBC is supported by the fact that there was a pot of tea featured in the second set,only in Canada eh! Pity.

  8. @CJP(#3)

    Actually, another movie version was made in 1997:


    It featured Jeremy Irons as HH, Dominique Swain as Lo, and Melanie Griffith as Mama Haze. It was pretty intense considering that Swain was 15 when they filmed it and there’s a fair amount of nudity and sexual situations (obviously). I know that they used body doubles and strategically placed pillows because of her age. They also had problems finding a distributor after New Line Cinemas dropped it.

  9. Note: In the nineties, Lolita was remade starring Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert and Frank Langella as Quilty
    Interesting version. Apparently they went through thousands of girls to look for the perfect Lolita. Heh, I guess that many mothers who were ok with their daughters being portrayed as an underage sex tease.

  10. That 1997 movie isn’t terrible, it’s certainly more faithful to the novel than Kubrick’s and Frank Langella as Clare Quilty is spot on. Dominique Swain and Melanie Griffith are also very good. Irons does his best, but there’s no way he beats James Mason, who for me is the only voice I hear when I read Humbert Humbert. Kubrick may have been unable to film a faithful adaptation of Lolita, but he NAILED HH.

  11. I THOUGHT that was Berton! Here I was trying to recall if he’d ever done any work for NBC and kept up empty. Of course this is the CBC.

  12. If I remade it today I would cast David Tennant as HH (I saw him in a similar creepy sex thriller and he was terrific) and Helena Bonham Carter as Mama. Not sure about the Lolita role, though. There is no one out there right now that would have the chops.

    Any suggestions?

  13. I remember reviewing Lolita for my college paper shortly after it was published, where I argued that it was a parable about how innocence corrupts intellectual sophistication. Oh, how, hip! how insufferably existentialist I was!

    Fortunately, this blackest of comedies will outlive pretentious bullshit like mine. IMHO Kubrick nailed it just right.

  14. I remember when I was younger I read a lot of reviews that fawned on Nabokov’s books but when I read the books I was always disappointed. I could never understand why the reviewers seemed to have such a high opinion of him. Lately I’ve read Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. Vladamir’s cousin, Nicolas Nabokov, was heavily sponsored by the CIA’s cultural arm. Vladamir himself fell into a category the CIA liked to foster, Russian but not communist, rejecting it and being out for himself. I wonder how many of those reviews were generated by CIA assets. It’s really shocking how much time and energy and money the CIA spent trying to control culture. They promoted a lot of hacks in the process.

  15. You all might like Nabokov’s own screenplay for Lolita, commissioned by Kubrick but never used for the film. It’s a weird sidelight on the novel, very tongue in cheek: it’s hard to tell if Vlad really knew about screenwriting conventions, phoned it in, was parodying the entire process, or all of the above. A minor, bizarre, lovely bit of Nabokoviana.

  16. Oh, yeah, it’s a good one, Buddy. Published by Vintage in the US, like the novels; it’s also in the Library of America volume that has Lolita.

    Don’t have it hand, or I’d give you a random quotation, but I do remember one part where HH cracks up during a lecture and, throwing away the book he’s lecturing about, cries, “I don’t need this book! Stupid book, go!” Or something to that effect. It’s a hoot.

  17. Thanks Boing Boing! That made my week. Nabokov is a genius, there is no way around it. I wish I could have found this years ago and I am so glad to see it now. @18, you are a troll! The genius of his work is undisputed in literary circles. Both in Russian and in English, he has an ability for language that is undeniably deft. A great and worthy fan of the novel once told me that the remake was better than the original, closer to what Nabokov intended visually. I scoffed. I now think I will see the Jeremy Irons 1997 film to see what a Humbert Humbert update looks like. I still LOVE the original film adaptation (and Peter Sellers), but the writing is impossible to put on screen, as usual. Now go read “The Defense” or “Despair”! There are other adaptions that should be done.

    Tank Riot

  18. To #18 — really? you think the CIA is driving force behind Lolita’s continued place in our culture.

    And to Marcela at #2 — really? You don’t understand how a book’s most famous opening line might lead people to the pumping of sex beneath every bit of this book?

    You know it’s possible to be filthy dirty and super smart at the same time. Which this box is.

    Nabokov is the parton saint of High Functioning Perverts …

  19. Hardly. He didn’t disguise the fact that he felt that Humbert was deeply, deeply repulsive or that Lolita was a victim. Purely because of the subject matter, people assume that Nabokov’s sympathy was with his unreliable narrator- but look behind the scenes and you can see Nabokov’s creation of Humbert’s vileness.

  20. If memory serves, and it usually does, Humbert confesses to the terrible thing he did to Lol — he savaged her childhood. He is not unaware that he is indeed a monster.

    Those who don’t get Nabokov’s literary shenanigans have tin ears. There’s no cure for that. You either hear the music or you don’t.

  21. Lolita at the National was absolutely beautiful. It was an edited version taken straight from the text of the book and read by Humbert in prison. The language is just so exquisite when read aloud, the juxtaposition of words so sublime. You certainly do feel from the book (and the play did this very successfully too) how loathesome and tragic Humbert is, how he sees himself as a monster. I was choked throughout the last 1/3 of the performance. Stunning.

Comments are closed.