Humming Along With Nabokov

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"Lo-lee-tah." She spoke her name like a steam radiator with consonants.

"Last name?"

"Lolita Rooney-Burton-Winn-Fortensky-Guccioni," she said, omitting a few names for time and adding a few to jazz it up.

This lovely, lilting parody, Steve Martin's "Lolita at Fifty," suggests one way to approach the menacing legend of Vladimir Nabokov's great novel. In six pages Martin deftly sketches a woman who has known and used her allure for so long--ever since she was 11 and met Humbert Humbert--that it has become her career, a real-life variation on the novel, her own definition of Loliteracy.

As it approaches 50 (Nabokov finished the novel in 1953), Lolita remains a brilliant book, a wonderland of language and longing, with an undiminished capacity to enthrall, outrage and provoke litigation. Nabokov had to fight many obscenity battles when the book was published. Now a derivative novel, Lo's Diary (Foxrock; 292 pages; $22.95), by the Italian essayist and translator Pia Pera, has been issued--after the settling of a lawsuit brought by Nabokov's son Dimitri. He insisted that he be allowed to write a preface to the book and that 5% of its profits go to the International Pen Club. Deal.

Lo's Diary, translated by Ann Goldstein, purports to be an on-the-spot account of the sad tryst of a girl and her stepfather--the "real" story behind Humbert's besotted ravings in a book titled Lolita. We are told that Dolores ("Lolita") Maze (not Haze) met Humbert Guibert (not Humbert) in the home of her mother Isabel (not Charlotte); that Humbert took a fancy to Lo; that he married the mother to get to the daughter; that on the mother's death, Hum and Lo took to the open road, fitfully pursued by the girl's true love, playwright Gerry Sue Filthy (not Clare Quilty), for whom she ultimately abandoned Hum.

Of course, this too is fiction: a tribute to and ripoff of Nabokov. Pera gives Lo a younger brother, who died in a freak accident (tornado, live wire), and a lingering devotion to her dead dad, for whom Humbert is a sexier surrogate. Lo records scenes of innocent sapphic frolics, moviegoing (It's a Wonderful Life is about "how everything turns out right because the father didn't die after all") and quarrels with her bossy, desperate mom.

In an age of concern for a child's innocence, Pera might have underlined the corruptive nature of a man's lust for a girl on the cusp of pubescence. Instead, her Lo is the aggressor, the seducer and, eventually, the dismisser. "I'm going to get this Humbert for myself," she tells her diary. She instructs him in the finer points of sex play. And when "Hummie-Dummie" devolves into a nagging "Mama Humbert," she leaves with Filthy--after giving the drugged Hum a goodbye sodomizing with the pen he'd used for his own diary.

There are only two reasons for such a book: gossip and style. Lo's Diary fails both ways. It would be nice to read of Lo's nasty times with Filthy, but per Pera, the pair never had sex, and he didn't force her to make stag films, as Humbert had said. The real problem, though, is in the narrative voice. In Lolita, Humbert, an educated European, could wax satyric in language as elaborate as any poet's or pedant's. Lo, 11 when the tale begins, and no scholar, must be limited in word power and storytelling skills. Yet the book's prose style, while undistinguished, is far too precocious and knowing for even the brightest kid. Lo could no more have written Lo's Diary than Harry Potter could have written the Harry Potter books.

Without question, Lo's Diary should be published. But it needn't be read. This slip of a thing never emerges from the shadows that tower over it: those of Humbert--that predatory wretch condemned to sing so beautifully of his sin--and his grand, glowering creator. It will have utility only if it leads readers back to the immortal original. Choir, please turn to page 9 of The Annotated Lolita. All together now: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul..."