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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Lo's Diary
(Diario di Lo)

Pia Pera

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To purchase Lo's Diary

Title: Lo's Diary
Author: Pia Pera
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 292 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Lo's Diary - US
Lo's Diary - UK
Lo's Diary - Canada
Lolitas Tagebuch - Deutschland
  • Translated by Ann Goldstein.
  • Initially publication was thwarted under pressure from the Nabokov estate (in the person of Nabokov heir and executor, Dmitri), but the estate came to an agreement with the publishers. The American edition includes a foreword by Dmitri Nabokov. (Dmitri Nabokov's preface can also be found at this page at Evergreen.) It was also supposed to include an afterword by Pera but she declined to provide one.

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Our Assessment:

B- : an interesting, though ultimately failed experiment.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times F 24/10/1999 Jonathan Levi
Newsweek F 25/10/1999 David Gates
The NY Times F 29/10/1999 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. F 31/10/1999 Mim Udovitch
Salon D- 6/10/1999 Jennifer Kornreich
The Spectator B 27/10/2001 Francis King
Time D 18/10/1999 Richard Corliss

  Review Consensus:

  Oh, they pretty much all hate it. Finally a book they can feel good about condemning wholeheartedly, always comparing it to the iconic, holy Nabokov version.
  Note that while the critics are correct in that Pera's version is much flatter than the original, they do not give Pera her due in how she has shaped the book. Curiously none of the critics address the question of translation, a striking thing to overlook given how central language is to the original (and how much Goldstein could have appropriated from Nabokov in translating Pera's version).

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pera vs. Nabokov is a contest so overmatched that it was almost declared illegal (.....)" - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The book is a dreary, monotonous and heavily Freudian account of incest and manipulation -- a book that is completely bereft of the love of language that animated Nabokov's famous novel, and devoid, too, of that earlier novel's wit and glittering subtext." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Guileful, selfish, mean, vain and shallow, Pera's Lolita does not supplement the popular perception of the character in any way more profound than the average Amy Fisher headline." - Mim Udovitch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The book reads like it was written by a grad student who took her MFA-program exercises ("Reimagine a scene from Lolita from another character's POV" -- yawn) way too seriously. There are so many squandered opportunities here, it's almost criminal." - Jennifer Kornreich, Salon

  • "(W)hatever the morality and legality of her undertaking, it is certainly not a total failure. (...) (I)t would be unfair not to record that she has also added a lot that is new. (...) Pera’s attempts to get inside that mind have been both adventurous and intermittently successful." - Francis King, The Spectator

  • "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 (...) and his grand, glowering creator." - Richard Corliss, Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Diario di Lo -- Lo's Diary, as it is now in English -- is the now notorious rewriting of Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel, Lolita. Nabokov fils, Dmitri, managed to create a cause célèbre by claiming that Daddy's copyright was being infringed upon and threatening (and taking) legal action to prevent publication. First off, to be clear: Dmitri and the estate are certainly right and, at least in the United States, legally within their rights. Pera's book is a neat (or not so neat) turn on Lolita and steals practically everything from A to Z from the original -- except the spirit of the work. Under American copyright law it seems a pretty clear cut case: you can't do that.
       Now a settlement has been reached, allowing for publication. Avoiding a judicial resolution of the dispute, the estate and the publishers came to an agreement. Nabokov's estate will receive a 5 percent royalty (which will apparently be donated to some worthy literary cause), and the American edition includes a foreword by Dmitri Nabokov and was to have a postscript by Pia Pera. (Pera ultimately declined to provide an afterword for the American edition; Dmitri Nabokov's preface can be found at this page at Evergreen.) We applaud the amicable resolution of the dispute and the publication of the book -- though with a twinge of concern about whether Lolita's best interests are being met.
       A review of the circumstances surrounding this odd tale seems worthwhile. One interesting aspect is that the Nabokov estate did not bother to bitch (or to sue) until, years after its initial publication, the book finally threatened to appear in English. Pera's book has, in fact, been published to moderate success and middling reviews in a number of countries (a dozen, by now) and several languages. But, you see, US copyright law is special, and what can be done elsewhere can't be done on American soil, so he waited to make his case until the book washed up on these shores.
       Well within his rights, and with the law fairly clearly on his side, Dmitri Nabokov easily thwarted the initially planned publication by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. We would have liked to see the issue tested in the courts (the law is not entirely clear on this particular sort of literary borrowing, in which it is the ideas not the literal words that are being taken over), but it is always nice to see parties coming to a mutual agreement. A concern that remains is that all this bickering is over legal rights (and thus ultimately money and control -- and the Nabokov estate did manage to extract their pound of flesh: 5 per cent and the inclusion of a foreword by Dmitri). The aesthetic questions -- the best interests of Lolita -- seem to be completely ignored.
       Through his lawyer, Peter Skolnik, Dmitri Nabokov let it be known that he considered Pera's "a very bad book", "vulgar, and badly done." Certainly even bad books deserve a place in the world (although in our opinion they already take up too much space), but should the interests of the original work of art not be defended more strongly ? The Nabokov estate of course already sold out the poor little nymphet when they permitted the director of Foxes, Indecent Proposal, and 9 1/2 Weeks to re-film her story, and they apparently made practically no effort to stop Pera's book until it showed up in the amenable American climes, leading to the inescapable conclusion that their concern is simply one of legal control (and the cash that comes from it), rather than any concern for the actual literary work (Lolita, in this case) itself.
       Literary (and other artistic) executors have shown notoriously poor judgment in the handling of the estates entrusted to them. From the inanities surrounding the Gone with the Wind sequels to the many other cases of estates trying to squeeze the last penny from an intellectual property, it is regrettable that there is so little attention paid to the works themselves, and maintaining their integrity. We do not believe that Pera's book poses a grave threat to Nabokov's original (unlike the outrage that was perpetrated on the silver screen by director Lyne), but we think the issues raised by this situation deserve more attention and debate.

       So: about Pera's book. Well, we like the idea: Pera rewrites Nabokov's novel entirely from the view of Lolita herself. It certainly sounds like a worthy experiment.
       One major change is that she does not kill off Lolita (or, for that matter Humbert), allowing the heroine to present her side of the case after Humbert has had his say. It is again John Ray that introduces the work, having received Lolita's manuscript many years earlier. Here, as elsewhere, Pera tries to cleverly mirror the original. In Humbert's (i.e. Nabokov's) account the names of the characters have been changed (save Dolores'), in Pera's version we are presented with the "actual" names: Humbert Humbert becomes Guibert Guibert, the Haze family is the Maze family, Dolores' married name become Schlegel, and so on all the way to Filthy Sue, the Quilty substitute. Place names are also changed (so Humbert/Guibert takes Lolita to the college town of Ithaca, New York, one of the few clever substitutions).
       Pera's story faithfully follows Nabokov's, and one must certainly admire how she recasts it. Pera transposes sections from Nabokov's book, filling in the details where appropriate in remaking the narrative convincingly from Lolita's point of view. Pera is a conscientious soul: there is very little here of her own invention. Among the few embellishments is the description of Lolita's summer at camp and some of the travels across the United States. But Pera remains remarkably faithful to the original, and she adeptly weaves in many of Nabokov's tiny details, sometimes managing an amusing spin as the same incident is reviewed through the young girl's eyes.
       A success then ? Regrettably, no. Nabokov's masterpiece is not a nice book, and the story, at its heart, is not in the least a nice story. The magic of the book is what Nabokov wrought with language, imbuing this character that no one has any sympathy for (Lolita is neither truly liked nor treated well by any of the adults in the book, including Humbert) with an aura that make her something very special.
       Pera has to take this essentially unsympathetic character -- Lolita -- and write a book around her. The only role she can comfortably assume is that of victim, and Lolita does not naturally wear that well. Pera's great difficulty, and the ultimate failing of the book, is that she is too awed by Nabokov's admittedly awing original. She shows too much respect for the master. A little Lolitan insolence would have helped the book greatly.
       The other difficulty is that Pera's language does not fly and breathe like Nabokov's does. We are curious as to the English version (which we have not yet examined) to see whether translator Ann Goldstein was able to take advantage of the original being in English and used that to refashion Pera's text even more closely to Nabokov's. (Note: while we have not yet examined the English version the critical response to it would seem to indicate that Goldstein failed miserably in refashioning the language according to Nabokov's ideal. Curiously, none of the reviewers take her to task for this -- or even mention that any responsibility for the book's failure might lie in the inadequate translation (a possibility -- nay: a likelihood -- that must be explored for any translation, and especially one where language is so central).) As is the book is quite long, and while certainly competently written it is not gripping or enthralling as Nabokov's certainly is. We do recommend it as an interesting experiment, and we think the book is worthy of having a life of its own, but it is not a particularly fine read.
       Buy and read Nabokov's Lolita instead (or again) ! (See our review.)

       A final point as to the American copyright issues. One argument that was made was that Pera's book diminishes the original and -- in the great, greedy American tradition -- diminishes its value in financial terms. I.e. Pera's book is a market substitute for Nabokov's, i.e. people will buy her book rather than his. This is absurd. Pera's book complements Nabokov's, and is, indeed, unthinkable without it. Anyone who wants to read about "Lolita" will turn to Nabokov's version first.
        However, the movie version is very much a market substitute and in these lazy times people might (and frequently do) choose the movie (now video) over the book. Real and lasting harm, in this sense (and several others), has come to Lolita from what director Lyne perpetrated.

Please note and consider that this review does not refer to the English version of the novel.

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Lo's Diary: Reviews: About the controversy around Diario di Lo: Vladimir Nabokov: The Lolita Movies:
  • IMDb site on Kubrick's version.
  • IMDb site on Lyne's version.
Lolita under review at the complete review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Pia Pera, born 1956, has worked as a translator and achieved international notoriety with her first novel, Diario di Lo.

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© 1999-2010 the complete review

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