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Nabokov Studies 9.1 (2005) 223-227

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Barbara Wyllie. Nabokov at the Movies: Film Perspectives in Fiction. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. 298 pp. ISBN 0-7864-1638-6.
So let the film versions of my novels reek
Of grimy hands upon some choice antique.
I know those nitrate reels will decompose.
But each good reader will preserve my prose,
And his creative memory will save
My Laughter in the Dark and King, Queen, Knave.
He'll play the true Lolita and Despair
In his cinemathèque imaginaire.

Thus would have spoken Nabokov had he been Richard Corliss, a film critic charged by the British Film Institute with the task of rendering in words the charm of Kubrick's Lolita. Though the poetry is not exactly Nabokovian, the sentiment regarding the cinematization of his novels surely is. Corliss seems to have written as if he were anticipating Barbara Willey's effort to employ her cinemathèque imaginaire in producing a curious work that suggests that Nabokov's novels ought to be read as movies. Of course, if they are read as movies, they will seem hopelessly derivative, a charge leveled at Nabokov's work most clearly in Peter Green's review of Invitation to a Beheading. As early as 1960, Green suggested that Nabokov "had clearly sat through no end of avant garde films" and went on to identify Cocteau, the early Buñuel, and Dali among the influences, with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and À Nous la Liberté as the specific films Nabokov was echoing. Green dismissed the cinematic influences as "psychological tricks and angled distorting mirrors" but praised Nabokov's "mescalin touch," the "uncommon fidelity and power with which he can describe minuscule objects—a moth, an ordinary pencil, a child's drawing" (Daily Telegraph, 3 June 1960, 16). Green had suggested that the novel may not have been the best medium for developing Nabokov's talents, and the suggestion seems to have been taken up seriously but inadvertently by Willey (who does not list Green among her sources).

Let us start with the first half of Willey's title. Noting Nabokov's stated ambivalence toward the movies, Wyllie nonetheless proposes to read him as if he were making movies, not novels. The second half of the title, it turns out, has almost nothing to do with Nabokov, addressing as it does the possible linkages between books like The Great Gatsby, The Big Sleep, The Moviegoer, and American Psycho and what Willey sees as the American cinematic unconscious. [End Page 223] I will limit myself to reviewing only that material that seems to have something to do with Nabokov's writing.

Regarding Nabokov, Willey begins with four simple claims:

  1. "that Nabokov's deployment of film in Lolita enabled him to communicate with the American psyche on a subliminal but an extremely potent level, and is key to the novel's success";
  2. that Nabokov's use of film in Lolita as "a creative resource" was hardly unique in his career;
  3. that Nabokov's encoding of cinematic moments in his fiction serves as a "celebration of the moving picture art"; and
  4. that Nabokov judged film through a different set of criteria from those he applied to fiction.

Since watching film, whatever else it may be, is in the end perception of environmental changes outside of oneself, and reading a way of inducing some changes inside of oneself, point (d) seems unarguable. Perception and conception are indeed very different activities, and we should not be surprised that Nabokov saw them as such. Viewers of Lyne's Lolita cannot visually subtract the retainer from Dominique Swain, while readers of Lolita could easily imagine their sixth-grade classmates as Humbert's Lolita. It would have been fascinating to read a more thorough discussion of what Nabokov's use of differing aesthetic criteria meant for his writing. There is no quarrel either with point (c): there are many Nabokov plots, motifs, and settings that include movies and moviegoing. There are, however, few allusions to the ephemera of specific films in Nabokov's...


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