How Do You Solve A Problem Like Lolita? ...
The Weekend’s Television: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Lolita? Sun, BBC4
Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy, Sat, E4
Reviewed by Rob Sharp
Monday, 14 December 2009
Last month's reviews of Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura, "the novel in fragments" published by his son Dmitri 32 years after the great man's death, were less than praiseworthy.
Some described the unfinished work as that of an author past his artistic peak and in physical decline – and more of a money-spinner than a ground-breaking addition to the literary canon. And in the words of Nabokov admirer-in-chief Martin Amis it "joined The Enchanter (1939), Lolita (1955), Ada (1969), Transparent Things (1972), and Look at the Harlequins! (1974) in unignorably concerning itself with the sexual despoiliation of very young girls".
It is this very "sexual despoliation" that concerned Newsnight's culture correspondent Stephen Smith in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, a travelogue attempting to explain Nabokov's interest in the sexual corruption of fledgling beauty. Moving from the author's childhood estate near St Petersberg to his final years in Montreux, Smith interviewed everyone from the Montreux Palace Hotel's barman (Nabokov was a very nice man, apparently) to the 97-year-old emeritus professor M H Abrams, a contemporary of the writer at Cornell University. While the content of these interviews was sometimes less than insightful, as an introduction to the book the documentary hung together well, with Smith demystifying knee-jerk reactions to the work – the endeavours of a "dirty old man" – in a breezy and frequently funny way. Scenes from Stanley Kubrick's 1962 screen adaptation, along with archive footage of Nabokov defending his work, lended the endeavour some sort of historical context.
We learned that when the Bolsheviks revolted in 1917, Nabokov was curled up on a chaise-longue, composing love letters to "Tamara", his childhood sweetheart (instead of reporting on the events as, Smith suggested, Hemingway or Orwell would have done). "The flames of the revolution cauterised Nabokov as he was at that time," said the presenter – he was forever hankering over his lost love, he suggested. We travelled with Smith to Cambridge, where Nabokov found solace on the football pitches, away from what he perceived to be the university's stuffy rules, a precursor to his literary mischief-making. We heard Amis reiterating his view that Nabokov fails in "self-contraception", thus "distorting his corpus". The conclusion that Nabokov's obsession with butterfly collecting is the "missing link" may seem a little glib, with Smith pointing out that the relationship between "nymph" and "nymphet" (the word Humbert Humbert uses to describe Lolita in the novel) are plain to see. But it was a neat way to finish. Aside from that, we were left with little doubt as to the work's morality, and if more people pick it up – and are less embarrassed about doing so – then surely that's a good thing.
And in keeping with the entomological theme, we can now turn our attention to the Beatles (sorry) in Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy, a behind-the-scenes documentary focusing on the production of the artist's first feature film, Nowhere Boy, which closed the London Film Festival earlier this year. The movie follows a teenage John Lennon (Taylor-Wood's fiancé, Aaron Johnson) when livingwith his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George (David Threlfall). He discovers rock'n'roll partly through the re-establishment of his relationship with his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who left him when he was five. It is clearly a personal project for the director, who was also abandoned at an early age before bumping into her estranged mother in a local street.
The documentary ran through the director's biography – how she was part of the hellraiser scene at Goldsmiths, how she made her first short, Love You More, with Anthony Minghella and Patrick Marber – before exploring the film proper, essentially a love triangle between John, Mimi, and Julia."It's what made John Lennon John Lennon, that's really what the film is," she said, helpfully. Those interviewed included Lennon's Liverpool contemporaries along with most of the cast and crew, with some nice footage showing the young actors trying to master the tunes, along with the appearance of the likes of Alison Goldfrapp to work on the soundtrack. There was a slight whiff of DVD extra about it, however, making you wonder where it was going to turn up next. The film concluded with a performance of "In Spite of All the Danger", the Quarrymen's only original song, the lyrics to which are apparently now tattooed on the director's bottom. What would Nabokov think about that? Hold that thought – it's all useful for whetting our appetites. This is one Christmas release that should be a corker.
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