Little Lo Lost in a Literary Feud


Alexandra Gill

Originally published in the Toronto Globe and featured in The Evergreen Review Issue 103 in 1999.

You'd think Pia Pera would be happy, or at least a little bit eager, to promote her first novel, Lo's Diary. Wrong.

Wearily hunched into the corner of a noisy Toronto café, the petite 43-year-old Italian author would much rather diss her publisher -- the one she accuses of "highjacking and abusing" her book. She balks when a photographer arrives. "It's not vanity," she insists, recoiling under her pink pashmina scarf. "I feel jet-lagged. And if I look horrible, the photo will be counterproductive.

Pera doesn't look horrible, but she has other good reasons to pout. For the past year, her novel -- a retelling of Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece Lolita from the viewpoint of the 12-year-old girl -- has been tangled in a tense copyright spat with Nabokov's estate. Pera's first U.S. publisher dropped her manuscript from its list almost immediately after Nabokov's son, Dmitri, filed a lawsuit to block publication in Britain and the United States. Then Pera's so-called saviour, maverick publisher Barney Rosset, negotiated a bizarre, unprecedented deal that gave Nabokov half the royalties, a $25,000 (U.S.) advance against them, as well as the right to include a dismissive disclaimer as a prologue to Pera's book.

Pera and Rosset are no longer speaking. Except, of course, when they hurl insults at one another through reporters. ("He cheated me throughout," she sneers. To which he later retorts, "I hate her.")

Back in the café, Pera sighs. "I'm tired of the story." She has lately brushed off all one-on-one interviews and is planning to cancel a stop in New York. "But I feel that with the way the book has come out, I should answer a few questions."

But the intense Pera at first wants to deal only with questions she approves of. "Are you accusing me of . . .?" she asks indignantly more than once. Gradually, Pera relaxes, giggling as she offers up gossip about Nabokov's son: a 26-year-old Dmitri and a self-styled publicity agent staged a fake casting contest for the part of Lolita in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film (the elder Nabokov was unimpressed when he saw a magazine photograph of the finalists surrounding Dmitri on his satin-covered bed). In the next minute, Pera proudly displays a notebook in which she keeps track of all the favorable notices for her novel.

Lo's Diary is told through the day-to-day scribbles of the 12-year-old girl, portrayed here as a sassy ingenue. The novel introduces the reader into young Dolores's dysfunctional home before the smitten tenant arrives, casts the nymphet as a cunning seducer competing with her abusive mother, strips Humbert of his pathos and provides the girl with a happy ending.

Pera, whose major literary efforts till then had been as a translator of Russian works, published Lo's Diary in her native Italy four years ago; it subsequently was licensed in six other countries. The North American press paid little attention to the novel until New York-based Farrar, Straus & Giroux announced plans for an English-language translation.

Dmitri Nabokov, executor of his father's estate, objected on the grounds that Lolita's copyright protection extended to 2030. His lawyers filed suit last October; the court documents stated that Pera's "inferior and amateurish merchandise," which, for the most part, mirrors the original structure scene-for-scene, harms the reputation of Vladimir Nabokov, who died in 1977. "It is, in a word, a rip-off." Farrar, Straus & Giroux dropped the book.

Pera scoffs at the accusations. "It never occurred to me that I was getting into copyright trouble because it seemed the most natural way of expressing one's imagination." Pera maintains that Lolita has transcended literature and become part of contemporary language and mythology: "I wanted to get at the root of it." She feels vindicated by the fact that there are two more Lolita-inspired novels on the way -- Molly by Nancy Jones (about a cross-country trip taken by a girl and her stepfather, as told by the girl's best friend) and Roger Fishbite by Emily Prager (about a 13-year-old girl seduced by her mother's husband). "It just proves my point that it's a very natural thing to talk about this story."

When Rosset, who championed D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer against U.S. obscenity laws in the 1960s and 70s, stepped into the breach left by Farrar Straus & Giroux, Pera expected that Rosset's company, Foxrock Inc., would take the case to trial. But Rosset was uncomfortable: In his view, the novel did borrow heavily from Lolita. "Suddenly I was in the role of the pirate," Rosset recalls over the phone from New York. "I insisted we settle [Nabokov's] lawsuit."

Six months later, Rosset and Nabokov reached their unusual settlement, with Nabokov getting half the author's standard 10 per cent royalties. (He donated the $25,000 advance against those royalties to PEN International.) Pera got no advance and has to split the remaining 5-per-cent royalties with her Italian publisher and her agent.

As offensive as the deal was to Pera, she says it would have been tolerable if Rosset hadn't shown Nabokov her afterword to the novel -- a move that, in effect, guaranteed him the last word. In the end, she withdrew it.

Rosset maintains that he still doesn't understand why Pera is so angry. After all, he promised to publish her book and he did. "I've never had such a weird relationship," he says. "The only other author I published that I didn't like was Adolf Hitler. In that case we gave the royalties to a Holocaust group."

Pera concedes that Rosset kept his promise, but the process has damaged her reputation: "People are still in doubt whether I am a villain or not."

Lost amid the acrimonious battle, unfortunately, is little Lo and the reason Pera began the book. She recalls how Vladimir Nabokov, in the afterword to his famous novel, described how he felt the "first little throb of Lolita" when reading a newspaper story about an ape who had produced a charcoal drawing, the first animal to do so. "The sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage," he wrote.

"Lolita was my monkey," Pera asserts. "She was a little girl trapped in a cage. I wanted to see if she could write." It was an experiment, she adds, "an inter-literary joke"; she even wanted to subtitle her book "A Moral Critique of Lolita as a Nabokovian Prank."

Given what has happened to Pera's literary creation, it seems that a Nabokovian prank has definitely been sprung. With its dark humour, its elements of farce and pathos, the joke, though, seems to be on Pera herself.