Nabokov Documentary on ARTE
by Dieter E. Zimmer

Graphic by Sarah Anastasia Hahn

There is a relatively new TV documentary on Nabokov:
Lolita ist berühmt - nicht ich / Lolita est célèbre, pas moi (Lolita is famous, not I), in French and German. It is a one-hour film, produced by SFB Sender Freies Berlin and ARTE, the French-German joint television program. The author is Andreas Christoph Schmidt. The first broadcast on ARTE occurred on January 1, 1997, at 11:35 p.m. Central European Time. ARTE can be seen worldwide by satellite TV.

The film recounting Nabokov's life, rather than his literary achievements, was shot in Russia and America. There are many images of two particularly significant places, the countryside along the Oredezh with Rozhdestveno before and after the fire, and the mountains near Telluride, Colorado. Some older material is also used: Peter Duval Smith's 1962 interview that took place while Nabokov was on a happy butterfly hunt in the mountain resort of Zermatt, Switzerland, and Robert Hughes' 1965 film showing Nabokov playing a game of Blitzschach with Véra and reading the opening lines of Lolita in resonant Russian. There are also several interviews: with Oleg Volkov (also an author and Nabokov's schoolmate at the Tenishev school), Alexandre Blokh (Secretary General of the International PEN and, under the name Jean Blot, author of a recent book on Nabokov in French), the Russian novelist Andrei Bitov, Dmitri Nabokov, Jason Epstein (head of Doubleday's literary operations in 1957, when Doubleday's Anchor Review dared to publish excerpts from Lolita) and Meyer H. Abrams (Nabokov's colleague at Cornell). Dmitri Nabokov and Andrei Bitov have some especially perceptive things to say.

Here are five images from the film:

1. The mansion at Rozhdestveno
2. The Oredezh River near VN's childhood home
3. Russian novelist Andrei Bitov
4. A young VN (early 1920s)
5. Rozhdestveno after the fire of April 1995

The spirit of the film is captured well in a letter Andreas Christoph Schmidt wrote me after the first public showing:

The film begins with a brief laconic biography, just like Laughter in the Dark. When I drove out to the Russian cemetery at Tegel today with Dmitri to visit the grave of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, he asked me whether I really had not borrowed the introduction from that novel. I said no, though I am not sure.

After all, what I try to relate in the film is not the story of a fatal error in the conduct of life but the story of a "happy mortal," no, of two happy mortals. A fairy-tale of sorts. "They were happy because they had decided to be happy. And together they defied the world." No doubt, it is a film about a writer, but a discussion of Nabokov's place in literature is not its primary concern, nor mine. Andrei Bitov, whom I interviewed for the film in his dacha near St. Petersburg, speaks about the writer and the history of his reception in Russia with much greater authority. In all its beautiful clarity, he expresses a thought which, probably without his knowing, dates back at least to Keats' On First Reading Chapman's Homer ("Oft of one wide expanse had I been told / That deep-brow'd Homer rul'd as his demesne…"): "You recognize a great writer by the fact that he has made something his exclusive property. He rules an empire of a few things, a certain territory of beauty… A girl's grazed knee - that's Nabokov. You see a butterfly, realize that you have no inkling of butterflies - and right away you think of Nabokov. For me, his wonderful poetry of non-encounter, of the way people fail to meet or miss things also is part of this territory." (By the way, Bitov also rules a small empire of his own, the Apothecary's Island in St. Petersburg.)

Towards the end, there are Véra and Vladimir Nabokov playing chess in their rooms at the Montreux Palace, a scene from Robert Hughes' film. In between, there is what I deemed essential in a short film on Nabokov's life, and if I have dwelt on the tragic disintegration of Nabokov's family and on his ability to master happiness it is probably because I wanted to impress something onto my own mind."

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