Louise Brooks, Lolita, and Nabokov: Names, Titles, & Secret Muses
What does compelling evidence amount to in the absence of outright proof? How far does mere suspicion carry you without a frank confession? In a court of law, evidence and suspicion are typically inadequate where securing a desired verdict is concerned.
But the court of public opinion is a quite separate phenomenon, indeed.
This brings us to the legendary Silent Era film star Louise Brooks (1906-1985), to her brief but monumental on-screen career, to the famous work of literature which may well have drawn inspiration from her captivating persona, and to her unpublished memoir Naked on my Goat, which she inexplicably incinerated after having devoted considerable time to its completion.
As it happens, the book potentially inspired by Brooks can be plausibly linked to the book destroyed by Brooks. The case here hinges as much on sound logic as it does on speculation—a conclusion one way or the other remains elusive.
The work of literature which Brooks may have inspired is none other than Lolita, published in 1955 and written by Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian-American author from whom Louise Brooks was, at one point in time, removed by only one degree of separation…a fellow writer.
More on that to follow. We must first understand who Brooks was in life to understand who she might have been in fiction.
Artistically speaking, Louise Brooks was as much a screen presence as she was a screen actress. This is to say, she was possessed of a certain physicality and an otherworldly radiance that rendered her a gift to the eye and a marvel within the medium that had elevated her career to splendid heights.
As her two most significant starring roles were in silent films, her ability to enrapture audiences strictly via the camera’s lens was essential to her livelihood. But there was more to it than that…and it seems possible Nabokov might himself have taken notice. The two films (both directed by Austrian filmmaker G.W. Pabst) were Pandora’s Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). Each film’s respective narrative centers on themes that relate closely to Brooks’ own life and to foundational elements of Nabokov’s own Lolita.
Pandora’s Box (1904) was penned by German playwright Frank Wedekind, before being adapted for the screen by Pabst, and traffics heavily in themes of lust, violence, and innocence rendered forfeit in the fray of it all. His Lulu (later portrayed by Brooks) is at once an emblem of tragedy and, ironically, one of empowerment. Diary of a Lost Girl (1905) was written by the prolific and literarily essential Margarete Böhme, and is also rife with tragedy, but is predicated in pronounced fashion on the theme of violation.
It is as though Pabst’s collaborations with Brooks, which touched perilously on such taboo and challenging subject matter, created a conduit via which the latter’s most delicate of life experiences were laid bare for the artful eyes of nascent storytellers (such as Nabokov) to themselves behold and potentially channel. Brooks would, years later, reveal horrid details of sexual abuse she, at the age of 9, suffered at the hands of an adult male from within her own community.
Whatever sense of vulnerability this trauma left upon Brooks may have contributed to the strength of her most noteworthy film performances some fifteen years later.
If so, it stands to reason that Brooks’ adolescent struggles and the screen presence they yielded either directly influenced the literature of an observant Russian author.
Or, the literature of an observant Russian author coincidentally summoned to Brooks’ mind these past struggles to such a degree that the publishing of Naked on my Goat crossed a threshold into the unthinkable…into the undoable. Brooks had, after all, read Lolita and took an initial dislike to the subject matter. Her opinion changed after a subsequent reading, but perhaps only from an objective literary standpoint.
The psychological connection between Nabokov’s professional imaginings and Brooks’ adolescent reality may have created an impasse where the latter’s own literature was concerned, at least in the instance of Naked on my Goat. Brooks’ close friend and enduring confidant, the author Jan Wahl, was a one-time classmate of Nabokov’s, hence the previously mentioned single degree of separation.
As to whether this relative proximity proved at all significant in shaping Brooks’ opinion of Lolita is unknowable, but the connection does bear mentioning.
There is another facet to this story that warrants scrutiny: That of Salvador Dali and of his own literary forays, two of which bear noteworthy similarities to Lolita, which they both pre-date. The first of these is titled Reverie: An Erotic Daydream (1931), and the second is The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942). Both books feature a character by the name of Dullita.
In the former, Dullita is a young girl of 12 who becomes an object of sexual obsession in the mind of a male painter many years her senior. In the latter, which is Dali’s autobiography rather than a work of narrative fiction, Dullita’s presence is depicted not in outright carnal terms, but in a more complete and less objectified capacity. Her objectification and reduction (at least in Reverie) to a target of forbidden obsession seem plainly consistent with Lolita’s central plot composition. But the similarities are less substantive than they might at first seem.
The degree to which Nabokov borrowed from his forebear Dali is a matter of some literary debate. Aside from the obvious parallels between Reverie and his own Lolita, the name “Dullita” is very nearly plaintive in its insistence that comparison is drawn. However, it could easily be argued that Dali’s inspiration was so removed from that of Nabokov as to render the comparison largely facile. His Dullita is characterized by striking similarities to 19th-century Irish dancer Lola Montez (often mistaken for a Spaniard) and appears more closely aligned with the folklore sensibilities of the previous century.
Conversely, Nabokov’s Lolita draws decidedly upon 20th-century mores, cultural hallmarks, and literary conventions. So much so, in fact, that direct comparisons to Wedekind’s Lulu are strongly defensible. In truth, if one probes deeply enough, one might piece together the Lolita character (if not the novel she inhabits) when examining the archetypes on display between Wedekind’s Lulu and Böhme’s Thymian Henning.
Opening the door on names, it should be noted, is to open Pandora’s Box, if you’ll pardon the play on words. For, as it happens, the name “Lolita” is freighted with significant context and literary precedent, enough to point the needle of Nabokov’s inspiration not (strictly) to Dali, but indeed back to Louise Brooks. The name Lola is a Spanish diminutive of Louise, which does inadvertently suggest a link to Dali’s own muse. But that link seems wholly inadequate when measured against the direct connection between the “Lola” and the seminal actress who bore that first name—Louise Brooks herself.
Did Nabokov succumb to a subconscious round of inspiration when bestowing the eponymous “nymphet” with a name so seemingly reminiscent of “Dulitta”? Perhaps. If so, the international community of literature scholars could simply box this one up, pin a bow on top, and declare the debate over. What holds up to greater scrutiny is the idea of Nabokov’s having transposed the collective identities of Lulu and Thymian (convincingly portrayed by Louise Brooks) into a narrative structure that bears tangential similarities to an earlier, and ultimately very different, work by Salvador Dali.
What ultimately became of Louise Brooks’ Naked on my Goat is not entirely known. Was her incinerated manuscript the sole extant copy? The answer remains a mystery. Even so, the plausible explanation argued herein as to why she destroyed at least one copy of the work may shed light on just what it was the nigh-mythical Louise Brooks had to say. At present, we will leave it to public opinion, and to its omnipresent court.