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.

Which 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career, to the famous work of literature which may well have drawn inspiration from her captivating persona, and to her unpublished memoir Naked on my Goat, which she inexplicably incinerated after having devoted considerable time to its completion.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. Which is to say, she was possessed of a certain physicality and an otherworldly radiance which 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 which 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. For 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 onetime 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), the second 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 seems 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 a comparison be 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. For 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 with public opinion, and to its omnipresent court.

 

Louise Brooks, Lolita, and Nabokov

“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.”

 

 

 

 

The Mysterious Inspiration Behind Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”

The brilliant yet somewhat obstinate story of Lolita from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 publication often comes up with discussing controversial literary works. The tale focuses on Humbert Humbert, a professor of literature who becomes intimately involved with a pre-teen girl after seducing and marrying her middle-aged, widowed mother.

Although stories like this have been a part of literature for centuries, Nabokov’s piece was always considered to be an original work of fiction. Literary scholars have studied this along with his other work over time.

However, in 2005, a literary critic created controversy when he made claims that Nabokov’s Lolita wasn’t original and may have even been stolen.

 

The Claims Against Nabokov’s Original Work

Michael Maar, the literary critic who made the claims against Nabokov’s work, argued that the writer may have come up with the idea for Lolita after reading the little known 1916 German short story of the same name.

Although the German tale has a very similar plot, it didn’t have the same creativity and enchantment as Nabokov’s story. Also, the fact that Nabokov didn’t speak German makes this claim a little less believable.

While this claim may be easy to rule out, there are others that make more sense. Such as the idea that Nabokov could have drawn his inspiration from the surrealist artist Salvador Dali.

 

How Salvador Dali is Linked to Nabokov’s Lolita

Delia Ungureanu, the Assistant Director of the Institute for World Literature at Harvard University, had a discovery while doing research on dream literature. Dali had written a short story that had long been forgotten about by many, titled Reverie: The Erotic Daydream.

The story was published in 1931, nearly 15 years before Nabokov’s Lolita. Dali’s story tells about the fantasy of a middle-aged painter, instead of a professor, who makes plans to seduce an underage girl after he attempts to get her mother to fall in love with him.

Having a similar plot isn’t the same as copying an idea or stealing a story, however, the girl’s name in Dali’s story makes the claim more viable, since it is “Dullita”.

The argument that Ungureanu makes is featured in the book “From Paris to Tlon: Surrealism as World Literature,”. The Harvard assistant director’s claims do not stop with the similarities between Dali’s tale and Nabokov’s. She also states that Dali’s form of Lolita shows up once again in his work, this time in his memoir, “The Secret Life of Salvador Dali”.

 

Connections to Jan Wahl and Hollywood Actress Louise Brooks

Children’s author Jan Wahl met Louise Brooks when he was still a struggling writer. Brooks, the former silent film star was twice his age, yet the two seemed to have a lot in common that sparked their long-lasting friendship. They corresponded with each other through handwritten letters over the course of 20 years.

Their desire to write is what drew the pair together and kept them connected. This is the theme of the book Dear Stinkpot: Letters from Louise Brooks, written by Wahl.

Their love of writing as well as discussing books and authors is brought up frequently in Dear Stinkpot. There is also a good number of letters that focus on Vladimir Nabokov. Jan Wahl had taken classes with Nabokov while attending Cornell University. He was also an advocate to Nabokov when he was writing Lolita.

During the time of this correspondence, Brooks was busy working on an essay titled “Girl Child in Films”. She had read Lolita and at the time being, disliked it. However, over time she began to grow fond of Nabokov’s work. She even suggested that Wahl pass along her 1951 autobiography Naked on My Goat. She described the short story as her own version of Nabokov’s Lolita.

 

The Parallels Between Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

Throughout Wahl’s Letters to Stinkpot collection, Louise Brooks rarely speaks of her own career and her time as a silent movie star. Occasionally she would reference her work in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box where she played her most memorable role of Lulu. She also mentioned her roles in Diary of a Lost Girl and other films such as Beggars of Life.

Could there be a connection between Louise Brooks’ life and the fictional tale written by Nabokov? Since Wahl was the author’s classmate, is it possible that his experiences with the famed Hollywood star helped to influence his advice for his controversial classic?

The reason why this is a theory is because of Brooks’ childhood being so similar to the theme of Lolita. She made the most out of a terrible situation that changed her way of thinking and her overall sexuality when she was molested by a much older man at the age of nine.

She refers to her molester as “Mr. Flowers” in her journal entries and letters, sometimes also as “Mr. Feathers”. She stated that because of those events, she always looked for some type of domination that she could fight against. Which makes the scene in Pandora’s Box where she violently bites the hand of her lover even more powerful than it already is.

Louise Brooks’ lifelong addiction to alcohol is also linked to her abuse as a child. Taking on roles such as these that reflected her own struggles in life helped her to gain the reputation of an extremely talented actress, but at what cost to her own sanity? She is seen as a martyr by many who understand her story, and the passion that she put into each role she took helped her to gain bigger and better roles overall. Her role in the comedy A Girl in Every Port was viewed by Pabst and helped her to gain her most memorable role of Lulu in Pandora’s Box.

Whether it was based on the tragedy of one of Hollywood’s early actresses, taken from the hidden works of Salvador Dali, or simply a figment of his imagination, it is safe to say that Nabokov’s literary classic Lolita will be remembered for generations to come for its uniqueness, creativity, and the way that it has sparked conversations among literary experts.

 

What Inspired Nabokov’s Literary Classic Lolita?

“She had read Lolita and at the time being, disliked it. However, over time she began to grow fond of Nabokov’s work. She even suggested that Wahl pass along her 1951 autobiography Naked on My Goat. She described the short story as her own version of Nabokov’s Lolita.”