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The nymphet strikes back
In a controversial new novel told from Lolita's point of view, the girl is vicious, conniving and not very convincing.

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By Jennifer Kornreich

Oct. 6, 1999 | Puberty stood me up until I was about 15 or 16. Forget the "late bloomer" rhetoric: If we're going to use floral metaphors, I'd have to say that when I first entered the emotional fray of adolescent sexuality, I was armed without so much as a pistil. My cadaverous body rendered me sexually invisible for a long time. (Why, oh why is the waif look desirable to the opposite sex only after you're too old to come by it naturally?) This kept me out of trouble but was agonizing nonetheless.

In particular, I recall an eighth-grade party at which none of the boys tried to kiss me or fondle my backside as they did to the other girls. By the time my mother came to drive me home, I was so overwhelmed with a hopelessly snarled mixture of rejection and relief that I burst into tears and asked why nobody wanted to touch me. My mom -- who didn't, to her credit, ban me from coed parties right then and there -- offered me some kind white lie that might even have had a kernel of truth to it: The boys, she said, didn't touch me that way because they respected me. (Mmm-hmm.) "But I don't want them to respect me!" I wailed, and dismissed her insistence that I might change my tune in a few years.

Lo's Diary
By Pia Pera
Foxrock, 307 pages

Buy Lo's Diary by Pia Pera

Then an interesting thing happened: During my junior year, I developed both my long-awaited bust and a habit of bursting into hysterical and seemingly unprovoked laughter in the middle of my classes. By this time, the promise of sex seemed to carry with it an implicit threat of violence. A few boys in my school were routinely rough with their girlfriends in moments of anger. I knew a girl who'd lost her virginity at 14 to a date-rapist. And outside the local Friendly's one night, a crowd of kids watched two boys hold a screaming girl by the arms as a third tried to lift her skirt. My yearning for someone to touch me was tempered by the fear that someone actually would. So I laughed, loudly and often, with a horribly desperate edge to my giggle. My Spanish teacher thought I was on drugs. My classmates thought I was crazy, and I was inclined to agree. It was only in college -- shortly after I'd lost my virginity, and long after the laughing fits had subsided -- that I realized that I was laughing because boys had begun to notice me, and I was trying to smother the impulse to scream or cry every time one looked at me or passed me a note.

Now, there are plenty of teenagers and even preadolescents who have active, happy sex lives. But I relate these anecdotes because I think that certain aspects of my experience are universal: ambivalence about sex, anxiety about the changes in one's body and the push-pull response to adult advisors.

These complexities are largely absent from "Lo's Diary," a novel about a prematurely and inappropriately sexualized girl -- who just happens to be Lolita. The author, Italian writer Pia Pera, ostensibly wanted to give Vladimir Nabokov's nymphet a voice: to retell the story through the girl's eyes. But what a disappointing voice the author has bestowed upon one of the most intriguing characters of all time. In Pera's version, Nabokov's mercurial, sexually precocious preteen is reduced to a caricature: a conniving, narcissistic, heartless vixen.

Much has been made in the publishing industry of the skirmish between Pera and Nabokov's son Dmitri, executor of his father's estate, who filed a lawsuit against her original American publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, claiming that attempts to publish the novel in the States and the United Kingdom constituted copyright infringement. Farrar pulled out, and Foxrock -- a publishing company founded by Barney Rossett, whose Grove Press first published "Lolita" in the United States in 1955 -- took over after reaching a settlement with Dmitri Nabokov: The book could be published, but Pera would have to split royalties with Nabokov, and each would provide commentary regarding the legal issues involved. Dmitri Nabokov's preface gets in some good insults under the guise of being generous ("I try to be a nice guy"); Pera has reneged on her promise to write an afterword, but that didn't stop her from accusing Dmitri Nabokov, in an e-mail written to a New York Times reporter, of a second-rate imitation of his father's grandstanding.

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