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The Woman Behind Lolita

There is something magnetic, deeply mesmerizing about the opening paragraph of Nabokov’s Lolita. It takes three dainty steps of the tongue to pronounce Lo-li-ta, which is all the time Nabokov needs to showcase his dazzling writing skills and his love for clever word play and literary gimmicks. Extraordinarily simple yet highly ingenious, down-to-earth and “physical” yet brimming with an excess of desire, the controversial novel’s first paragraph draws in the reader in the bat of an eyelid, yet keeps her at an intriguing distance because of the morbid topic, because of the moral boundaries that are so brashly overlooked by the narrator’s thoughts and actions.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Image from Stanley Kubricks 1962 adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita.

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What style! ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’, Humbert warns us at the outset. That may be true, for a murderer, but in Nabokov’s case it was someone else he could count on for advice, help and inspiration. Vladimir Nabokov wrote his first draft of Lolita (published in 1955) while on butterfly-collection trips in the Western United States with his wife, Véra Nabokov. Not many know the crucial role she played in drawing up the scandalous masterpiece: surprisingly enough she acted as his “secretary, typist, editor, proofreader, translator and bibliographer; his agent, business manager, legal counsel and chauffeur; his research assistant, teaching assistant and professorial understudy”!. It was Vèra who prevented Nabokov from burning the unfinished drafts of Lolita; she believed in her husband’s creative genius, privately encouraging and standing by him all his life — he called her “the best-humoured woman he had ever known.”

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Now, putting aside the fear of sounding like a despicable child-abuser, have a go at composing a short paragraph in homage to Nabokov’s incredible style, and dedicate it to your own Vèra. Think about your loved one’s name (wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, companion or lover – it doesn’t have to be a paedophiliac, semi-incestous infatuation that drives your passionate immagination), find inspiration in its soothing sound and the meaning it acquires as you spell out the letters. Say it out loud a few times. Now break it up in syllables, listen to the consonants and vowels, draw shapes with the letters and go with the rhythm of the name. Though Nabokov, as Vèra herself admitted, always “had the good taste to keep me out of his books”, we — who lack his fervid imagination and literary status – are free to playfully smuggle our loved one’s real name into our imaginary word game. Try it as a very personalised and poetic card, as a humourous note to leave on the fridge before leaving for work, or as a romantic text message for a high-brow surprise during the day.

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Amis, Martin. Visiting Mrs Nabokov: And Other Excursions. pages 115–118. Penguin Books (1993)
New York Times obituary, “Vèra Nabokov, 89, Wife, Muse and Agent”, 11 April 1991
Brian Boyd’s biography, “Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years” (Princeton University Press, 1990)


Crane.tv is a perfect site if you want to be inspired. They call themselves a “contemporary-culture video magazine, focusing on arts, design, style, food and travel around the world”. Here is a selection of some of their video portraits.

Kate Moross, Art Director.

Marcio Kogan, Architect.

Jo Ratcliffe, Art Director, Illustrator and Animator.

Maria, Head Sommelier.


Betty Compson in The Docks of New York

Sometimes you don’t need sound. You just need the glamorous world of film noir, it’s excessive use of soft light and cigarette smoke. This is one of those times. The Docks of New York (1928) by Josef von Sternberg starring George Bancroft and Betty Compson is a silent film noir drama about stoker Bill Roberts who gets into trouble during a brief shore leave when he falls for Mae, a dance-hall girl. The film comes together in the combination of cinematography by Harold Rosson, expressionist set design by Hans Dreier, and the sensual performances by Bancroft and Compson.YouTube Preview ImageYouTube Preview Image

Betty Compson and George Bancroft in The Docks of New York

The Dante Quartet

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’?
— Stan Brakhage

Stan Brakhage is known for his experimental films created by painting or glueing images directly onto celluloid. This way he opened up a different way of seeing, challenging our perception and bringing us back to a child-like way of seeing unruled by man-made laws of perspective. The Dante Quartet is one of his experimental short films from 1987 it was inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and took six years to produce. The effect of the images being painted directly onto the celluloid is both meditative and challenging for the viewer.
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Life at the Bauhaus

The ‘House of Construction’ founded in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius was a laboratory of ideas, a school of arts and crafts bound to be remembered in the decades to come for its unique approach to a total art and as a symbol of the avant-garde Germany. It operated until 1933, when it was closed by the Nazi regime. But how was life at the Bauhaus? Which faces would you have seen? Photographers and former students T.Lux Feininger and Edmund Collein documented its life and activities. Here are some of the things you could have seen at one of the most famous arts schools in the world.