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Lolita: the movie


My friend Vladimir Nabokov
Frederic Raphael Writer
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I walked into the hotel – wonder what it's called? I think it's the Montreux Palace where he lived, because I was going to ask to do a film about Ada... of Ada, his [novel] Ada. And I had reviewed it in the Sunday Times. And I arrived before the producer and I sat reading a book about Nabokov on the... on the front at Montreux. I remember Montreux because it was so quiet that the headline in the local paper was, 'Fire Alarm Rehearsal'. It was the nearest they could get to a major fire, was rehearsing one. I sat on the bench in my usual examinee's way. My whole life is actually like an exam and so is this, in a sense. But I do my best, of course, to pass. I sat there reading and one of the articles I read was about how Nabokov was particularly keen about anagrams. And one of them which he had confected was on the page and it was a Russian-looking name ending in –sky. But, of course, the actual author concerned was Kingsley Amis for whom Nabokov did not have a great deal of respect. And nor do I.

So I went in and there was... well, down they came in the lift, Nabokov and Véra, his beaky-nosed Jewish wife. He was a great anti-anti-Semite, Nabokov, and so was his father. So we sat down to lunch, the two of them and me, and at some point in lunch he said to me, 'You like anagrams, don't you?' So I said, 'No, not really'. So he said, 'Well, here's one for you'. So he passed it across, a piece of paper on which was written the name of this pseudo-Russian figure ending in 'sky'. So he said, 'Which contemporary writer do you think that is?' And I took the piece of paper and I said, 'It's Kingsley Amis', and handed it back to him. So he turned to Véra and he said, 'This is a very impressive young man'. And I said, 'No, not really – just well-prepared'. But we did get on very well.

And a few years later, we were – happened, as they say – to be in Montreux, Beetle and I. And I said, I wonder whether I might not go and, you know, knock on the door and have a word with Nabokov. They never made the film, but it wasn't my fault and I'm damn sure he doesn't blame me and all the rest of it. And then I said, well, I... you know, you don't really want to be dragged in to see Nabokov and I don't... I... we'll let it go. Few years later we were... I was playing tennis on our tennis court in France – if you've got it, you flaunt it, don't you? And in those days there weren't any portable phones. So we're talking about, what – early 90s? I don't know when Nabokov died, I can't remember actually. Anyway, phone rang and I... phone! I ran up from the tennis court up to the house. 'Hello?' 'Hi, Mr Raphael? This is CBC calling from Toronto'. 'Yes, hello'. 'I don't know whether you know but Vladimir Nabokov died'. So I said, 'Have you phoned me from Toronto to tell me that Nabokov died? I mean, that's very nice of you. Why would you... why would you call me?' 'Well,' he said, 'here's the thing. His wife – you know his wife, Véra? – she told us that... that you have a very kind of close bond with him. She felt that you and he were really, kind of... had something together'. I said, 'But I only met him once'. And he said, 'Well, that's what she said. Would you care to say anything for... you know, we could print?' So I said, 'How... how about: he's the greatest writer of the 20th century not to get the Nobel Prize?' 'Oh, that'll do. Thank you very much. Okay, goodbye'. Whose service is it? That ought to have made me realise that, really, you shouldn't deprecate yourself too much, but after all, you do what you do. Whether I would've been greeted by Nabokov if I had rung the bell, I don't know. On the whole, people living abroad in exile on their own are quite willing to see other people – I've discovered that. So there we are.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Vladimir Nabokov, Kingsley Amis

Duration: 4 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 10 September 2014