Monday, March 03, 2008

Actually reading Lolita

Such is the reputation and subject matter of Lolita that I felt a bit awkward, even guilty, about reading it. But since Reading Lolita in Tehran, I have had it in my mind to catch up on some of the holes in my knowledge of literature. It's a determination to read more difficult and classic texts, to try things outside of the crime and lighter novels I tend to fall back on. Sometimes I feel a kind of weird inverse snobbery exists, that to read (or attempt to read) the more "high-brow" is to be derided as being pretentious or as some sort of boasting. I'm not sure where I get these notions, because it clearly isn't, it's just trying to stretch myself and get this pea-soup that I call a brain fit again. And if I didn't read these things, I'd be missing out. These sort of texts are classic for a reason, not just for making you miserable in literature lectures.

Anyway, since the inspiration of RLinT, I have consumed The Great Gatsby and now Lolita. I only (ahem) have Daisy Miller, Invitation to a Beheading, Washington Square, One Thousand and One Nights and Pride and Prejudice to read or re-read in order to fulfil my deal with myself following reading the Nafisi (they are all books which feature in the text). So I'm not doing hugely well on that front, but I am getting there.

Since reading the book this weekend, (I am not a good house-guest, unless you like ones that come to your house and read your books for you. Well, it was for only a couple of hours...) I've been puzzling over it. It is a very powerful and disturbing ... and beautiful text. "Beautifully ugly" one of the Amazon reviewers called it, and that's about right.

It's written entirely from the perspective of Humbert, the foul yet erudite paedophile. He is the epitome of an untrustworthy narrator. His obsessive lyrical "reality" is interspersed with rare moments of horrifying clarity, which keep the reader mindful of his essential self-deceiving untrustworthiness. Lo is never, to my mind, the manipulative minx that some readers apparently see: she cries herself to sleep every night and he even rapes her when she is ill and feverish, finding it especially piquant*. She is only ever seen through his eyes, and he pays no attention whatsoever to her feelings, obsessed by her but with no insight into her inner life and no empathy. She has no choices: he convinces her that with her mother dead she will be institutionalised and that that would be worse than life with him. As a child, abducted, orphaned, coerced, wheedled, bribed, duped: how her position could be seen as manipulative is beyond me. I don't see how it could be described as a love-story either, which some critics have done. Obsession, easily, but love, no.

All in all challenging, controversial subject matter, but the writing is exceptional.

* I should add that the sexual content of the novel is alluded to or inferred rather than graphically or explicitly described. It's not pornographic.

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