Monday, March 10, 2008

Abduction Fiction

Some of my most recent reads seem to have the theme of abducted children running through them, which seems pretty topical. (Another is Peter Carey's His Illegal Self which I also plan to share my thoughts on anon.)

Our book club chose Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as our month's shared read, and I was very happy to re-encounter this old friend of my own adolescence. But I definitely appreciated it far more several (!) decades on.

I particularly love what Preeta calls "voicy" novels, in which we hear the voice of the main character, especially when he or she is not telling us the truth, and sometimes not even aware of their own self-deception.

Humbert Humbert, we learn right from the first page, is a murderer and the paedophile abductor of twelve-year old Dolores Haze alias :
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. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
The novel is his confession, written later in prison, and it is a meticulous study of obsession. And right from the start it puts the reader in a very uncomfortable position: while we know that what Humbert is doing is morally repugnant, while we are horrified by the chilling tyranny he exerts over his stepdaughter, we are disarmed by his honesty, seduced by the sensuality of the writing, and drawn into collusion with him in this most perverse of love stories. It's a very strange and unsettling sensation.

It's hard to imagine too that the book was written 50 years ago, because it seems so contemporary ... and thanks to the internet perhaps we are more aware of paedophilia now than we were back then.

I felt terribly sorry for Lolita, for although she is no innocent (having gleefully lost her virginity at a summer camp, and knowingly strung our narrator along), HH finally faces towards the end of the book the extent to which he has damaged his step-daughter. Having escaped HH's clutches, she eventually marries a war-veteran and, little more than a child herself, dies in childbirth. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all is where HH recalls Lolita talking to a friend about death, and realising that the nature of their relationship utterly precluded being able to reach her on a deeper level.

Lolita is also an early example of the genre referred to as a road novel, and I loved the way the essence of the whole journey criss-crossing small-town America moving is so skilfully distilled into a series of vignettes.

Is Lolita porn? Well, it was certainly seen that way when Nabokov first approached American publishers, five of whom rejected it, fearing that they'd be prosecuted on obscenity charges. The language of the book though is never sexually explicit, and all the more potent and sensual for that.

This is the climax (pun of course intended) of one of the most shocking scenes :
She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled on in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola, the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock …
What dazzling, what shameless writing!

Stephen Metcalf in Slate magazine (asking the question Is Lolita Still Shocking?) says :
Lolita is a disgusting book. Furthermore, the day will never come when it is not a disgusting book.
and certainly it changes the reader's inner landscape. Not so long ago Woolworth's stores across the UK were forced by furious parents to withdrawn the sale of beds named Lolita which had been designed for six-year-old girls.

(And Muntaj in our book club - a more respectable pillar of society you could not hope to find - said that the book had severely messed with her head and even when in the supermarket found herself weighing up which young girls HH might consider "nymphets"!)

If you haven't read Lolita yet (hey, where were you hiding?) but are considering picking it up, I'd recommend the Penguin Classics annotated version which seemed to be very helpful when I glanced at a friend's copy (especially as HH throws in a lot of words and phrases in French).

I really enjoyed the radio programmes about the book on NPR, and you can listen to the lovely Jeremy Irons reading the opening of the novel.
Lo. Lee. Ta.

26 comments:

sriram's infotainment said...

great blog......i really like it.....visit mine...www.sriinfotainment.blogspot.com....
have already added you............


how about exchanging links....

bibliobibuli said...

thanks and sure why not! good luck with your blog

Madcap Machinist said...

really enjoyed this. my sister is reading my copy of the book now... she started off slow, even gave it back to me at one point; now she's taking it everywhere with her.

Madcap Machinist said...

btw, there's more than a few typos in this post!

Kak Teh said...

sharon, the trouble with coming to this blog is buying what you write about. Yes, i must admit I have not read Lolita but very likely to after I am done with Gifted.

gnute said...

Why not just go the whole hog and get Lolita, as read by Jeremy Irons, unabridged? *GASP* right? I've been eyeing this for years.

http://www.amazon.com/Lolita-Vladimir-Nabokov/dp/0739322060

bibliobibuli said...

gnute - yes, i'd really like to

machinist - i found 3 errors and put 'em right. can you see any more? glad your sister is hooked.

kak teh - that's the problem. :-D but then this one is a must-have-read so you really do need to slip it to the top of the pile.

bibliobibuli said...

kak teh - btw please do tell us what you think of "gifted". has sufiah read it? if so what does she think?

Kak Teh said...

sharon, I have not been in touch with sufiah since leaving Uni. Will try to find her email somewhere. I have to stop looking for similarities in the book and get on with it. Will let you know once I am done. Am also trying to finish Mitch Albom's.
btw, did you get my email sent to your yahoo account?

bibliobibuli said...

no kak teh - didn't receive anything from you. just to check - sharonbakar@yahoo.com

Amir said...

Another terrific voicy novel (with a very Nabokovian narrator) is John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure.

aliqot said...

Fabulous blog - discovered you while looking for info on World Book Day outside the UK.
Makes my attempt to keep track of what I read ( and films etc)- in my 2nd blog, look decidedly amateur.

I'll be back.

farah said...

i managed to get a copy @ payless two months ago - started reading it - then was sidetracked into reading some other tomes for a course i am attending.

reading your review - am suddenly keen on finishing the book.

now.. question is where did i put that book?

bibliobibuli said...

amir - thanks for the lead. haven't read john lancaster but i looked it up online and yes, this is something i'd like to read and will look out for

aliqot - hi and nice to meet you. and thanks for kind words.

we have 2 world book days here in malaysia. in the past we celebrated the british one in march because the british council organised activities. sadly now with the british council library closing here, this looks set to become a thing of the past. the unesco world book day on april 23rd is celebrated by one bookstore (in conjunction with the cervantes institute) but not really by anyone else. it is a great pity that nothing more happens.

bibliobibuli said...

farah - good, glad i nudged you ionto wanting to pick it up again. hope that you do enjoy it. it isn't a zippy read, but very rewarding. and lucky you to get it at payless!

mohd narcissus said...

my second fav book after don quixote ;-)

Anonymous said...

Yea everyone should read it. I think the trouble with it is that the people who should read this book don't. Have to admit being disgusting is a lot of fun sometimes (oops ?) :)

Madcap Machinist said...

"and certainly it changes the reader's our inner landscape."

one more! :)

bibliobibuli said...

;-D

rajan said...

Thanks for the Lolita piece. It brings back great memories of reading the book, of unsettling pleasure. The book was really trangressive - imagine a man banging the mum to get to the daughter- sad, tragic and at the same time very funny too - When HH catches his wife twotiming him with her lover, it was laugh out funny.

I kept wondering for days how a book can do all these. Then it occured to me that this is what a masterpiece does.

What a talented writer, check out his short story collection- there's one about a siamese twin pair tired of being gawked at escape from their village; its sad and funny, and you can recognise a similar tone that he uses to greater effect in Lolita.

The fact Nabokov never received the nobel prize for literature should always be a shame for the committee.....

bibliobibuli said...

glad you liked it, rajan. am happy that so many other people really enjoyed the book.

i have nabokov's collected short stories (bought from a payless book sale!) so will look for the story

Mohani said...

"You can always count a murderer for a fancy prose style", Humbert Humbert mischievously tells us on the very first page. And a lot of readers fall for him. Its appalling how the rape of a 12 year old girl has been romanticized and has become a glorification of older-men-with-girls pairings. And the name Lolita has become a term for a 'young girl slut', which is appaling - talk about victim blaming. Not everyone is " horrified by the chilling tyranny" and that is greatly saddening.

Interesting tidbit: Nabokov suffered from sexual abuse by his uncle when he was child.

This Indian Boy said...

The power of Lolita lies less in its subject matter than in its narrative style, wit, colour and effervescence.

As Nabokov put it, the story is his accessory, a vehicle for the expression of his "love affair with the English language". And I believe to enjoy this book, it should be taken just as such. Let the Fred Astaire of prose marvel you with his alphabetic taps and pirouettes.

When I read Lolita as teenage innocent, the distastefulness that many of you felt was absent in me. I was oblivious to the controversial nature of the story. Instead, I was absorbed in and enraptured by the literary dazzle and the style with which Humbert Humbert recorded his "tangle of thorns". For to me, Lolita was an ecstatic exercise in aesthetics, a glacé cake, or a "Fabergé egg" (as Nabokov's Pale Fire is described).

Perhaps my innocent treatment of Lolita also stems from the fact that my initial (and accidental) exposure to Nabokov was through his tamer short stories. I remember the day when I picked up the slim, black-bound Details of a Sunset and Other Stories, and in the unlikeliest place for a thing of that sort too: the main library of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in Skudai, Johor. The mischievous donation of a special soul, maybe. But could you imagine my pleasure in discovering this nectar -- the author's inventiveness in painting a scenery, the witty jewels he here and there buries -- in a narrow, orphaned bookshelf for fiction that no one bothered about in a dreary local university?

bibliobibuli said...

mohani - didn't know nabokov himself was sexually abused ...

this indian boy - that was such a great description of the power of a single book!

when i read the book in my teens, like you, i didn't feel at all disturbed by the subject matter. maybe you see things differently when you get older and have kids in your care and see the creeps out to take advantage of them.

but what is most wrenching about the book is that you do realise hh really does love lolita, even if it is in this perverse way ... and that in fact no-one else is going to love her more.

This Indian Boy said...

Dear Bibliobibuli,

So nice of you to respond :) I arrived at your blog by a chancy chain of Googling events, and am glad I did. Your post is a rich read on the title: chocablock with views, supplementary web links (NPR.org, the bed-sales news etc.), the excerpts -- and your recommendation of the annotated version, which I would like to check out someday. Thank you, and happy readings to you!

bibliobibuli said...

glad you did drop by and glad you liked the links.
btw someone gave me jeremy irons recording of "lolita" today!!

what other books do you particualrly like? i notice you put a comment on a post about marquez