Tuesday, January 06, 2009

the last book I read

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

Or "that book by Nabokov" if you prefer, as this is the one that Sting was referring to. Pretentious? Lui?

Obviously we tend to think of the twentieth century as having followed a nice linear course whereby those strait-laced sexual and social attitudes of the 1950s (Lolita was first published in 1955) gradually gave way to the relaxed liberalism of the later decades. And in a lot of ways that's true, but imagine what the News Of The World might have made of a book in which a fortysomething European academic marries the mother of a twelve-year-old American girl solely in order to prey on her daughter, and, after the mother's convenient death (just as she was about to unmask him, having discovered his true designs) takes the aforementioned daughter on a two-year romp round the USA, stopping off at various motels in order to vigorously defile her on a regular basis?

The version I've got (pictured above) is a tie-in volume to the 1997 film - it's interesting in the light of the previous paragraph that in both this film and Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version the actress playing Lolita was older than the character from the book (Sue Lyon was 14, Dominique Swain was 15), and in both cases the actresses were attractive and quite, hem hem, mature-looking for their age. Whereas it's made clear in the book that Lolita is a girlish-looking twelve and not especially attractive. Not only that, but in both films the character's starting age is bumped up a couple of years from twelve to fourteen. Evidently there's only so much the cinema-going sensibility can stand.

I read a review which suggested that this book represents the flipside to Lady Chatterley's Lover, and I think there's a lot of truth in that: Lawrence's book uses some ripe language and bluntly carnal descriptions of the sexual act to tell a story that is, at its heart, pretty conventional (sexual repression bad, arbitrary class divisions bad, a good healthy sweaty rogering in the toolshed good), while Nabokov's book uses some arch, flowery descriptions as well as a fusillade of puns and literary allusions to decorate a story whose heart is one of utter monstrousness and depravity (the effective kidnap and repeated rape of a child).

Needless to say when the central protagonist, Humbert Humbert (at no point does he make any pretence that this is his real name), is a kidnapping paedophile the reader can safely regard him as the archetypal unreliable narrator - nevertheless Nabokov pulls off the trick of making him seem not a complete monster. We can safely assume, for instance, that Lolita isn't quite as much of an experienced and knowing little trollop as he claims, but when she disappears at the end of their sojourn round America we naturally assume that the coded messages he deciphers in the guest books of the motels he enquires at are just paranoid pareidolia (particularly as he is drinking increasingly heavily by this stage) - however it turns out that his fears are justified. Her abductor, Clare Quilty, who he eventually catches up with and murders in comically inept fashion, is such a cartoonishly evil paedophile and amateur pornographer as to make Humbert himself seem almost benign (as an aside, Riven Rock also featured a character whose characteristics were just exaggerated versions of the protagonist's, just to throw them into sharper relief).

It's all very very clever (you need to go back and read the faux-foreword again after you've finished the main bit to discover the ultimate fate of the two central characters, as I guarantee you won't have appreciated the significance first time round) as well as absurdly and inappropriately funny in places. You should read it. Just not in public while there are any tabloid photographers around. It's PAEDOGEDDON!


Anonymous said...

happy new year to you and hazel! did my brother behave himself over new year, or did you just talk nonsense and get horribly drunk?

As for the book, well I'm sure it was ME who incited you to read this book, even though I did tell you that you should read "Ada or Ardor".. apparently better than Lolita.

electrichalibut said...

Happy New Year to you too. There was a certain amount of drinking and talking bollocks, though no misbehaviour - we're all too old for that sort of stuff these days. We did stay up playing Nintendo Wii ten-pin bowling until 4:30am, but I'm not sure that counts.

Our conversation certainly reminded me that I had a copy of the book, so you can give youself a pat on the back there. Ada or Ardor may very well be better, but this was the one I already had a copy of, so it was the zero effort and expense option. I still reckon Pale Fire is the one, but it is a bit of a mindfuck. Worth a go, though.