Saturday, July 26, 2008

Crawling Through Molasses

When I finally set the book aside, I felt like I had just crawled through a long hallway that was six inches deep with molasses. Sticky, slimy, faintly oily, it clings to you and oozes slowly from your fingers. The smell - pungent with puffs of sweet - gets in your hair and hangs heavy about your face. Flicking your tongue against the tip of your tongue, it's bitter, a little sweet, interesting, but it coats the inside of your mouth and leaves a bilious aftertaste long after everything else has been washed away.

Lemme tell ya, molasses is way better in cookies than it is straight. This book? Definitely not a cookie.

In fairness, while I did get to the end of the book, I wasn't able to continue reading straight through after the first part. Maybe it's because I haven't gotten more than five hours of sleep per night for the past week or two. By the time I got to the end of the first part, I was thoroughly repulsed, annoyed, and more than a little sleepy. But I thought that if I put the book down, I wouldn't pick it back up again. So I flipped to the end, and read the last few scenes. Then I skipped back a dozen or so pages and read some of the leading-up parts. I think I flipped back through about half of the rest of the book.

If you haven't seen Election (pictured at right), bear with me for just a few moments.

Quick tangent: in the movie it is made patently clear that it is the female student (Tracy, left) who seduces the male teacher (Dave, right). In that sense it is, I believe, different from Lolita, but bear with me yet further, because that's not the point I'm going for.

When the matter is revealed, and everybody hates and despises Dave, he looks over... I think at his wife... and blubbers out, "But we were in love!"

That moment - that's Lolita. That insistent snivveling, pleading, 'you-just-don't-understand-what-we-had' whinge is Humbert in all his pathetic glory.

Now supposedly, Humbert is much smoother than Dave. But he's also very clearly an unreliable narrator (Dana, I am so glad you thought so too, because I didn't see it in any other review, and other people were talking about sympathizing with him, and I totally didn't, but if YOU say so, then I don't have nearly the same fear of being wrong, because I trust your judgment), and the worst SORT of unreliable narrator because, unlike in a murder mystery where it's narrated by the Idiot Friend, you have no way to know what's real, what's mis-perceived, and what's made up entirely.

So, yeah, Humbert's narration was annoying. He waxes purple about everything (at least, it seems that way), particularly his supposed love for "Lolita." It seems he is trying to persuade the reader (and possibly himself as well) that despite its apparent horror, what he shares with this child is beautiful and good and right. And yet every now and then he struggles with what may be guilt but might be nothing more than the pressure of social standards. And it didn't take long for me to tire of Humbert, because it was clear quite early on that he would not GET OVER HIMSELF.

OTOH, I enjoyed Nabokov's writing. And of course, if Humbert had gotten over himself, there mightn't've been the fun word-whee. Now there's irony for ya!

Another tangent: When I was little, among my bedtime story list was a series of books in French about a little boy named Marmoset. I can still recall the sound of my dad carefully enunciating the strange syllables: JE ne veux PAS, JE ne veux PAS! from Marmoset Va a l'Ecole... I haven't studied French since high school, but to this day I still understand it better than I do Spanish or German, which I studied in college.

Anyway, it surprised me a great deal to find that I enjoyed Nabokov's prose. I will have to think on that more, because I'm not sure why I did, or why it didn't trip me up. I mean, he used big words and long sentences - long, convoluted sentences. And yet, like Lightly Seasoned said, it wasn't a slow read.

The one challenge that I really enjoyed from the book was that while Humbert is not at all a caricature, he still came across as a monster. And I really struggle with that, because I'm committed to the idea that who we are is not defined by what we do. There is a strong influence, yes, but we are more than the sum of our actions. It was very easy for me to forget to see Humbert as a human being.

When I reflect on the novel with that lens, it shifts to a story of tragic horror, much like 28 Days Later or Battle Royale, illustrating how really, honest-to-God awful people can be to each other.

Dana, I think I might disagree with you about Poe, but I don't know enough about his relationship with his wife. She was 25 when she died - still young, but definitely no longer a child. Twisted? Yes - but possibly not pedophiliac.


Melissa B. said...

I re-read Lolita a couple of years ago. Humbert was a monster, & I think Nabokov a tad twisted to conjur this tale! But let's not think such deep thoughts today--BTW, it's that time of week again--please drop on in for a little Silly Summer Sunday Sweepstakes. You have 2 chances to play!

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