The Books of My Numberless Dreams

I’ve never read a bad book (this year) and thoughts on Lolita

Posted on: December 27, 2006

I noticed that a few bloggers put up their Worst Books list or ones they could not finish for different reasons. Endymion Spring will probably turn out to be my “worst” book of the year, but that is because it is merely mediocre with a couple of good spots, rather than flat out awful. On the surface my criteria for picking a book is not uniquely demanding: often the only thing I go on is a good synopsis on the back cover and a good first page. It may be that by reading more classics, or at least older respected works, than contemporary novels I err on the side of caution.

Still you would think I would pick up at least one novel, classic or newbie, that would make me want to throw it against the wall. There were a few books I started this year and did not finish but in all cases (two or three at most) it was my fault rather than the author’s. I will be reading a book when, mysteriously, a *click* occurs near the back of my head on the left side very close to the middle. Once this happens I turn away from the book, hapless, for months at a time. Sometimes I only read at most four chapters other times I was smack in the middle. It happened with The Projectionist by Michael Helm (smack in the middle) and The Jeeves & Wooster omnibus (only a few chapters) this year. I stuck a bookmark in Emma but I did not actually start it.

This almost happened to My Name is Red by Pamuk. This is how book clubs are handy: the deadline for finishing is January 15th 2007. Poking this reminder at my brain repeatedly was enough to get me…nearly back on track. This is how mediocre Young Adult fantasies come in handy. After reaching smack in the middle of Endymion Spring I suddenly yearned to read anything but Blake Winters getting into another scrape. So Red shone brightly in my knapsack and I did dine on more of it and it was good.

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[Lolita is] the record of my love affair with the English language.
-Vladimir Nabokov

It’s just that when a group like Spank Rock achieves a certain status with tastemakers, so much of its ethos remains uncontested and unclear.
-Sean Fennessey, writing for Pitchforkmedia.com

We might all be better off if Nabokov had never made that pronouncement. I, for one, have the feeling that he is laughing at us from beyond the grave. When Nabokov described his novel in purely linguistic terms, he popularized a form of aestheticism that happens to work perfectly with modern consumer markets, and trapped us within the very patterns of behavior that the novel Lolita seeks to expose and satirize.

This aestheticism offers pleasure in its purest form, based entirely on the playfulness and elegance of language. Lolita, Nabokov reassures us, is not a girl. She is an opportunity for language. She is the occasion for his love affair with English, and our love affair with the resulting book. Naturally, whenever anyone tells you about Lolita, they hasten to relate the same old story about how it initially sickened them, until they fell in love with “the language of it.” If you are particularly unlucky, they will even tack on the quote from John Updike about Nabokov writing “ecstatically.” – Joseph Kugelmass

I have taken that quote from his excellent No Desert Island: Towards a Gutsy Aesthetics via Nabokov over at The Valve for my own less ambitious purposes. (But please go read it—the comment thread more than matches the quality of the entry.)

I instinctively cringed at Joseph’s description of a reader’s typical reaction to Lolita. I did wax on and on about the language, how amazed I was at Nabokov’s virtuosity which had been unmatched by any other author I had read this year save Borges’, how American the novel felt even though English was not Nabokov’s first or even second language and on and on. But, after further thought, I exonerated myself.

He did not describe my reaction after all for my experience was not one of being “initially sickened” by the subject matter then pleasurably overwhelmed by the novel’s aesthetics. I never stopped being sickened, repelled or critical of Humbert’s treatment of his first wife, Lolita or her mother. In fact I find it odd that people would be able to securely separate the action and themes of the novel from its aesthetics when both are intertwined and connected by their very existence. My experience with Lolita was one of continual ambivalence: of Humbert the fiercely intelligent, cultured, intellectual man whose insight, arrogance, egotism, his devious humour and brutal observations I could not help but admire or at least respect, who held such utter contempt for everyone around him (particularly adult women), who wilfully demonised his nymphets, setting them up as seductive Liliths and ruthlessly manipulated a 12 year old girl so that he could sexually abuse her at will.

Naturally he horrified me, but I horrified myself as well for wryly smiling when he plotted his wife’s murder as they both swam in the lake, with two men not too far off in the distant; for cackling at Nabokov’s sheer bravado in having a little girl handing Humbert the damning letters as he looked on, remorseless, at Charlotte’s death scene in front of their house; for feeling my eyes widen in marvel at the fearless beauty at Nabokov’s diction of that horrible scene where Humbert grasps his first opportunity to molest Lolita, undisturbed.

Under my glancing finger tips I felt the minute hairs bristle ever so slightly along her shins. I lost myself in the pungent but healthy heat which like summer haze hung about little Haze. Let her stay, let her stay… As she strained to chuck the core of her abolished apple into the fender, her young weight, her shameless innocent shanks and round bottom, shifted in my tense, tortured, surreptitiously laboring lap; and all of a sudden a mysterious change came over my senses. I entered a plane of being where nothing mattered, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body. What had begun as a delicious distention of my innermost roots became a glowing tingle which now had reached that state of absolute security, confidence and reliance not found elsewhere in conscious life. With the deep hot sweetness thus established and well on its way to the ultimate convulsion, I felt I could slow down in order to prolong the glow. Lolita had been safely solipsized. The implied sun pulsated in the supplied poplars; we were fantastically and divinely alone; I watched her, rosy, gold-dusted, beyond the veil of my controlled delight, unaware of it, alien to it, and the sun was on her lips, and her lips were apparently still forming the words of the Carmen-barmen ditty that no longer reached my consciousness. Everything was now ready. The nerves of pleasure had been laid bare. The corpuscles of Krause were entering the phase of frenzy. The least pressure would suffice to set all paradise loose
. Pg. 23, E-book copy

Nabokov’s romantic, playful, elevated, layered, astonishing prose gives us the degenerate as well as the pleasurable. The constant tug-of-war between the two, the entanglement of enthralling with the repulsive and my complex reaction to it all was what made the novel such an exceptional experience. It was like that from the start. I don’t really know how one could ignore one over the other and this is just as true for those who want it banned as those who quote Updike and revel uncritically in the novel’s offered ecstasy.

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4 Responses to "I’ve never read a bad book (this year) and thoughts on Lolita"

I enjoyed reading your description of the ‘click’ as this happens to me as well.

Oh good, glad I’m not the only one! I always feel guilty about it.

Imani (is that the right name to use?) thanks for your post! Your compliments are very kind, and for my part, I think the continual ambivalence you describe is a pre-condition for the best readings of a work as challenging as Lolita.

I instinctively cringed at John’s description…

🙂 Joe or Kugelmass is fine.

The Internet is a huge boon for people looking to avoid culture they won’t like: you can special-order what you want, and you can read a ton of opinions before ever opening the covers. I didn’t read too many bad books this year (aside from things I was forced to read), and the community of literary bloggers is one reason why.

Ouch! I corrected your name immediately. Apologies. “Imani” is the right name to use. 🙂

You’re right about the internet, especially litblogs, steering me interest and allowing me to choose books that I have little chance of throwing against the wall.

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