Sunday, December 27, 2015

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

An erudite sarcastic pedophile takes the bobby soxed object of his lust on a road trip across the United States

Humbert Humbert, raised on the paradisiacal shores of the Mediterranean in the Hotel Mirana, is bathed in memories of his childhood girlfriend Annabel Leigh and their frantic unsuccessful attempts at love. After an unhappy marriage in Paris, with pit stops in several madhouses, Humbert tries his luck in America. This first person narrator lets us know, early on, that he is erotically attracted, not to fleshy women, but to frail nymphets, little girls on the cusp of puberty. These little girls are depicted, skating, skipping, and coming out of school. Humbert tries to be where they are. Through a series of fortunate plot twists, houses burning down, hips breaking, or Aubrey McFate, as he would say, he encounters Mrs. Haze, with a room to let, and Dolores, her twelve year old daughter. Fat Haze and little Haze. Circumstances conspire to leave him the sole guardian of Dolores. His original plan of drugging Lolita, as he calls her, to have his way with her, changes when the little girl apparently is up for coitus. In hiding, the pair flees across the country, giving Humbert an opportunity to sneer/admire the tawdry grandeur of America. Seeking respite, Humbert gets a job teaching French at a school very much like Wellesley College, enrolling the child in an all girls academy. As Humbert’s jealousy grows, the final part of the book turns farcical, as Humbert pursues the sex fiend who stole Lolita’s heart.

There are three parts to this book; 1) the amazing sentences completely precluding a “quick read”; 2) a love song to “America”; 3) a tragedy about lust and the ego and the inability to stop oneself from destroying another human being. Humbert presents himself as a monster. And he is. The book is split rather neatly in two. The tragedy presented in a cup of satire.

The sentences demand to be reread. This is not a book for skimming, because most of the enjoyment  comes from savoring the words. The sentences detonate – little knife twists with precise vocabulary choices –the high and the low.  I did not know the etymology of the word fascinate before. There are chunks of heavenly writing: The list of children’s names in Lolita/Dolores’s class. The amazing description of the tennis game, which also depicts his love for the girl and his love for life. Humbert views everything with a gimlet eye and right off the bat, the highly satirical truly tragical tone is taken.  The introduction has a deep emotional resonance once reread. Tragedy can’t be fixed.

I wonder if this is psychological accurate portrait of a pedophile. It seems like it is. In an extremely methodical fashion, he grooms her. Most of the time, Humbert is cruel, blinded to the little girl’s humanity. In many ways Lolita is a meditation on consent. He coerces her, maybe at first he seduces her. The book is not pornographic though its currency is the erect penis.  

The beautiful language; the paean to America, the tragedy of the destruction of a little girl’s life. And Lolita is no Little Nell. She’s a petulant brat. However, even a petulant brat deserves to have a childhood.  The plotting is a little wink wink: the hidden journal, the errant car, the house burning down. Nabokov must have enjoyed the thought of all the ignorant Americans scampering to the dictionary to look up the dirty word.

This is a masterpiece.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Aeneid by Virgil

A dispossessed man, harried (and helped) by the gods, founds a great race

Great warrior Aeneas must flee burning Troy with his father on his back and his little son by the hand. Reluctantly, he leads a band of warrior refugees, who trust in the prophecy that Aeneas will bring them to a new home. After some false starts, Aeneas and his followers land in Carthage, where the happy citizens are building a well ordered city under the active leadership of their wise compassionate queen Dido. Cupid, god of love, tricks Dido into falling in love with Aeneas, assisted by Aeneas’s evocative telling of the fall of Troy. Their first tryst is a humdinger, complete with divinely provided lightning bolts and a heavenly chorus of nymphs. But soon Aeneas is brought to his senses by winged Mercury, who brings him a message from big guy Jupiter – get back into those ships. After a quick visit to Hades, Aeneas travels to Italy, where he woos the daughter of the king of Latium. Her fiancĂ© isn’t too happy about that and the last half of the book tells the story of war madness and furious battles.

I enjoyed this poem, a work dense with imagery and metaphor. Every lively stanza provides a glimpse into human nature, which seems not to have changed that much in two thousand years.  I loved all the stories and storylets, such as Venus and Vulcan in their bedroom as she talks him into making Aeneas’s armor. Maybe this is a story about storytelling. Also notable is the depiction of woman. There was an emotional equality between the sexes. As well as Camilla, warrior princess.

There are two parts – the first, quite memorable with amazing imagery, recounting the fall of Troy, the screwed up affair with sympathetic Dido, the trip into Hades to see his father. The second part is a series of boilerplate, if very cinematic, battles – it’s like a sword and sandals epic. Aeneas is presented as gentle, uxorious, not naturally bloodthirsty, though in the final stanza, he is a heartless killing machine. He is always torn between what he wants to do and what he must do to help his people. He must turn into a monster in order to found a great race. Maybe it’s like a Godfather II from the first century BC.

I wish I knew Latin and Greek so I could really appreciate the allusions and the echoes with the Iliad and the Odyssey. I also found it interesting that this was a state sponsored epic.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Bear by Marian Engel

An academic researcher is sent into the woods

Lou, a woman most comfortable in the stacks of an urban library, who “does not like the cold air on her skin,” accepts an assignment to catalog the papers of the eccentric Colonel Cary. This means Lou must travel to remote Cary Island in the far north of Ontario to sift through books in the Colonel's large historically significant house. Lou is asked to perform one additional duty -- feed Colonel Cary’s pet bear, a smelly animal chained in the back. An ancient First Nations woman advises Lou to shit near the bear in order to establish a good relationship. Lou takes that advice, and enters into a deeper connection with the wordless very powerful strangely compelling bear.

I really loved this – an insane tale, told in perfectly modulated language, a fantastical fable embedded in a realistic straightjacket. Everything is recognizably, even proudly, Canadian: the silent imposing bear, the black flies and their bloody bites, the stiff upper lip. The woods. The imposition of western civilization on the wilderness is shown as sort of silly. The characters in this mythic story have a little wiggle room in their assigned roles, although the librarian definitely has to be a librarian, and the bear definitely has to be a bear. But the colonel is not quite a colonel. Lou starts to love being alone on Cary Island with the deteriorating books and the Colonel’s notes on bears and the completely at ease bear itself. That bear and his strikingly long strikingly thick tongue. Bears have tongues and bears have claws and the bear teaches Lou about both.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

Years later, a woman relates the affair she had with her father

Kathryn, the accidental child of two teenagers, is raised by her elderly grandparents. Her immature mother makes a point to display her resentment. Her father, asked by the grandparents to disappear, fails to see Kathryn for years on end. When Kathryn is at college, her parents reconnect for the weekend, a weekend in which her father grows besotted with his daughter’s grown up blonde beauty, so like his own. Kathryn also realizes her parents have resumed their sexual relationship. At the airport, her father, a Presbyterian minister (!), sticks his tongue in her mouth. This is the eponymous kiss. She drops out of college, accompanies him to his parents’ house. That night, he enters her room, lifts her nightgown, and performs oral sex on her. He pesters and pesters her for coitus, and finally she agrees. For four years, their affair continues. He is sexually possessive and eventually brings her to live into his house with his wife and kids. Finally her unhappy mother dies of cancer, crystalizing Kathryn's disgust at her participation in the relationship.  The affair is over.

This short slight memoir read like a horror movie, impossible to put down. The dread, the compulsion. The tongue kiss at the airport is like the scaly monster appearing from behind the bedroom door. The story, which took place long in the past, is narrated in present tense, heightening the narrator's passivity, the lack of thinking things through. Most characters are depicted as horrid and there is not the slightest hint of humor. What seems a little unbelievable is Kathryn’s complete lack of agency in a four year sexual affair, but I accepted that an emotionally abandoned young woman could be fascinated by a longed for father’s fascination, and also that her father seduced her, in the old fashioned usage of the word. Led astray. Like a trick.

The structure is more than a little by the numbers, a kiss at the beginning, a kiss at the end, a journey into darkness. The structure is necessary, I think, because the material is so dangerously hot. Rich with symbols. The long hair, the fat body, the thin body. It’s all about mortification and a teenage girl’s masochism. Dad is definitely presented as creepy, or at least an excellent candidate for character assassination. It would have been interesting to get his point of view.