Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reading Lolita in the US

So today is probably a good day to work on editing my most recent short story as it's set on a cold night, and it is FREEZING here this morning.  We keep the heat set very low in our house because of my breathing issues and our giant dog (who LOVES the cooler temps) and, let's be honest, the savings.  But now I can put my shivering and layering down to suffering for my art, like "The Method" for writers.  I feel so meta.

Speaking of meta, what could be more meta than reading a book about reading books?  A few weeks ago, I read the memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi.  (Yes, I know I'm seriously late to that party.  It came out in 2003.)  The book explores the plight of women (and in particular, academic women) in Iran.  I admit that it's a tough read for a feminist (or I'm hoping, for anyone.)  These women endure such violence and oppression just for lacking a Y chromosome.  Never mind that they are trying to get an education and learn something about the world outside their narrow existences.  Professor Nafisi writes about a secret book club/class that she taught for women she'd encountered before she was ousted from her university jobs for "subversive" behavior.

The memoir is made even more powerful by its structure. It is divided into sections named after the individual books they studied, western books that are forbidden in Iran.  Remembrances and commentary are interspersed between literary analysis in a construction that is so seamless as to be nearly invisible.  Because Nafisi is something of a Nabakov expert (she's written a book about him), much of her most passionate and detailed writing is in the "Lolita" chapter.  There are so many parallels between these women's experiences and those of the title character, and Nafisi seems to feel the resonance deeply.

Because I recently read this book (and another) that referenced Lolita heavily, I felt it was finally time to read this much maligned and praised novel.  I'd been warned many times that it is a difficult read, but I was undaunted.  It seemed like a big gap in my reading, and I was determined to fill it quickly.  So this weekend, I purchased Lolita (the 50th anniversary edition, not the annotated one which was really pricey.) I began it late Saturday night after finishing an admittedly frothy Amy Tan novel, so the transition was a little tricky.  Nevertheless, I'm plodding forward.

At first the most challenging part was all the French that the narrator uses.  (I knew I should have taken French and not Spanish in high school and college.)  Also there is the rather convoluted language that H.H. uses in his narration.  At least he admits it: "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."  So there is humor.  And the narrator is highly educated and well-read.  I was making progress.  Then I reached the point where H.H. encounters the titular character, and all bets were off.  I am still chipping away at his attempted seduction of the twelve year old.

First let me say, I get it.  I realize that this isn't a book about pedophilia.  I understand that Nabakov is making far bigger points here.  This doesn't make it any easier to read about a grown man drooling over a child.  And I haven't even gotten to the point where he does more than pine from a distance. I may need a drink or two to get through that part.

Of course, this is not the first time I've read a difficult book (difficult in terms of stomach-churning content.)  Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin was not an easy read, and getting through the last hundred pages was almost untenable.  But there's something so much more repellant about Nabakov's unreliable narrator.  Maybe it's the perversion.  But maybe, some of it is the self-delusion.  Self-delusion is frightening to anyone who is even remotely self-aware because we know we all do it but by very definition are not able to see it in ourselves.  What are any of us capable of doing, of justifying in our own minds?  Sure, it may not be assaulting a child (at least I hope that's a rarity), but it's something.  We're all capable of doing something truly terrible.  And perhaps that's the most stomach churning part of all.

No comments:

Post a Comment