Friday, June 25, 2010

Reading Lolita in Chengde

I'm surprised to find that several people commented on my last post, which leads me to believe I'm not the only nerd in my circle of facebook friends who is in love with books. And now the heat is on to actually follow through with this task. I haven't felt this kind of pressure in awhile, the kind of pressure I often felt in college. It's been awhile since I've had "homework." I've already noticed it's doing me some good. I've been paying more attention as I read, as I'm often guilty of dazing off during difficult or boring books. Sometimes I'll read an entire page without having processed a word of it. When I read for pleasure I don't do much analysis, which is actually part of the fun of reading (although it's a lot of work and it definitely helps to have other people in the discussion). I'm finding that in "Lolita," there is a lot to analyze.

I started the novel knowing a little bit about Nabokov's "Lolita." I had read Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran," which, as you can guess from the title, discusses the book (among others). To be honest, I find it shocking that young Iranian girls could get through it. "Lolita" couldn't even get a U.S. publisher when it was finished in 1953, forcing Nabokov to publish it in Paris. Nearly 60 years later, this novel still manages to cover some rather unorthodox territory. My friend Whitney once commented that novels tend to win awards and praise based on their shock value. I find this is one such book that could fit into such a category. Not that it's poorly written, the author has a clever style filled with puns, innuendos, and word coinages (such as referring to young girls as "nymphets"). My issue with this book is more with the protagonist and narrator, Humbert Humbert (HH), who is an outright pedophile. He adores prepubescent girls and isn't afraid to talk about it. I try to be open-minded, I do. I realize that pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder, but no mater how you slice it nobody much cares for a pedophile.

I feel like I should be enraged at the author for his assumption that it's okay to give his an audience a peek into this strange and demented world where a man fantasizes about 11-year-olds and visits 14-year-old prostitutes. I should be angry that he would even write about such a topic and horrified that he is able to write about it so deftly. Yet, after 90 pages, I can't helped but get sucked in. While I don't trust much of what HH says, he is funny. He is also pathetic. Though he is struggling to keep his perverseness under wraps, I find myself with little sympathy for him, probably because I know where this is all going. HH has yet to defile his beloved step-daughter Lolita, but his innocence won't last long.

In all fairness, there is much more to this book than what's on the surface--this is not merely about a step-father sleeping with his tween step-daughter. First, Lolita is proving to be a tiny vixen herself, but since she is only 12, can we really assign her any of the blame? When is someone truly a victim and when are they partly responsible for their own victimization? Where is the line between decency and indecency? Do thoughts make you guilty of a crime or only actions? One author, Martin Amis, asserts that "Lolita" is actually a story about tyranny and totalitarianism. Clearly, there is a lot to think about here. I'll let you know if I come to any conclusions once I've finished.

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