Oh, Lolita…

The novel Lolita, when mentioned in polite conversation, tends to invite a plethora of different responses. Some react with fascination, others with polite, yet barely disguised repulsion. Some refuse to discuss the novel, because of the sociopolitical significance it has. Others however recognise the novel as an artistic exploration of boundaries. I never quite know what to think of the novel, because I somehow cannot fathom the ideas it contains as ever being rational, or sensible, in any capacity. Whilst I have boundless amounts of respect for the author, Vladimir Nabokov, for being so brave in his exploration of the topic, I cannot help but be repulsed by the very fact that he thought to write it. Critically, I like his use of perspective, and narrative structure; however from a moral and emotional standpoint, I find the novel awkward to read, and to process emotionally. No matter how critical a mind you have, a novel tends to provoke some kind of emotional, instinctive response. This is where with Lolita, I struggle.

The most significant idea to remember however about the novel is that Nabokov sought to push the text away from the author’s grip completely; he chose to explore the death of the author, as prescribed by Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes. Their attitude towards literary criticism at the time, in the 1960s, was that it was too author focussed, and as such, was not real literary criticism, because it was really a criticism of a human being, as opposed to a text with literary structures, containing linguistics and concepts with a multiplicity of meaning.

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Lolita’s narrative structure seeks to toy with the reader; it uses suggestion and persuasion to call into question what the reader believes to be real. Humbert Humbert provokes empathy in a person but underneath his eloquent, even decadent pleas to “the ladies and gentlemen of the jury”, there is something underlying that is simply not quite right; there is a lack of sincerity, and instead of a wholesome confession, he steers the reader away from thinking about himself as a criminal. Instead he plays the part of the long-suffering hero, emphasising Lolita’s faults, as opposed to his own. The subversion of morality is fundamental to the novel.

I find that awkwardness can indeed occur when reading a novel, because, when it is well written, it is completely engaging; all-consuming as it were. Consider for example Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks. When reading the passages relating to the mining tunnels, I feel distinctly claustrophobic. I hate feeling trapped, and so the concept of the miners being caught completely alarms me. Lolita however makes me uncomfortable in a different way; not so much physically, but in that it almost feels dark, tainted even, by the sheer force of the perversion that drives the narrator to tell the story as he does. Interestingly however, he seems to completely accept that he is flawed, but also blames the girls he calls “nymphets” for being his poison; his warfarin, as it were. The rejection of complete responsibility for his actions, and the implication that everything is somehow Lolita’s fault for seducing him, is one of the fundamental elements of the novel because it highlights the mentality of Humbert Humbert, rather aptly I think. To this extent, he could be considered unstable, even insane, and indeed it is mentioned early in the novel, that he had been previously committed to a mental hospital. From the outset then, the reliability of the narrator is challenged, and so how can we, as readers, really believe that his version of events are true at all?

Lolita is an excellent novel however, and the mystique that surrounds it is very much a part of the censorship that also surrounds it. It’s a novel everyone should experience at least once in their lives, because without it, there’s a lack of perspective in terms of what can be done by an author, but not necessarily from the author’s perspective. The novel also has a certain page turning quality to it, so it’ll at least kill some time, whilst you process everything!

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(1) http://thewrittenwordreviews.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/lolita.jpg

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Good Afternoon, Mrs. Woolf

It is not an overstatement to say that Virginia Woolf and I have had a somewhat turbulent relationship; from adoration, to despair, to overriding hatred, and then finally a return to understanding and adoration. It has however, been rather one-sided. Over the years, from the beginning of my A-levels to the present day, I have been bound to read a variety of Virginia Woolf’s works; To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own… and so forth. It was very rare that I picked up Woolf of my own freewill (in fact, I’m not sure it has ever happened… ) because I found her fiction somewhat challenging, and as I found with Jane Austen, I thought that nothing really happened. Nothing of any note, at least. Nothing quite as gripping as a Robert Ludlum thriller; I felt it was all rather dry, focussing on the tiniest possible events in the upper middle class, bourgeois world in which she lived. As tends to happen however, I changed my mind.

To begin with, I was fascinated by To the Lighthouse, because whilst I found the prose itself beautiful, I deemed the novel a nemesis of mine; the unclear narrative, and the stream of consciousness technique has never been a particular favourite, largely because I am of the opinion that stream of consciousness has its platform, for instance in dreams, and in speech; however not written on a page, without any external context. I found it simply too dense, too difficult to relate to; it challenges all the boundaries of everything that was literature before the technique, and it is similar to linguistic doodling; pretty, perhaps; even beautiful, but nevertheless, without any coherent structure, and lacking in refinement.

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Orlando however was far more structured, however as tends to be the case with Virginia Woolf, some kind of boundary had to be pushed; in this case, it was the idea of gender. In the novel, the protagonist changes gender from a man to a woman, quite literally overnight; fundamentally however, she remains essentially the same in terms of person. I personally enjoyed Orlando, especially since it also includes a trip through the ages, over the course of Orlando’s life, from the Elizabethan Age to the 20th century. The protagonist is less a description of a person as opposed to a description of a persona; a symbolic representation of the fluidity of the concept of gender. For further information, Judith Butler’s essay on “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” is fascinating.

And so by the end of 2009, I was firmly against Virginia Woolf, and was seriously considering building a time machine so that I could have gone back, changed her mind about being an author, and subsequently saved myself the agony that was that particular essay. Fortunately this somewhat childish plan changed when I had to read A Room of One’s Own. For the first time, in any of Woolf’s writings, I found her engaging, even charming. The content of the essay was delicate; it suited the theme of feminism extremely well. As a result, I became a full-time lover of Virginia Woolf, abandoning the turbulence of our previous relationship.

An astonishing element of literature, and of one’s relationship with the author, is the fact that one work can open one’s eyes to the others; providing almost a key of understanding, and a different perspective. This of course questions Roland Barthes assertion that the author is dead; when a person forms their own perception of the author, and understands their background, education and ideas, this can open up the text to the reader. It can exist in its own right, however it can also be inaccessible in this way, and so understanding a biography is just one of the ways in which a text can be understood.

Overall then, I’ve fallen for Virginia Woolf. I’m feeling tempted to go back and revisit To the Lighthouse, to see if I appreciate the techniques a little more this time around; I suspect that everything could be understood with a little perseverance and the right sort of teaching. Everything except calculus, that is.

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(1) http://content.scholastic.com/yawyr/b1ea5c45effc84c098a1644f8e0179fd8b9085a2.jpg

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