Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Reading Lolita in Alexandria

I have a terrible confession to make and today seems as good as any. I started re-reading Lolita in February, and I got about halfway through it and could go no further. The book sits in limbo on my nightstand. Yes, the writing and language are beautiful. Yes, the narrator is unreliable and the writer is playing games with us. Yes, the book captures America in all its quirkiness. Yes, the characters are deep and complex. Yes, Humbert is self-loathing and clever. Yes, there’s a moment of redemption at the end. Yes, yes, yes.

But Humbert Humbert is GROSS and what he’s doing is WRONG. I shocked myself by not being able to overcome these feelings of repulsion. (Keep in mind that I recently recommended a unsympathetic book here that explores the psychology of the mother of a boy who commits a Columbine-style mass murder…so I don’t think of myself as shirking from tough stuff.)

I know that Lolita is considered a modern masterpiece. And I read the book twice in college for classes and at the time thought it was brilliant (not that there was a choice in one of the classes, since the professor was the man who’d written the annotated version:* his way or the highway). But I memorized the famous opening paragraph, recited it to my boyfriend, who memorized it too. It’s beautiful poetry; I thought it was a beautiful book.

Now, I can’t help but notice that both professors who assigned the book were men. Does that make a difference—or did it at the time? (The book wasn’t assigned in my Women’s Studies class.)

Or is it that now we know that much more about sexual abuse and its horrible aftermath? All I could think about as I read was how screwed up poor little Dolores was going to be (not that she was on the road to normal with that crazy mother, but still). And yes, if she weren’t Lolita, she wouldn’t be remembered; she wouldn’t be immortalized. Even as an artist myself though, there has to be a line drawn. Or was Faulkner right in his famous Nobel speech: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” Does art trump all?

Anyway, today I’m conceding defeat and moving the book off my nightstand. I seem to remember that there were a couple books that came out within the past ten years or so from Lolita’s point of view. Maybe all turned out swell for little Lolita and she lived happily ever after…ha!

*Yikes! On amazon, this version is paired with Model Student: A Tale of Co-eds and Cover Girls!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.