Sunday 3 February 2019

Books and treats on a mild, melty winter morning...

The weather has warmed up considerably over the past two days, and now everything is squishy and melting with the mild temperatures.  I don’t love this kind of weather, preferring instead a crisp, cold day, but I realize I’m in the minority and we take what we get. So I plan to make the most of it by going out for a long walk later if the rain holds off.  But for now I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar… mmmmm… (My friend has a blog where she posts weekly, and this week she had a quote that she found on Pintrest that said “Without tea there is only darkness and chaos”... I agree totally!!)
Since Freedom to Read Week is always celebrated in February, my Volunteer Book Group met yesterday to discuss our “banned book”.  This year we chose Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and WOW, what a discussion we had!  In case you are unfamiliar with the plot of this 1950’s novel and have missed both the original film and the remake, here is a brief summary.  Humbert Humbert, a man imprisoned for murder, is penning his story on the advice of his therapist. It begins when he is just a boy in Paris.  During a summer vacation at a beach when he was twelve years old, he fell in love with a young girl, Annabel Leigh, with whom he became obsessed. They make many attempts to explore each other, but their efforts are continually thwarted, and their last attempt occurs in a hidden cove on this beach. He is just at the point of “possessing” his darling when they are interrupted by ribald bathers; four months later, Annabel died of typhus, and poor Humbert grows up with stunted sexual development.  He is only interested in what he refers to as “nymphets”, young girls between approximately the ages of eight and thirteen who display an advanced knowledge of sexual behaviour, perhaps “coquettish” is the word I’m looking for, but even more than playful flirtation, more a sense of sexual maturity and even provocation. He does his best to satisfy himself with youthful-looking prostitutes, and even marries, but his efforts are doomed and he spends several stretches of time in sanatoriums in Europe and Quebec. He ends up traveling to America to fulfil a position with a distant cousin, a tutoring post, but when he arrives, a tragedy has occurred and he must find alternate housing and employment.  He goes to check out a room for rent, and is completely put off by the flirtations of the house’s owner, widow Charlotte Haze. He's decided to head back to Europe when he spies her young daughter, eleven-year-old Dolores, sunbathing in the backyard. He is sure that this is his Annabel returned to him, and, against his better judgement, he takes the room. What happens next are a series of events that lead him to take Dolores/Dolly/Lo/Lolita on a cross-country spree spent in motels and inns while they feign a father-daughter relationship in public and carry on as lovers in private. Remember, though, Lolita is just twelve years old, and Humbert is thirty-seven, and this is not a situation involving two willing and equal partners.  What results is a power struggle as Humbert tries to keep up the facade as well as keeping control of Lolita as she struggles to pretend to be leading a “normal” life for an adolescent. I’ve read this book before and have not enjoyed it in the past, and I did not enjoy it this time either. I found the main character loathsome and the subject matter reprehensible. I was particularly disgusted by the lengthy descriptions, on every page for at least half of the book, of the sexual experiences in which Humbert and Lolita engage, or rather, that Humbert, through master/servant power play, forces her to participate in. I will admit, however, that the language was poetic and it was beautifully written. This book was banned in France and England in the 1950s, as well as in Argentina and New Zealand.  This publicity only helped with the popularity of the novel in the US, and while controversial, it is often named as one of the 100 greatest novels published in the 20th century. There were four of us at the meeting, and two of the members listened to this as an audiobook, narrated by Jeremy Irons (who played Humbert Humbert in the 1997 remake of the film). They seemed to have a better opinion of the character and the novel as a whole than the two of us who read the print version. They especially appreciated the poetic language Nabokov used. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, the language was more poetic in the first half of the novel, but seemed to deteriorate, like Humbert’s psyche, in the latter half; while still clever, it lacked the poetry of the earlier part. The audiobook members had never read this before, and one didn’t know anything about it, so it was a shock, “a real eye-opener”, for her.  It was a lively and heated discussion, as we all had different opinions on the various aspects of the novel we were able to touch on in the 90-minute period we were together. One of the main themes running through the novel is Humbert’s inability to move beyond his experience with Annabel, and his regular references to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee” - I read the poem aloud to the group, and we all felt that it gave insight into Humbert’s mindset. We felt that, regardless of how we felt about the subject matter, we had to appreciate the cleverness and poetry of the language and the descriptions of deep emotions. One member felt that this novel was “educational”, and we wondered how Nabokov could imagine what a character such as Humbert would be feeling or experiencing (but we had to resist thinking that this was autobiographical!). We discussed the complicity of Lolita, her choices, her options, and what power she held in this relationship.  We thought Lolita was a tragic character, because she lost her childhood, and we wondered if she could ever lead a normal life. We felt that the thing that made Humbert’s actions most reprehensible was the fact that it was not an honest relationship; he never married Lolita and admitted publicly that they were husband and wife, which would have legitimized their sexual relationship. Instead, they pretended to be father and daughter in public and were illicit lovers in private, but neither relationship was real. One member made a comment relating to something that happens later in the novel by pointing out that sometimes marriage isn’t an opportunity to go into something, but to leave something. We discussed and discussed and discussed, and when I finally had to leave because I had to be somewhere, the others were still discussing… I hope I didn’t miss too much! It was an excellent book club selection, and there were so many more things we could have discussed, but I can absolutely see why this book was banned, and continues to be challenged.
On that note, I’ll close with a link to the list of the 100 most banned or challenged books (, in the hopes that you will exercise your freedom to read by picking one up and reading it today!
Bye for now…

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