Friday, December 23, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life - 75 ( Lolita - pronounced Lo-lee-ta - a Vladimir Nabokov masterpiece)

Jottings : Slice of life - 75 ( Lolita - pronounced Lo-lee-ta , “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta….” - a Vladimir Nabokov masterpiece)
In 1955 Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian emigre, educated in Trinity college, England, naturalized citizen of America, produced one of the greatest and most controversial novels of the twentieth century: “Lolita”. The book could not published in the US and its first printed edition had to come out of Paris, where bars of censorship were always not very high. It was only in 1958, that America relented to publish Lolita; and when it did, hell broke loose in all quarters. Readers did not know what to make of this novel : Puritan parents read few pages and threw the book away never to expose their children to such unadulterated pornography, Young male adults surreptitiously read the book under blankets with torch in hand, or hiding in secluded corners basking in its brilliant description of sexual concupiscence; sections of young American female readers were shocked to find their innermost desires so explicitly exposed, but majority were repulsed at its pedophilic connotations and sexual acts reasoned away as psychological aberrations of a rational and scholarly man; connoisseurs of language however loved the book for its lyrical prose, sublime metaphors and inspired use of language; Literary critics were astonished to find an almost flawless narrative style chiseled to perfection with hardly a misplaced word, paragraph or comma; Social critics and armchair intellectuals compared the story as symbolic of American consumerism, uninhibited voyeurism and sense of vulgar mimetism - in all, the book roused and appealed to almost anybody who had a passing interest in life, art, books and literature. When the storm dissipated, and many readers reread the novel with serene eyes, It was then Lolita began to emerge as a piece of fiction that embodied meditations of a modern age and a mirror reflecting cultural cross currents, moral ambivalence and sexual deviations sweeping through the west.
The story of Lolita is pretty straightforward. The protagonist Humbert Humbert is of European descent, educated, articulate, masculine with misplaced sense of sexuality. He lusts after young nubile flesh. Not in a carnal sense of forcefully deflowering them, but his body responds with overpowering intensity to budding pubescent young girls with pony tails and pock-marked skin, quivering on the threshold of adulthood. They aroused him. A failed frustrated sexual encounter during his younger days with one such girl finds its morally devastating consummation years later in the daughter of his landlord in America - Dolores Haze aka Lolita. By that time Humbert has learnt to rationalize his craving, and yearns to strike a fine balance between not hurting the girl physically or emotionally, yet at the same time gratify his insatiable need for sexual gratification. Lolita meets a tragic end, and Humbert is bought to trial for rape and child molestation. The entire story is narrated in first person singular as Humbert's justification of his acts. He addresses a Jury, and through them the readers - to whom he wishes to objectify and explain his uninhibited passion, the circumstances leading to his sexual apotheosis , and the true nature of his love and attraction for “Lolita”.
Anyone who attempts to read Lolita today in the 21st century will probably not flinch as much as their predecessors did. In the last sixty odd years since Lolita was published, sexual morality, its visual depiction in commercial pornography, movies and endless sexual bombardment in all forms in printed media and television has perhaps fogged the moral lens of our age. Today, Lolita will not offend you at all. At the most, we may feel a little sympathetic . Thats all. Moral standards are always relative and ever changing. What was deplorable once becomes acceptable next. To modern day readers, Lolita may indeed seem very puerile and many would wonder what the noise all about. Unlike “Lady Chatterly’s lover” written and published by DH Lawrence in 1929, which shattered Old English morality and was finally published in England only in 1960, after numerous lawsuits, debates and corrections; Nabokov refused to touch or edit a word of what he had written. There were expurgated editions of his book available, but none authorized or endorsed by him. He was convinced, and so are social commentators today that America in the fifties was indeed giving birth to a culture which provoked sexual promiscuity. The bill boards, commercials, fashion statements of young boys and girls , the post world war boom - all nurtured unbridled consumerism, and more importantly precocious consumption of it. Nabokov marvelously evokes the era, its cultural stereotypes in his plush, inimitable prose.
If one reads Lolita carefully, it becomes clear that Nabokov doesn't not justify anything. He throws a moral conundrum at his readers, asking them to resolve it in their own way. He simply asks : what does a Man do when he has an urge for nymphets ( thats the word he uses for young girls of his liking) and there is provocation all around. Lolita’s innocent behavior, her unassuming sexuality coupled with Humbert's inner resistance, his scheming brain produce an environment of frictional heat and lust. While Humbert painfully realizes in few poignant pages in the book that his fatal attraction to Lolita is indeed deviant, and may have robbed Lolita of her childhood, innocence and ultimately her life; he quickly recovers from such bouts of introspection with the thought he tried his best to control his urge, and thats the best he could do under the circumstance. Was that enough or not - is a question for us readers, and not for Humbert Humbert or Nabokov, his creator.
I reread Lolita a month ago. This time with the eyes of a lover of literature. For sheer beauty of language, felicity of expression and intensity of story telling - Lolita is probably unsurpassed or unsurpassable. It was almost as if Nabokov was proving a point to his western readers that a Russian emigre soaked in the Pushkin, Dostovoesky and Tolstoy’s flair for story telling and language could outdo the very best of English bred authors. Like a peacock showing off its plumes, Nabokov’s unleashes his literary and lingual virtuosity to an open jawed audience. One cannot take our eyes off Nabokov’s sentences. They are sculpted, chiseled, pruned and laid out to perfection. If mesmerizing is an epithet which can be applied to prose, it is Nabokov’s.
Since the 1970’s, especially after Nabokov’s death, Lolita has been regarded one of the most influential novels of the last century , and definitely the most elegant prose ever written. Lolita is now standard text in many undergraduate programs in top universities. Matters sexual have always been taboo, and youngsters often find themselves unable to come to terms or express themselves freely on this innermost need at the right time in their lives. A discussion on Lolita’s text, meaning and symbolism can be a catalyst for such discussions. The other day, I heard Monica Greenleaf, a very articulate and balanced professor of slavic studies in Stanford mention during a podcast how certain paragraphs of Lolita evokes deep reactions from her students, which otherwise is lost while studying literature. Art has be to a catharsis. Thats why the Greeks invented tragedy and drama. Similarly , written literature should hold a mirror to our souls. Sometimes, what we see there may not be pleasing and socially correct, but that does not mean it is invisible or not there. The quicker we get to terms with it, the better for us as individuals and for society all round..
If you are a lover of literature and have not yet read Lolita, I request you to attempt reading this wonderful book. Its an experience unlike anything else you may have encountered.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala



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