controversy

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVES BY BORIS VIAN

At one time I would actively avoid pain and unhappiness, torture and murder, in my reading. I called those who sought out that kind of thing literary ambulance chasers. And yet over the last twelve months I have found myself increasingly indulging in it too, even though it still disturbs and upsets me. I justified it to myself as a newly developed interest in the history of outré, extreme or anti literature, and the decadent, erotic and gothic genres; and while that interest is genuine I didn’t ask myself why, or what motivated it. Then, as I read Boris Vian’s discomforting I Spit On Your Graves, it occurred to me that it is, at least to some extent, because I am, and have been for over a year, deeply unhappy myself. In part, this is due to my personal circumstances, but I’m also angry and hurt by what is happening in the world at large. While I still feel compassion for others, I now realise that I am probably drawn to books that confirm this negative world view, the view that people are essentially full of shit and life is mostly viciousness, pettiness, vapidity and suffering.

“Nobody knew me at Buckton. That’s why Clem picked the place; besides, even if I hadn’t had a flat, I didn’t have enough gas to get any farther north. Just about a gallon. I had a dollar, and Clem’s letter, and that’s all. There wasn’t a thing worth a damn in my valise, so let’s not mention it. Hold on: I did have in the bag the kid’s little revolver, a miserable, cheap little .22 caliber pea-shooter.”

These days, Boris Vian is most well-known for the cute, some would say twee, love story L’Écume des jours. He wrote I Spit On Your Graves, which as previously suggested is decidedly not cute nor twee, in two weeks as a genre exercise. On face value, it is a passable, better than average, and certainly readable, example of hard-boiled noir in which a man arrives in a town and seeks to take revenge upon some of the inhabitants for the murder of his younger brother. The narrator, Lee Anderson, is engagingly, typically, broad-shouldered and mean; and the supporting cast also conform to expectations, which is to say that the men are hard-drinkers and the women – who make up the majority – are hot-to-trot. Moreover, while Vian didn’t have the best ear for noir dialogue and one-liners, there are a few memorable wise-cracks, such as when Lee says of Dexter’s father that he was ‘the sort of man you feel like smothering slowly with a pillow’ or when he is asked what he intends to do with the Asquith sisters and he replies that ‘any good looking girl is worth doing something with.’

What makes Anderson, and therefore the book as a whole, unusual is that he is a black man who looks like a white man. Nearly all noir is political, because it is so class conscious; it deals almost exclusively with the lower – a word I use economically, not necessarily morally – elements of society and with crime. However, not often, or certainly not when the book was written, is race a factor. In I Spit On Your Graves, race is used, first of all, as a motivation for murder, as Anderson’s brother was killed by white people and it is white people upon whom he wants revenge. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is also used as a weapon. Anderson is able to pass amongst the whites because he looks like them. Using the stealth of his appearance, he targets two young, local white girls, who he intends to bed and then dispose of. Crucially, he wants them to know that they were fucked by a black man before he kills them, as he believes that this will horrify them.

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It is worth pointing out before going any further that the book was originally published under the name Vernon Sullivan. This was not, moreover, an ordinary pseudonym. In a move that put him in the same position as his central character, Vian – a white Frenchman – took on the disguise of a black American, going so far as to pen a preface in which Sullivan outlines the intention or philosophy behind his work. That Vian would not want his own name associated with the book is not surprising, as a story this controversial and relentlessly grim might have been career suicide. However, I feel as though his decision to use a persona, especially that of a black man, was an unfortunate one. First of all, if you are going to write something like I Spit On Your Graves, in which I imagine Vian believed he was making serious, important points about his society, you ought to have the balls to claim it as your own, and not try and palm it off on the very elements of that society that you feel are unjustly treated. Secondly, using Vernon Sullivan strikes me as an attempt to give his opinions and ideas authenticity, as though he understood himself that a successful white Frenchman speaking for disenfranchised black America suggests a lamentable, almost offensive, level of arrogance.

In his preface, Vian has Sullivan express his contempt for the ‘good nigger, those that the white people tapped affectionately on the back in literature.’ He goes on to explain his intention to write a novel in which ‘negroes’ are shown to be as tough as white men. And, well, while I understand what Vian was getting at, vis-a-vis a patronising attitude towards black people in literature, he doesn’t show Lee Anderson to be merely tough, but rather he shows him to be all the stereotypes that were/are expected of a black male. He is athletically built, criminal, violent and sex obsessed. There is barely a paragraph that goes by in which the narrator is not lusting after one young teenage girl or other. Sex is – far more than revenge, or his brother, or injustice – almost all he thinks about. Furthermore, one also has to ask why all the girls that Anderson sleeps with, and in some cases rapes, are underage. I struggled to understand the relevance of that. It felt seedy, nasty, and pointless. To have made them of age, in their twenties for example, would not have altered the story at all, except to make it marginally less disturbing. But maybe that was the point: Vian wanted his novel to be as unpleasant as possible, but to what end I do not know.

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JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

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The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.

I BURN PARIS BY BRUNO JASIENSKI

Her name is Laure. And the place is Paris. Her name, which she dislikes because of its ubiquity in that city, was given to her by her parents precisely for that reason: so that she would fit in. I met her in Le Piano Vache, a bar on Rue Laplace. With a typical male predatory instinct, I waited until her friend had gone to the toilet before approaching her. When I introduced myself she laughed at l’englishman ivre. Her voice was like the tinkling of small bells; when I heard it I felt as though I was being called to worship. I told her she was beautiful; she told me she was Algerian. I did not understand.

In Paris, she said, there is no solidarity. You would not love me; and I could not love you. I am not French here; not Parisian. Only to you I am. She sounded gay; I suspected that she could not sound anything but gay. They are obsessed and now I am obsessed too, and it is because we are all scared. The way she told it there was no Paris at all, only a number of independent communities or small states eyeing each other suspiciously, each convinced that the others are intent on killing them. She made it sound like a large-scale Mexican stand-off, one that would inevitably descend into bloody chaos when the strain of inaction became too much to bear.

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I took Laure out once. She was right, we were destined not to love each other; but not for the reason she had envisioned. I had to return to England, of course; and, although we stayed in touch for a while, eventually she became just another in a series of my life’s small, but still painful endings. However, what she said to me that first night still plays on my mind; it troubled me that someone could feel that way, could live feeling despised and dispossessed in the city that they ought to be able to call home. Motivated by a desire to explore, or indulge, these thoughts and feelings, I initially picked up Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris, but, for all its virtues, its light and airy tone was like eating candyfloss; it upset my stomach with its sugary sweetness.

Yet with literature, much like with music, there is, if you look long enough, or know where to look, always something out there to suit your mood; whatever your feelings, whatever your ideas, someone else will have had them before you and fixed them on paper. It was, therefore, only a matter of time before I came upon Bruno Jasieński’s I Burn Paris. First published in 1928, the novel, which was apparently met with a fair amount of controversy when it saw the light of day, ostensibly deals with an outbreak of plague in the French capital. As one would expect, the spread of the disease results in Paris being essentially quarantined by the authorities. But more interesting than this is the effect it has on the general population, not physically but psychologically.

“Left to their own devices, the police found themselves for the first time in a troublesome quandary. Suddenly stripped of the compass of the law, unable to decide which of the emergent governments should be considered lawful, and realizing the fictitiousness of any government outside the ring of the cordon, the unemployed blue people swiftly came to realize that they were less real creatures with every passing day, becoming metaphysical fiction.”

We are, of course, all aware that one day we will cease to exist, but for many of us this knowledge is stored away in one of the least accessible corners of our minds as we carry on with our mundane lives. A tragedy such as a plague epidemic, however, makes this impossible, and Jasieński’s novel includes some impressive writing about what it is like to make sustained eye contact with almost certain death. My favourite passage in this regard involves the rich American David Lingslay who is said to safeguard the ‘wretched formulation of hope, that one percent chance of salvation, somewhere deep inside him, like a nestling coddled in his bosom.’ There is, moreover, also the suggestion that some of the inhabitants of Paris consider themselves to be, in a sense, superior to the disease. The Jews, for example, believe it to be a punishment that has ‘descended upon Aryan Paris for their centuries of oppressing the Jewish nation’, and, as such, they – the Jews – will naturally be ‘spared’.

While for the Jews the catastrophe is arrogantly deemed to be a sign of favour, others actively seek to use it to their advantage. Indeed, according to the author, the plague ‘levelled social stratification,’ such that Lingslay cannot, despite the ‘gravity of his surname’, arrange to leave the city. As a consequence of this levelling, this shuffling of the cards, men like Captain Solomin, an emigre Russian, who had been working as a taxi driver prior to the outbreak, are able to gain power and prestige. Similarly, the communists view the plague, not necessarily as a punishment for certain groups, but as a convenient, welcome, event that will eradicate, or at least weaken, their enemies  – the bourgeoisie – and give them a chance to create a proletariat, communist Paris.

What ought to be clear at this point is that Jasieński’s vision, his take on humanity and its impulses and behaviour, has much in common with Laure’s. When faced with this hardship, these difficulties, the people of Paris, in both the novel and the experience of my friend, do not come together, they move even further apart. In fact, in I Burn Paris there is an organised division, i.e recognised independent city-states are created, some along racial  or national lines – Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Anglo-American, etc – and others social. Once this separation takes place, these groups indulge their prejudices or biases; the opposing city-states become other and therefore something to be feared, denigrated, ridiculed and ultimately eradicated. ‘Russians are savages’, one character thinks to himself, and one cannot but see in this the similarly absolute, and similarly misguided, belief that ‘Muslims are terrorists.’

“Your science, of which you are so proud and which we travel here to study, is not a system of tools to help man conquer nature, but rather to help Europe conquer non-Europe, to exploit weaker continents. This is why we despise your Europe and why we come here to study you so fervently. Only by mastering the achievements of your science will we be able to shed the yoke of your oppression.”

In the small number of reviews of that I have encountered there seemed to be an emphasis upon the important role of socialist politics in the book, even to the point of suggesting that it is a kind of [sometimes morally dubious] anti-capitalist manifesto. However, I find it difficult to reconcile this view with what I read. Certainly, there is discussion of socialist politics and concerns, and Pierre, who sets the story in motion, is made redundant as a result of France’s ‘lousy economic condition.’ Yet while you might argue that unemployment is responsible for the plague, that it motivates Pierre to act, Jasieński makes it clear that, to quote his own first line, things that are ‘private in nature’ are equally or more significant. For me, the first section of I Burn Paris is, at heart, about jealousy. Yes, Pierre loses his job, but he also loses Jeanette, and, for the remainder of his life, sees her, or imagines her, in the company of other men everywhere he goes.

To his credit, the author avoids lazy moralising by giving depth to, or breathing some life into, his characters. For example, the adult P’an Tsiang-kuei is a psychopathic communist, who thinks nothing of killing for the greater good [where have we heard that before?]; but we are also allowed access to his backstory, his history, as a mistreated orphan. We come to see how he became what he is, and it felt kosher to me. I believed it, and I believed in P’an. In Jasieński’s world, as in the real world, there are no absolute villains [or heroes]. People frequently do bad things, but in most cases one understands their motivations, even if one does not agree with the resulting act or behaviour. Another example of this is when a Japanese deliberately infects the man who ordered the death of his wife. Indeed, I Burn Paris is full of wonderful, often moving, minor portraits; and this is, I believe, its greatest strength. ‘You cannot feel concern for everyone,’ Jasieński writes at one point, and yet his own work goes some way to disproving this statement.

SABBATH’S THEATER BY PHILIP ROTH

It seems to me that Philip Roth is the one author, more than any other, who has been accused consistently of objectifying women, of misogyny, of pornography. His critics claim that he is guilty of creating female characters who exist solely as sex objects. Much of the time I think this is bogus, that his female characters are not empty vessels [they have jobs, have opinions, etc]. In any case, I believe that sexism is levelled at the man by people who do not understand how men think or, more commonly, they don’t want to accept it.

To this end The Fappening – which was the name given to the hacking and release of a large number of explicit celebrity pictures – ought to be something of an eye-opener. Thousands, millions probably, of dudes looking at, searching for, discussing etc, a bunch of pictures of naked women. It isn’t a minority who are drawn to this sort of thing, it is pretty much men, period. And women? All around the world, every day, they are happily taking these pictures, allowing themselves to be objectified. Yes, even celebrities are doing it. What has been most enlightening is that certain women have decided, in order to show support for one of the victims, to post saucy pictures of themselves on public networking sites, thereby achieving nothing other than further titillating the people they are so eager to disparage. And, well, how then can one, in the face of all this, read a Philip Roth novel and denounce it? Is he part of the problem or just telling the truth? Isn’t it simply a fact of life that, yes, women are objectified by men and that, conversely, some enjoy being objectified in certain circumstances?

Of all the books in Roth’s oeuvre Sabbath’s Theater is the rudest, is the one that could most legitimately be labelled pornographic; it is, in places, pure filth, although never, by any means, titillating. It is also, I ought to confess, the only one of his novels that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, not because of the content per se, but because I felt, at times, as though I was being let into, exposed to, an old man’s [Roth’s] wank fantasies. For example, there are points in the narrative when Drenka, Micky Sabbath’s ludicrous Polish mistress, delivers unnecessarily lengthy monologues about her sexual endeavours and preferences, and I couldn’t help thinking while reading these monologues that only Roth himself was getting off on them, and no one else. Or perhaps, as Sabbath’s Theater is concerned [amongst other things] with the descent into madness of a dirty old man, and so does of course feature old[er] people talking about and engaging in sexual acts, my reaction is the understandable, yet arrogant, shudder of a young man not ready to confront the truth of, the existence of, a healthy elderly libido.

The stuff that generally tends to gross readers out, or offend them – Sabbath wanking over Drenka’s grave, or to a photograph of a College student while staying with her father – didn’t bother me at all; I found those parts of the novel amusing, vaudeville. That some are offended by the novel is galling, not because I want to tell people how to react, but simply because one only needs to read a single review or even the blurb on the back of the book in order to know what is in store for you; let’s be honest, anyone finding themselves offended by Sabbath’s Theater wanted to be, looked and hoped for it. In any case, Mickey Sabbath is deliberately grotesque, deliberately over-the-top; he is Shakespearean in proportion – he is a Richard III or Hamlet; Mickey is a man on the edge, tormented by the loss of his lover, who was apparently quite some sack artist, and petrified of the prospect of not being able, at his age, to replace her. At least on the most superficial level. Yet, what is interesting about a book so full of sex, featuring a man so seemingly sex-obsessed, is that Sabbath’s Theater is not really about sex at all.

I called Sabbath Shakespearean, and he is, but this is a tragedy, not a comedy, as some would have it. Like Ahab, another Shakespearean character, Mickey Sabbath is fighting against some large, terrible foe: old age and, ultimately, death. Again, like Ahab, it is a one-sided battle; old age and death, like the whale, care nothing about Sabbath: they are indiscriminate. For Sabbath his virility is so important because the loss of it would signal that he is over the hill. Once you understand this it throws the Drenka passages into a new, sharper focus; was she really some nymphomaniac, shit-hot sack artist, or is that how Mickey must remember, and imagine, her in order to console himself that he at least once had something, someone, ideal? Or is it simply that memory is often sadistic, that, without you realising it, it recreates, reinvents, your experiences with greater intensity than they ever actually had, so that the sad times become sadder, the happy become happier and so on? So, Sabbath’s breakdown, his outrageous behaviour, is not really about getting his end away, it is about what not getting his end away represents: that he is old, and no longer vital.

If I have any genuine criticism of the book to make it is that it is, perhaps, too long. For example, even if you want to justify the Drenka passages as I have done in the previous paragraph they still, undeniably, ought to have been edited, cut down; far from being shocking, much of the time they are simply boring, are too repetitious. Also, as with all of Roth’s later work the structure is all over the place and the plot pretty non-existent. That is not, for me, a problem, however. Roth’s 90’s novels are meditations, rants, essays almost, and that is why I like them. I like the passion, the drive, the devil-may-care attitude towards literary conventions, the disregard for what readers might want from a novel. Roth did not care to write the perfect novel [he tried that with The Ghost Writer], he wanted to punch you firmly between the eyes, he wanted to rub your nose, in this instance, in the dirt.

For long time Roth readers, what sets Sabbath’s Theatre apart is that it is the novel where Roth himself is least present, where he was able to obscure whatever there is of himself in the book to the extent that the characters do not feel like approximations of the author. Maybe that is why he rates it so highly. For me it isn’t his best [although I did read it five years ago, so perhaps I would value it more were I to give it another go]; that accolade I would give to The Counterlife, despite its ropey final section, or the previously mentioned The Ghost Writer. Still, Sabbath’s Theater is a great read; it is fun, freewheeling, brave and intelligent; it is challenging and controversial; it makes you confront aspects of humanity, and the human condition, that you might prefer to pretend do not exist. And yet, in a way, we should all admire, rather than loathe, Mickey Sabbath, for he is a man who, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, is raging against the dying of the light, he is someone who categorically will not go gentle into that good night.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE BY J.D. SALINGER

catcher-in-the-ryeGee, people do seem to get their knickers in a twist over this little book. I like knickers, y’know, on a desirable woman. Twisted knickers? Meh, not so much. The first and only time I read The Catcher in the Rye was when I was sixteen. Let me take you back to that time…

Teenage P. was in many ways like adult P., just less hairy and less laid back and with a million hormones buzzing around inside him like some kind of potent cocktail of class A drugs. I read the book during my first year of college as part of an English Literature A-level class. Now, prior to starting college I had lived in circumstances that I will politely refer to as difficult. Yeah, difficult, or fucking horrible, take your pick. Most of you, I imagine, don’t know anything about Yorkshire council estates, so think Nil by Mouth or Requiem for a Dream, but with less optimism, fewer laughs. It is fair to say, then, that I was nervous about starting college. I had felt, from a very young age, unable to relate to my peers [to be fair to me, the ones I had met up to this point had all been thuggish wankers] and I was expecting to find myself in a similar position once again.

Anyway, on my first day of college I was given my timetable for the year: I had English Lit first lesson. I conscientiously turned up for the class early. Standing outside the classrooom when I arrived was a skinny dark-haired boy. Ah fuck, I think to myself, now I’ve got to talk to this weirdo. After a few minutes of uncomfortable stilted conversation the teacher arrived, followed by the rest of the class, and we entered the room and took our seats. The weirdo sat next to me. After some pleasantries and introductions the teacher handed out a book. The book was The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Why am I telling you all this? Well, it turned out that I loved college, that for the first time in my life I felt a part of something that made sense to me. Indeed, the weirdo is still my closest friend [I was best man at his wedding last year]. So, The Catcher in the Rye is a vital part of my adolescence; reading it is a lovely, cheering, memory. I cannot, then, review it with a complete lack of bias. As a profound stepping-stone in my life this book deserves all my love and admiration. Not only that, but Teenage P. genuinely adored it, he and the weirdo bonded over it.

What do I have to say about The Catcher in the Rye as a sometimes mature adult? First of all, I’m suspicious of those who claim to despise Caulfield or find him excessively annoying. Weren’t you people ever teenagers? Can’t you relate, just a little bit…just a tiny bit…just a smidgen? Because if you can’t then I pity you, I do truly. He’s just an average, over-sensitive, wide-eyed, uber-emotive, bundle of teenage lameness. Just like I was; just like most kids. I put it to you that if you haven’t ever laid on your bed listening to How Soon is Now, feeling slightly choked up, while pondering the inability of the rest of the world to, y’know, get you then you’re no member of the human race. You’re an alien. Go back to your home planet.

Holden is not Hitler. He’s a good kid, you know, that Holden. He just wants people to care for each other; and yeah he thinks he invented the concept, but teenagers think that all their emotions and ideas are original, so cut him some slack. The reaction from some readers and reviewers would have you think he spends the entire novel stamping on kittens [spoiler: no kittens are harmed during this novel].

Salinger, it ought to be said, had a fine prose style. Even now, if I open up the book, I find it impressive. It’s expressive, memorable, uniquely his own. That’s no mean feat and it’s not an accident. As a stylist he was a bit of a craftsman.

My final thought is that I probably wouldn’t find this book satisfying as a reading experience these days. I’ve moved on, but there’s no shame in that [either for me or the book or those who still hold it in high esteem].

LOLITA BY VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Na-bo-kov. Light of my life, fire of my loi…ok, maybe not.

Let me count the ways: 1, 2, 3…times I’ve read this novel with rapt attention and, some would claim, inappropriate enthusiasm and glee. Lolita is a book that makes people nervous, perhaps understandably, but not me. On each occasion I have gambolled through it. This is one of the premier masterpieces of world literature; it has very few equals and even fewer betters. It is, however, according to a leading literary expert [me, that is], largely misunderstood.

Whenever I have been asked to discuss Nabokov’s novel the first thing I have asserted, most vehemently, is that it isn’t a book about child abuse, which is not to say that it doesn’t feature child abuse. Humbert Humbert is, of course, even by his own admission, a pedophile, and Lolita is abused by him [and others], but that doesn’t mean that Lolita, the novel, is about pedophilia or child abuse, that these vile acts are the author’s intellectual focus. You must remember that Lolita is [amongst other things] a comedy, or satire, and satires often feature exaggerated characters and situations. And aspects of Lolita are exaggerated, are absurd. Seriously, does anyone think Humbert is a convincing human being? Look at the sniggersome name, the ludicrously luscious prose, the tache-twisting dastardly [and very funny] asides. Come on, people; Nabokov could only have made him more cartoonish if he had dropped an anvil on him from a great height. So, yeah, to my mind, it’s a satire, and one of the features of satire is that there is an underlying theme[s] or idea[s], below the surface action of the story; there is an element of authorial two-facedness, and an atmosphere of ridicule.

In any case, even if one was to read the novel without a smirk; even if one was to treat it as a novel of the utmost seriousness, I would still maintain that it isn’t about child abuse. You have to wonder, what would have been the point of writing it at all if the only thing Nabokov had to say was there is abuse in the world, and this is how it works. No, he’s far cleverer than that, far more tricksy and subtle. I would also say, with equal vehemence, that it is not about love either. That seems to be one of the most popular interpretations, but I would suggest that this indicates two things: that the people who think this haven’t read the text closely enough and that they have never been in love. Part of my resistance to this idea is based on my opinion that unrequited love doesn’t exist, because while one could make a claim that Humbert is in love with Lolita [although I don’t believe this either] one could not say the reverse. Love cannot be unrequited because it is, by definition, by my definition, a shared experience [a sharing of time, affection, etc]; it is, I strongly believe, a mutual feeling; one cannot love someone who doesn’t know you, or doesn’t like you, or doesn’t treat you with respect and affection. I remember when I was about 18 I broke up with a girl and I was pretty cut-up about it. After moping [I don’t cry] for weeks, my best friend one day said to me:

“Do you really love her?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Of course!”

“But what did you love about her? You’ve just spent the last four hours telling me what an awful bitch she is.”

“Oh, she’s beautiful, and…um…she’s…ah…”

“Thing is, your love has to be based on something, at the very least upon the way she makes you feel.”

“She makes me feel like shit.”

“You don’t love her then.”

You see, my best friend was right. I’ve been in love since then, and I can say categorically that I didn’t love that girl. I thought I did, but that means absolutely nothing. Some people think they’re Jesus, but that don’t make it so. Lolita does not love Humbert, and so, for me, Humbert cannot love Lolita, even if he thinks he does [because this feeling of his can only be, and is, based purely on superficial desires, such as a physical attraction]. Indeed, I’m not even convinced that Humbert himself believes that what he feels for Lolita is love. For example, at one stage he floats the possibility of getting her pregnant, so as to have another nymphet in the future, who would then, in time, also have a child, who could also become his nymphet. Presumably he would, in this succession, discard the former love interest. Does that sound like love to you!? I’d be surprised if even Humbert thought so. Moreover, our narrator spends a significant proportion of the text making it clear that he will only be interested in Lo for a specific period of time [whilst she remains a nymphet] and at no point stops being interested in other young girls. Most tellingly, he admits, towards the end of the novel, that he never really knew the child, that they were never intimate in any way other than physically. I would say that love is about having a deep connection with another human being, a mutual connection, and this is not how one would describe the novel’s central relationship.

Another popular take on what is happening in the novel is that Lolita is the aggressor, that she takes advantage of Hum. Whew, really? That this is even discussed at all, let alone by supposedly intelligent people, makes my skin crawl, pisses me off both morally and intellectually. Let’s just put aside for a while the fact that there is absolutely no evidence for this theory in the text, that at no point is she anything other than a brassy, and, yes, sometimes manipulative, kid, and consider something for a moment: she’s twelve, people. Twelve! I’d say that anyone who wants to lay the blame at Lolita’s door, who thinks that she is some sort of vile temptress really needs to take a long hard look at themselves and their attitudes towards women. I’m not spending any more time on this; it’s ludicrous, insulting, and repugnant thinking.

[Speaking of ludicrous, Martin Amis said that he thinks that the book is an allegory for Russian totalitarianism, or something of that sort. My response: keep swinging, Marty, one day you might hit the ball.]

Having covered what I don’t think Lolita is, it is necessary to spend some time exploring what I think are some of the central concerns and themes. I believe that a case can be made for Lolita being about infatuation. Infatuation looks an awful lot like love, to the untrained eye, just like the wolf in sheep’s clothing might look like a sheep…from a distance…to an idiot. What defines infatuation, for me, what differentiates it from real love, is that it is not mutual, it exists only on one side of the fence, so to speak. One can be infatuated with someone without really knowing them, in fact without ever having met them; it is a feeling that most often causes great anguish, but the object of the infatuation is unaware of it, or is indifferent to it, or angered by it. Furthermore, the object of the infatuation is idealized, is an idea, is, yes, an object, rather than a real human being in the mind of the infatuated, and quite often any sign of this person being a real human being, with real human flaws, leads to disillusionment. This is far closer to what is happening vis-a-vis Humbert and Lolita; our loquacious pervert is infatuated with her, in the same way that Mark Chapman was infatuated with John Lennon, or Valerie Solanas was infatuated with Andy Warhol, and so on. But this doesn’t explain why Nabokov chose to make his titular heroine a girl rather than an adult woman, other than it makes the infatuation, which is inherently ridiculous, even more so.

So, while I think that the book is about infatuation, I also think that it is, to a certain extent, about male attitudes towards women and irrational male expectations in relation to women, which is something that has long been a large and particularly aggressive bee in my bonnet. What I mean by this is that there is something peculiar about male psychology [I’m generalising, so keep your knickers on those who this does not apply to], that the things that we demand from women are not only contradictory but impossible or unattainable. It is a feature of many men’s psychology that they desire a woman to be at once sensual and yet demure, sexually proficient and yet chaste, wild and yet homely and so on. Some of you may be eager to scoff at these ideas, will want to label them old-fashioned. Aye, they are that, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in my claim. Indeed, I see and hear it all the time, among friends, acquaintances, and via discreet observation of strangers. I have, for example, regularly heard men moaning about their partner’s past [clue: she may have put it around] and then in the next breath extol her virtues in the sack; likewise the opposite.

I feel that what men, or a certain type of man, want in a woman is unreasonable, that she can’t, obviously, possibly combine within her person all the random, and opposing, characteristics that they require. You can see this kind of attitude in Humbert, in that he wants Lo to be sexually responsive to him, and yet he also wants her to be virginal; he wants her to be compliant, and yet praises her, and nymphets in general, for being cheeky and bold. Furthermore, I think Nab’s novel has something to say about another aspect of male psychology, which is how certain men infantilise their partners. They want a dolly [Dolly? Lolly? Is this a coincidence?], a doll-like partner who they can dominate [in bed and in the home], educate, spoil, who is dependent upon them financially, who is indebted to them, who is essentially malleable. Again, this is something that isn’t rare, that isn’t an old-fashioned idea that has been consigned to the landfill of history, it is something that I see all the time. Why, if you accept this interpretation, does Nabokov make Lolita a child? Because the closest possible match for these expectations would be just that: a child. What these kind of men want, what is closest to their ideal, is a child.

Hermann Broch, in his great novel The Sleepwalkers, explored the nature of morality, in particular the periods between eras, moral eras, which involved a move from one type of moral thinking to another. The book is in three parts, each relating a different story, and a different period of time, a different moral era that is coming to an end to be replaced by another, and Lolita could easily have made up a fourth part. Lolita, as well as the ideas outlined above, is also, to my mind, about changing moral ideas, about humanity being on the cusp of a new moral identity. Humbert is at pains to remind the reader that once children were seen as not only acceptable but possibly ideal sexual partners. He mentions this regularly, providing examples. And he is right, of course; the idea that childhood is meant to be paradisiacal, that it is precious, that is ought to remain untouched is a relatively new one. Not so long ago, and it is still the case in some cultures, children were put to work as soon as they were able. There is, these days, a notion of the wonder of childhood, the necessity that it is respected and solemnly observed, accompanied by a near hysterical child worship, so much so that as soon as there is a disaster people want to know how many children perished, as though somehow their lives are more important than anyone else’s. Now, I am not refuting this notion of the wonder of childhood, nor am I saying that we should be sending kids up chimneys a couple of years after they exit the womb, and I am certainly not advocating the sexual abuse of children; I’m merely making the point that our ideas about childhood haven’t always been the same. It was around the time that Lolita was written that this new idea, this new way of thinking about children, was taking hold. It hadn’t, not absolutely, become an accepted, universal, truth by that stage, but it was on the road to becoming just that, it was on the cusp.

Recently in the UK there has been a high profile case of an entertainer, now dead, who has been accused, in retrospect, of child molestation dating back to the 1960’s. Hundreds of witnesses have come forward, hundreds of victims, and yet one asks oneself ‘why did no one do anything at the time, why was this not discovered earlier?’ The simple fact of the matter is that he got away with it for so long, not because he kept it well-hidden, not through threats and fear, but because the people of the time didn’t consider it to be that much of an issue; indeed he was quite open about it, and although some witnesses may have felt some discomfort, none saw fit to report it or, as far as I know, raised any significant objections. It was, literally, and morally, a different time. Lolita explores this shift towards the absolute belief in the preciousness of childhood and children; Humbert Humbert himself actually epitomises this journey, this development, as by the end of the novel he is fully contrite for having denied Lo a proper childhood. And, in this way, Lolita is a deeply moral book, and Nabokov, far from being a pervert or dubious man, is shown to be a most humane and forward thinking writer.

NB: I chose not to explore the idea that Lolita is about a futile attempt to recapture the past, that Humbert tries to use the girl as a kind of Proustian madeleine that will transport him back to his own childhood. To some extent the book is about nostalgia, or the pitfalls of nostalgia, about trying to get back something you can never get back. However, i feel like that idea has been covered elsewhere numerous times already and, like with any truly great novel, there are other, equally interesting, themes/ideas present in the book, and some of these  have not, as far as i know, been explored before. That was the purpose of this review.