Reading Lolita in Toronto

Last year, in response to NaNoWriMo, Matthew over at Defective Yeti came up with NaNoReMo - same concept, except instead of writing a novel in the month of November, he read one and blogged about it. Much less work! Last year, he chose Catch-22 and although I enjoyed reading about his experience, I'd read it already and didn't join in. This year, he and his readers chose to read Lolita
by Vladimir Nabokov. It's one of those classics that I've always meant to read, but never did and so, in a moment of procrastinating doing something I ought to be doing, I popped over to Audible to check out the edition/narrator. And found that the narrator was Jeremy Irons, an actor I have liked tremendously since the early 1980s when I first saw him play Charles in Brideshead Revisited. He makes interesting choices, not always the standard good guy, instead choosing complex, complicated roles, finding the humanity and relateability in men who are often very unlikable, at times to chilling effect. And he'd played Humbert Humbert (the protagonist in Lolita) in the movie, so would already be thoroughly inside this character's head. Which is a very lengthy way of saying that the minute I saw that he was the narrator of this book, I signed up for NaNoReMo 2008.

So far, I'm a little over an hour into the book - have no idea what that translates to in terms of chapters - and am more confused than I've been in years.

The writing is insanely good. It's evocative, hypnotic, sensual, petulant, cranky and with a vocabulary well above most of the things I've read lately (which possibly says something about the books I've read lately). Jeremy Irons is great while reading the stuffy professor-type prologue defending the publication of the novel - is that part of the fiction or was that written by someone real? Does anyone know? - but it is his complete commitment to Humbert Humbert that has me gobsmacked, in awe and very, very uncomfortable. The man's voice is like dark, melted chocolate, seductively seeping into your ears, bypassing your brain and connecting to something limbic and primal, lulling you into a relaxed, transfixed state (much like a mouse before a hooded cobra) of being utterly lost in a story that's a bit like I imagine the woods in late summer in the South - redolent with the heady perfume of gardenias and jasmine, hiding the rot underneath.

Because just as you’re swept away by the beauty of the language and the seduction of the words combined with a brilliant reading by a master narrator, the reality slams into you that this guy, Humbert Humbert who you're connecting with as a protagonist, is a pedophile. And of the sort that reminds me of N A M B L A (am trying to avoid hits from google here - I refuse to link to them directly, but you can read more about them on the Wikipedia page) in the deluded defense of their predilection, claiming that children want and can freely choose a relationship of sexual love with a grown man. And that’s the point where I get completely creeped out and have to stop reading for a day or so while I try to figure out how to shower on the inside.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to the end of this book or if, once we get to the part where H.H. meets Lolita, I’ll have to stop to conserve my sanity. So far, though, I’m reading and getting an education in what makes a writer, being challenged in my idea of what makes art and am astonished at Nabokov’s ability to create beauty while writing about something so repellent. And I'm very, very confused.

That’s what I wrote last Thursday, before I felt a rant coming on that I ended up posting instead, keeping this one for today. And by now, I’ve read about a quarter of the book, well past the point where H.H. meets Lolita. And can no longer hear the beauty in the words - or really the words at all - having slammed up heavy shields to protect myself from the horror of the story told by those words. Words that are changing Jeremy Irons’ voice from beautiful to sinister. I know too many people who were molested as children – no surprising, given the stats of 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys (or has that number changed now?) – and know too well the permanent scars left by people such as Humbert Humbert.

I can’t do it. I feel contaminated. I need the book off my iPod now.


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