Lo, Lola, Lolita

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Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Ah, Lolita. One of the most controversial books of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. It’s a novel which approaches the incredibly taboo subject of paedophilia from a very unusual angle- a romantic one. We are drawn into the twisted mind of Humbert Humbert, an attractive European academic, who develops an infatuation with his landlady’s daughter, who reminds him of a lost childhood love. Nabokov does not portray Humbert as a hero, but does allow him the odd moment of sympathy throughout, and he boldly resists characterising Lolita as an angelic, innocent child.

This novel is, in short, mind-blowing. From Nabokov’s lyrical writing style- which often makes the novel seem more like poetry than prose- to his wonderfully complex portrayal of the disturbing relationship between Humbert and Lolita, he takes your expectations of a novel about paedophilia and turns them on their head. At times, novel is erotic- romantic, even- and forces you to empathise with Humbert’s desire for Lolita through wonderful descriptions of her tanned, bony feet and glossy hair. Even though Lolita is Humbert’s victim and her life is effectively ruined by him, she is often portrayed as cruel and manipulative. Meanwhile Humbert, the predator, who does despicable things such as have Lolita perform sexual acts upon him in the car whilst he watches children walk out of school, often seems weak and pathetic- in making Lolita the object of his affections, he gives her the upper hand. In the end, it is Lolita who breaks Humbert’s heart, not the other way around. Lolita is undoubtedly a victim and suffers some terrible things, but she is strong whilst Humbert is weak, and Nabokov challenges convention- and flirts outrageously with controversy- in playing with this unusual balance.

However, I disagree with those who call the novel ‘immoral’, or even ‘amoral’. Although he is a desperate, pitiful man at times, we are never permitted to forget that he is a lecherous paedophile and any brief flashes of sympathy are soon replaced by enduring disgust. Humbert wishes to view himself as a lover, and in a sense, he is- the problem is, his ardent passion is directed towards a child. He tries to delude himself, and the reader, that his relationship with Lolita is a great love affair, but he has moments of clarity when he is overcome with self-loathing and begs her forgiveness- much to her disgust. Nabokov delights in playing with conventions of romance and his style is poetic, but at the centre of Humbert’s magniloquent narrative lies a rotting core of disturbing obsession; Nabokov leaves no doubt as to who the villain of the piece truly is. However, Lolita is not a morality tale, and nor should it try to be; do we really need a work of fiction to tell us that rape, exploitation and murder are wrong?

Have YOU read Lolita? What did you think? I’d love to know your thoughts, so please leave a comment!

Fifty Shades of… What?

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It’s been dubbed Fifty Shades of Sex and Fifty Shades of Shit but for this review I think its original title, Fifty Shades of Grey, is more apt- grey because I’m not really sure how I feel about this book. It is, as I’ve said before, not very well written, and it’s just not distinctive. You wouldn’t read something by an unknown author and say “this is definitely the work of E.L. James!” because it could easily be the work of any young teenager (if it didn’t contain so much sex).  Jessica Reaves claimed that the book is “sprinkled liberally and repeatedly with asinine phrases” and I have to agree- too many repetitions of “holy crap!” make it sound like a bad fan fiction. In fairness to James, this did start out as fan fiction which makes the terrible writing style forgivable…. just.

Furthermore, I can’t work out my feelings about the protagonists. Anastasia Steele is almost identical to every other fan fiction heroine- she’s shy, intelligent, insecure, occasionally witty, frequently at odds with her subconscious (don’t even get me started on her ‘inner goddess’) and hopelessly beautiful, but of course, she doesn’t know it. Whilst Christian Grey claims that she doesn’t “have a submissive bone in [her] body”, I wouldn’t exactly call her dominant either- she’s eager to make him happy and she certainly lets her best friend, Kate, push her around. She also cries whenever Christian leaves her, which I think is a little pathetic. However, it’s her “smart mouth” that saves her. Her email exchanges with Christian are genuinely funny and I did giggle a few times at what she came out with, but having said that, surely someone with a truly smart mouth wouldn’t keep repeating the same few expressions over and over again (but this is more a criticism of James’ writing style). Having said that, some of the expressions the pair use put a smile on my face, such as “laters baby” and I loved the way Christian signed off his emails with things like “Christian Grey, Cad and CEO”. Which brings me nicely onto the subject of our… hero? Villain? Deep down, we all know he’s a hero. He’s caring, he’s occasionally funny and he wants to make Ana happy. He’s certainly attractive (in every chapter there is, without fail, a description of his stomach-melting, heart-wrenching beauty) and he is, in Ana’s own too-often-repeated words “mercurial”. His mood changes swiftly and for all his I’m-the-dominant talk, he sometimes reminds me of a toddler bossing everyone around, wanting desperately to be in charge and everyone just indulges him to keep him happy. James certainly has created an interesting protagonist here and I’m dying to learn more in particular about his relationship with his adoptive mother- there’s definitely more to explore there. Overall, Christian is like a romcom hero with a kinky twist- he starts off all cynical and moody and then softens and becomes all romantic but still won’t admit that he’s fallen for the heroine.

Christian’s volatility and Ana’s vulnerability make them an interesting pair. There relationship is like a see-saw- if someone puts a foot wrong, or a bit too much weight down at one end, the whole thing is unbalanced. Their relationship starts off tense and awkward, then becomes hot and complicated and towards the end it begins to seem almost like a warm, fuzzy, romcom relationship. Were this real, a relationship counsellor would probably have a field day.

Of course, sex is a big aspect of their relationship. Ana loses her virginity to Christian and he awakens desire within her that she never knew existed. They also have sex very frequently, but the book is about more than S&M. However, it is, of course, probably the main reason that the book has accumulated such notoriety within such a short space of time. This book is definitely not one for younger readers!

Sex wasn’t actually my main issue with this book- it was the way in which James desperately tried to prove herself to be intelligent. I believe that Stephanie Meyer does this in Twilight too, with her prophases and anaphases and chromosomes- another similarity between the two series. James throws in several mentions of the medulla oblongata just to show, it seems, that she knows something about anatomy and references several classical writers, mainly Thomas Hardy, in an obvious attempt to seem well-read. I can’t quite put my finger on why this annoy me but perhaps it’s because the author is trying to pretend to be something she’s not. She may be a genius for all I know, but Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t an intellectual book and a few literary references isn’t going to change that- she’d be better off just calling a spade a spade.

In spite of all my criticisms, Fifty Shades is strangely addictive and very easy to read, which has probably contributed hugely to its popularity. You don’t have to be an avid reader to read it, unlike some of the classics, you can just pick it up and go. It’s not a challenge, which is perhaps a factor in its addictiveness.

All in all, Fifty Shades of Grey can only be summed up as a guilty pleasure. It does have a few good ideas in it- I particularly like that Christian tells Ana she shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying S&M. It’s also got the feminist critics going crazy- is it feminist, is it not?- so it’s interesting from that perspective too but essentially I don’t feel that it’s one of the greats of literature. As April Alliston wrote “though no literary masterpiece, Fifty Shades is more than parasitic fan fiction based on the recent Twilight vampire series.”

30 day book challenge; day 29, book you’re currently reading

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Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

I’m reading this book at the same time as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and I must say, the two couldn’t be more different. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing- they balance each other out rather nicely. Heart of Darkness is a modernist masterpiece full of complex issues, whereas Fifty Shades is badly written but strangely addictive…

As you’ve probably heard, Fifty Shades had its origin as Twilight fan fiction- and if you’ve read any of my earlier posts, you’ll know how I feel about that. It’s definitely obvious within the book- not only is it poorly written (hey guess what James, there are other expressions aside from ‘crap’) but there are also too many parallels with the Twilight books to count. Namely, the protagonist is an insufferable, whiney wimp who doesn’t seem to realise how irresistible she is; her best male Hispanic American friend is in love with her but she wishes he were her brother instead; and on every other page there is sycophantic description of her breathtakingly beautiful yet complicated love interest (who just happens to have beautiful bronze hair). Yet despite all this, I can’t help wanting to read more. Their relationship is more complex than Edward and Bella’s because it’s not clear what Grey wants from Anastasia- he asks her to be his sex slave but he’s also very caring. I also enjoy their email banter, which is quite amusing. And of course, there are the sex scenes. So far (bearing in mind I’m only on page 207) it’s not been too bad. Well, there has been a lot of sex but so far it hasn’t been very violent or weird and even though I’m not into erotic fiction, I’m keen to see what these scenes entail. I’ve heard that it gets pretty grim and even though I’m sort-of dreading the later parts, so far it’s just been two people having a lot of sex. However, it’s also during the sex scenes that the writing becomes shockingly bad- as if the ice cold Christian Grey would call a girl “baby”! Plus, Anastasia seems rather sexually advanced for a virgin. There are many problems with the book and I’ll admit that I believe it to be the worst kind of fiction- literature so bad that it’s good. 

Have YOU read Fifty Shades? What did you think? Let me know!

30 day book challenge; day 19, the raunchiest book you’ve read

Chosen (a House of Night novel) by P.C. and Kristen Cast

This was quite a difficult one as I haven’t really read any fantastically raunchy books. Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Fifty Shades of Grey are still on my to-read list and whilst Lolita was a definite contender, I’ve already used that for day nine. I’ve read lots of books with sex scenes but never anything that could be considered even close to an erotic novel and none of them have had masses and masses of sex. However I did remember that the House of Night series, which I was a big fan of a few years ago, did deal with sexuality and there was a lot of sex in the books. Chosen was probably the raunchiest, as this is the book where Zoey’s triple-boyfriend problems come to light and it’s one of the main themes in the book. She drinks from Heath and has dry sex with him on a bench, has her breasts fondled by Erik Night (whilst she drinks his blood) and makes out with and eventually has sex with (and drinks from) Loren Blake. The act of drinking blood is meant to be incredibly erotic and there’s a lot of it in the book! Zoey’s almost daily sexual activities mean that this book is actually pretty raunchy (and pretty hard to put down).