Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov

Stanley Kubrick made a movie out of Lolita in 1962, only a few years after it was published in the United States.

Book Review
Lolita (1955)
 by Vladimir Nabokov

  Lolita starts with one of the best opening lines of all time, "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. 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. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita."

 Those opening sentences set the stage for one of the best novels of all time.  Certainly top ten.  Maybe top five.  Possibly number one.   Given the subject matter and the date of publication, it was impossible that Lolita would be uncontroversial, but the controversy was muted by the fact that it was just so damn good.  Unlike James Joyce's' Ulysses, you didn't have to be a scholar to "get" Lolita.  Nabokov was such a transparently brilliant prose stylist that Lolita enthralls even as it repels.

  Often described as an "erotic novel" I would have to agree with the author that this is inaccurate.   There is no explicit sex in Lolita, even though the opening half of the book describes several instances of intercourse between the mid 30s protagonist, Humbert Humbert and his child-lover Delores "Lolita" Haze.   In the afterword to the 50th anniversary edition I read, Nabokov scoffs at the idea that Lolita could be considered in any way, shape or form "pornographic," and again, I agree with him.

   The entire subject of sex between an older man and a young girl continues to be a third rail of public morality, and indeed, a crime.  As a criminal defense lawyer I have represent several people charged with either collecting sexually explicit media of children and those charged with actual sex crimes, and I can tell you that none of them had read Lolita.  I have, in my professional capacity, had the opportunity to review several works that did fall into that category- including novels, and Lolita is nothing like those books.

    Which is not to say that Lolita isn't one of the most transgressive works of fiction of all time.  That it surely is.  Compared to Nabokov, the Marquis de Sade is a mere mechanic of perversion.  Humbert Humbert is such an indelible character that I was able to recall entire portions of this book from the first time I read it over 20 years ago.  I didn't appreciate it as I should have, but it stuck with me, and upon revisiting it I found it to be simply pleasurable, in a way that eludes many other works of 20th century modernist fiction.   Nabokov has fun with his words, with his characters- Lolita breaths life even as it dwells in the darkest realm of the human spirit, 

Friday, January 01, 2016

The Moon and the Bonfires (1952) by Cesare Pavese

The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese
Book Review
The Moon and the Bonfires (1952)
 by Cesare Pavese
Translated by R.W. Flint
Introduction by Mark Rudman
New York Review of Books Classics Edition

  The introduction written by Mark Rudman compares the atmosphere in Cesare Pavese's The Moon and the Bonfires to Michelangelo Antonini's classic 1960  film L'Avventura and Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.  In other words, melancholic existentialism is in order.   It's a book where periods of languorous inactivity are interspersed with sepia toned flashbacks of personal history.   Anguilla ("the eel") is the nameless protagonist, a man who has returned to his small Italian home village after achieving financial success in the United States.   The Eel's childhood was not a happy one, abandoned by his unknown mother on the steps of the church, he was raised by a poor farmer who took him only for the weekly stipend paid to those who provided such services.

  Upon his return, the Eel finds an old friend, but no answers.  The climax of the novel is the Eel's recollection of a young woman he loved who died from an illegal abortion and a modern day murder/suicide/arson that presumably provides the inspiration for the title.  Also notable are the Eel's recollections of his time in California, with descriptions of Oakland and the California desert.

The Bell (1958) by Iris Murdoch

Book Review
The Bell (1958)
 by Iris Murdoch

    Iris Murdoch makes six appearances in the 1001 Books Project, The Bell is her second appearance after her first novel, Under the Net (1954).   Where The Bell was a work that drew heavily from recently published books by Samuel Beckett (notably Murphy), The Bell reads like a combination of influences ranging from Thomas Hardy, to D.H. Lawrence to French existentialism.   The Bell is set in a lay-religious community where a variety of characters seek different types of spiritual healing.

   Dora Greenfield is the central narrator, a former art student married unhappily to Paul Greenfield, a medieval scholar who is in residence in the community as he studies illuminate manuscripts at the adjoining nunnery.  Other major characters include the leader of the community, Michael Meade, who convincingly struggles with homosexuality in a matter of fact way that was still rare when this book was published in 1958.   Meade is tempted by Tobey Gashe, a 17 year old who is joining the community for the summer before attending university.

  In 1958, Murdoch was still ahead of the curve in her frank, no nonsense depiction of the manifold varieties of human sexuality.  Even novels that explicitly dealt with homosexuality at this time tended to depict a segregated view of gay relationships.  Here, Murdoch paints both gay and straight characters with similar confusions and motivations.   She continues to portray a new kind of female protagonist, Dora Greenfield is feckless.  She is neither wholly good nor wholly bad, neither a Madonna nor a Magdalene and it is Murdoch's ability to depict the complexity of human sexual relationships that really sets her apart from other writers in the 1950s.

The 13 Clocks (1950) by James Thurber

The Golux is pictured on this cover of the 13 Clocks by James Thurber.
Book Review
The 13 Clocks (1950)
by James Thurber

   The 13 Clocks by James Thurber is a children's book, albeit one with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, published by the New York Review Children's Collection and shelved in the adult literature section of the Los Angeles Public Library.  In other words, it's a book written for children but one that is well appreciated by adults.    The tone is akin to that struck by T.H, White in The Once and Future King: Appreciative of the conventions of children's literature but striving for a style that is capable of appreciation by adults.

  The outline of the story is that of a fairy tale.   An evil Duke, a winsome Princess, a questing Prince in disguise and an enigmatic magic being called the Golux. The text is peppered with allusions that might be called self aware or post modern, and I suspect that it is this tone that accounts for The 13 Clocks status as a canonical text.  The 13 Clocks is one of the few illustrated titles in the 1001 Books project.   Thurber was himself a noted New Yorker cartoonist and well known artist, but when he wrote The 13 Clocks he was ill and asked his friend Marc Simont to create the now classic illustrations, reproduced in the New York Review Children's Collection edition I found in the Los Angeles Public Library.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Go-Between (1953) L.P. Hartley

Book Review
The Go-Between (1953)
 by L.P. Hartley

    The Go-Between is the 1953 English novel, The Go-Betweens are the long-lived Australian indie band named after the novel.  The Go-Between is a late example of the English country-house novel, revolving around issues of class, property and marriage.  Leo Colston narrates the story from the perspective of an elderly man looking back on a formative summer spent at the country house of an aristocratic classmate.

   While at the house, Leo is drawn into carrying messages between Marian, the eldest daughter of the house, and Ted, a local farmer.   What appears at first to be something in the nature of a gentle comic/coming of age type story turns into something darker by the end, which likely explains the enduring appeal.  To give you an idea, Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for the movie version.  The Go-Between reminded me of a cross between something written by Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Hardy.

The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White

Merlin tutors Arthur.
Book Review
The Once and Future King (1958)\
 by T.H. White

   This retelling of the Arthurian legends was ruined for a generation of kids by Disney's terrible adaptation of the first book, The Sword and the Stone released in 1963.  The entire story cycle includes three other books, The Sword and the Stone  (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939),  The Ill-Made Knight (1940) and The Candle in the Wind (1958).   A contemporary reader is unlikely to find anything other than the four novels collected as The Once and Future King, and that's how I read them, on my Kindle- with the amazing (new?) feature "word wise" where you can touch a word and it will give you the Oxford English Dictionary definition.

  I've gone back and forth on whether to engage the ebook world or stick to real books, but the ability to pull up the definition of unknown words was particularly useful reading The Once and Future King due to White's repeated use of words derived from the universe of medieval chivalry.  Because of the Disney association, The Once and Future King is typically considered a children's book, but it really is not that.  The Arthurian legends are filled with illicit sex, including a substantial plot point that turns on incest, seduction and viscous, cruel violence.   White's narrator writes from the perspective of a contemporary narrator, and he is quick to draw allusions to the events of the 20th century.

  After the initial book, which is about young Arthur being tutored by Merlin and gaining the throne of England when he pulls the sword from the stone, the subjects become quite adult and White alternates from the central themes of the difficulties Arthur has trying to introduce concepts like "fairness" and "justice" to England and the lesser myths of the Arthurian cycle, the quest for the grail and Lancelots adulterous relationship with Queen Guinevere.  Everything moves at a fast pace, and even though the full cycle is something like 750 pages in print, the reader is ushered along at a nearly cinematic pace

  Adults who have avoided the full cycle because of the Disney version of the first book might well consider giving The Once and Future King a shot, particularly if they are Harry Potter wizard types.

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