Thursday, February 6, 2014

Can I get a happy ending? (Bowen, Lawrence, Nabokov review)

I like classic literature with all its complicated insights into human nature. I do. I like the way that author's manipulate characters and language and readers. But, honestly, I want a happy ending. Or at least the glimmer of a happy ending. I want some characters for whom I can cheer during the journey and rejoice at the end. Maybe it's silly or superficial or sophmoric to want the everybody-gets-married endings of Jane Austen or even the everybody-sees-the-error-of-their-ways denouement of Romeo & Juliet. Whatever. It's what I like. Suffice it to say that was also the biggest feature lacking in the last three novels I read.

Elizabeth Bowen
The Death of the Heart (maybe the title was a clue?)
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. It was pretty conventional, kind of an attempt at Jane Austen in the 1930s, but it kept my attention enough. The protagonist was recently-orphaned 16-year-old Portia, who has been shipped off to live with her closest relatives, people who do not necessarily know, like, or want her living with them. She has a brief and obviously ill-fated flirtation with a family friend that was frustrating for both character and reader. She writes a diary that I found implausible for a teenaged girl because it doesn't express any of the feelings I would expect from a character in her situation (frustration, desperation, isolation, grief, infatuation) and instead lists what she ate or what lessons they did in school. Our class discussion centered mainly on whether or not Bowen passes the "Worth Reading" litmus tests of a) original b) authentic or c) historic. There were arguments on either side by both students and lecturer. We also talked about how the ending isn't really a cliffhanger at all and doesn't leave a lot of room for interpretation. Basically, everything stays the same. I was waiting for someone (anyone) to have a big character arch. I was waiting for someone to stand up for something. I was waiting. And it just didn't happen.

D. H. Lawrence
Women in Love
Let me just say that this title is a total sham. None of the women in this novel are in love and I doubt any of them even understands what that means. As one of my classmates put it: "one of [the men] is a bisexual hippie, one of them is a closeted gay "alpha male", one of them has daddy issues, and then the other one is an emo/hipster art chick." Again, the book is well-written and well-paced and I was interested in what would happen. However, none of the so-called couples or even individual characters were people I wanted to root for. I didn't think they should end up together (or with anyone else) because they had such horribly misguided ideas about love, marriage, and relationships. I wasn't invested in whether or not any of them ended up happy and kind of thought they deserved it if they didn't.

Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita (the ridiculously annotated version)
This is definitely the most (in)famous of the three novels in this post and I was curious but apprehensive about reading it. I knew only the gist - a middle-aged man in lustful pursuit of a pre-teen girl. The version we read for class was heavily annotated: about a third of the text was intensely detailed and cross-referenced notes that were both helpful and overwhelming to a first-time reader. Admittedly, I cringed through much of the book, particularly the moments when the narrator describes his sexploits with the pre-pubsescent and desperately alone "Lo." The class discussion on this one was the most interesting of all, however, and actually succeeded in making me want to read it again. We talked about the way that the language and point-of-view make the reader complicit in Humbert Humbert's feelings and actions. That, repulsive though we may find it, we want him to "succeed" in a way because it resolves the tension we feel, too. We talked about how misunderstood the titular character is in modern culture and that the term "Lolita" has been appropriated to mean a nubile and promiscuous young girl, rather than a  physically broken and psychologically damaged victim of child abuse. Someone in class claimed that if Lolita were a few years older, perhaps 18 or 22, then we wouldn't see this as disgusting and we'd congratulate Humbert Humbert on finding the love of his life. Personally, I disagree because once again I do not see the "love story" in this novel. I see one-sided, lustful infatuation that has nothing to do with truly understanding and accepting another person. And really, considering the subject matter of this one, there could be no happy ending. 

Coincidentally, a classmate came across this article on hebephilia in fiction just after our Lolita seminar. It's definitely worth a read. 

I'm somewhat shocked to say that, based on the novels in combination with our class seminars, I am most likely to re-read Lolita of these three. Still, I am very much looking forward to picking up a book that I can read exclusively for pleasure during Reading Week in Spain in two weeks time. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree -- the Lolita seminar actually made me want to read it again, too.