Things my teachers didn’t tell me

LitLove has another interesting (per usual) post up, this time about literature’s insidious effects, particularly on a human being’s desire for a “solvable conundrum.”

The post made me think about my own “dangerous” encounters with literature, and how I came to find out things I didn’t want to know (but perhaps needed to know nonetheless).

Nobody warned me that hey, Humbert Humbert does not ultimately regret what he did to Dolores Haze. Sure, the author regrets it, and, I hope, the reader. But Humbert’s “confession” is a fake. “I was a pentapod monster, but…” Humbert’s invocation of art and the way he casts himself as the man who will immortalize Lolita for the masses is sick, cruel, barbaric, and self-indulgent. And Nabokov knows that, and he relishes, I believe, the momentary chance to fool the reader into believing that any sort of repentance has taken place (belledame has a few good things to say about Lolita as well).

Two times in a row, Donna Tartt has lulled me into a stupefied admiration for her visual glories, birch trees at night, warm summer evenings in the South, only to clobber me over the head later on with all that is ugly and unimaginably unsympathetic (and yet oddly fascinating) in the human heart that occupies these magical vistas of hers. I don’t think she likes her characters very much, not because they are bad creations, but because they are bad people (or perhaps not bad, just real). There is something painful and familiar about the characters, occupying all these rich (not necessarily beautiful, but incredibly vivid) settings, and yet ultimately revealing themselves to be grey and dim and downright nasty on the inside. It’s like stopping to admire the campus clocktower in the twilight, one of my favourite activities as I walked back to my dorm in my junior year, only to remember that this jerk I didn’t like happened to live in it.

And Wuthering Heights, of course, was supposed to have a happy ending. Except, of course, the happy ending seemed to be an elaborate joke, and the clouds of jealousy and necrophilia still hung, low and ominous, on my horizon after I snapped it shut. Consequently, my paper on it sucked.

The beautifully built structures of literature can be frightening places to occupy, especially after dark, which makes me glad that I still have the fuzzy, anti-intellectual distraction of network television to fall back on. Well, that, and alcohol and Elektronik Supersonik (Buagaga, as we say back in ze Eastern Europe).

7 thoughts on “Things my teachers didn’t tell me

  1. Fantastic take on the question, Natalia. Literature cons and tricks and takes advantage of us, just like the ‘real’ world does… and I particularly sympathise with you on Wuthering Heights…

  2. Guess I need to expand my reading list. My introduction to this trickery was through “The Graduate”. Even though Dustin Hoffman’s character is basically unlikable, I got suckered into the bizarre love story right up until the end. When the camera rolls for about 5 seconds too long and completely crushes the happy ending.

  3. Thanks for the love, Lit.

    Kevin, I actually know a professor who had a very interesting take on the last few minutes of “The Graduate.” He didn’t think they crushed the ending, just expanded upon it. We discussed it in our fairy tale class, in connection with the way fairy tales portray emotional maturation.

  4. I don’t really think Nabokov tries to con anyone into believing that Humbert regrets what he has done. It is evident from the beginning that Humbert is so overcome by his perversion that he is uncapable of distinguishing between what is moral and what is not, and this conviction is only strengthened by his handling of Lolita’s mother. Humbert’s lack of moral is the opening move, and any chess player will tell you that an opening dictates the way a game is played all the way to the endgame – a metaphor that Nabokov would surely appreciate, being a fan of the game himself.

    I am also not sure that the author himself regrets what Humbert has done – Nabokov was convinced that ‘structure and style are the essence of a book. Great ideas are rubbish.’ In other words, he attempted to provide readers with sterile art, a game (and a glorious game it is) for the mind.

    Surely, a reader’s response is different, I just felt I had to share my thoughts on that 🙂

  5. I think the chess metaphor is spot-on (it’s spoken about at length in Appel’s annotated version), but I also think it extends itself to the way Nabokov’s toys with the reader, and with Humbert’s seeming “repetance” in some of the book’s most vivid passages, particularly in the second half.

    As for the sterile art, I agree that this is what’s contained within the book, but then again, Nabokov is also very frank about Humbert’s pederasty, both in the text itself and in his larger thoughts on it after publication. Great ideas or not, he showed the essence Humbert’s “relationship” with Lolita as an understated exercise in complete monstrosity, while keeping the art and artifice intact (which is why I so like this book). 🙂

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