You have to be kiddin’ me
They wouldn’t do those unspeakable things”
That’s a Flaming Lips quote up there, from their 1992 song You Have to Be Joking. When I first heard it, I thought about DM Thomas‘s 1981 novel The White Hotel. I was 23 or 24 when I read what would become his most famous and controversial work. I was just a young man; similar, I suspect, to my impression of the narrator in the Lips tune: a young person who is just waking up—really waking up— to some disturbing truths about the world.
I certainly knew about the Holocaust from school, from documentaries on television, and from magazine articles. I even had parents who were alive when Hitler’s Final Solution was revealed to the world, and we talked about it with each other. But I never really felt the horrifying nature of this event until I read this novel. We armchair travelers go many places, and occasionally we are taken to a place that can only be described as life changing.
The White Hotel is a strange novel. The reader often has to wonder if particular passages are dreams, fantasies, or realities. It is the story of a woman named Lisa. We read an erotic poem she has penned. We follow her psychoanalysis and therapy for “sexual hysteria” by Sigmund Freud. We learn of her childhood and a traumatic event during her young years. We see her in a torrid love affair at The White Hotel. Ultimately, we follow her to her very end at Babi Yar.
Millions died at the hands of the Nazis in the real world, but that huge number can be too abstract and unfathomable to process and feel. One person died in a work of fiction, and I was depressed for days.
Even Thomas’s final chapter, in which Lisa and the other fallen are reborn to continue in an afterlife that strangely resembles our own world, did not really lift my spirits back up. Perhaps it is not meant to. Perhaps this final chapter is about us, continuing our lives after tragedy, because that is the only sane choice.
Something inconceivable has happened, but we march on.
Related: Not coming to a theater near you:
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.
Did you ever read a book that just struck you dumb with its artistry? Traveling back in time, I have to say the first book that had such an impact on me was Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita. Such was the power of Nabokov’s artistry with words that I stayed with a book that otherwise wouldn’t have earned a spot on my list of top literary works. Humbert Humbert is pathetic (in addition to being a pedophile). Lolita is selfish (which, granted, is not entirely her fault), Quilty is creepy (made even more so by Peter Seller’s portrayal in the film), and Charlotte is simply a sacrificial character—removed from the picture in order to advance the plot.
I’m all for anti-heroes and dark comedies; it’s just that this particular set of characters, and this particular plot, wouldn’t usually intrigue me. But then there’s that voice of the author. Such thoughts and observations he puts in pathetic Humbert’s head! Such provocative language he gives to Humbert as our antihero thinks of his lovely Lolita.
Anyone who has experienced the longing of obsessive love (lust!) can relate some to Humbert, I know. We can’t condone his obsession, but we can understand the feeling of obsession, and, even, the disappointment when obsession does not lead to seduction. But I don’t think this is what makes the work universally loved and adored. No, it’s the language. It’s the mastery of Nabokov’s writing. It’s this Russian author’s love affair with English. Because when all is said and done, and we have turned the last page, we realize that it is we, the readers, who have been seduced.
So, what do you think of Lolita? Am I just wrong about my take? And what books have you read that seduced you with their exceptional artistry?
Young Bill Young here. With this post, I’m starting a recurring feature about books that have had an impact on my life. (And I’m hoping you share some books that made a difference in your life in the comments section!)
We always talk about the power of reading on this blog, and some of the best conversations I’ve had with friends are about books that opened doors, or that helped us see the world in a new way.
First up is Dad, a novel by William Wharton. I read it years and years ago, but only recently have I fully appreciated it. You see, my Dad just turned 97 years old a couple of months ago. He has been in a nursing home for three years. He has the dementia that is common to the elderly, and his short term memory is pretty non-existent. His eyesight and hearing are beyond simply failing, but he is fairly content, still has a sense of humor, still plays his harmonica on occasion, still sings songs, and still flirts with the women.
He is also able to live in the moment much of the time. Other times, not so much. Some of the stories he tells these days are fascinating! Here’s a sampling:
• He has a second son who was a quarterback for the OU Sooners and is now a sports broadcaster.
• He owns land in Peru and has been unable to find out if oil has been discovered there.
• He runs a big, successful business with lots of employees, and he is very good to them. (A care plan meeting a couple of years ago was a “board meeting” in dad’s mind)
• He’s made excellent investments and is going to buy homes for me, my sister, and the other members of his family.
• He was lost in the jungle when he was younger, and was helped by an ape that lived there. When he was rescued, “they” wouldn’t let him take the ape home with him.
• He was an Olympic track star, and won two gold medals.
None of these stories are true, but no one can accuse my father of being a boring storyteller. Where the jungle story is probably related to dad’s preference for books, articles and television programs on science and nature, the other stories just had me shaking my head. Some of the stories (like the football-playing son, the smart investor, and the Peruvian landowner) are recurring tales. Where could these be coming from? And then one day, I remembered Dad.
In Wharton’s novel, the elderly father is slipping into dementia. The author not only tells the story from the caregiver son’s point of view, but from the point of view of the father, who is struggling with his memory. In the book, Dad is beginning to confuse his fantasy life with reality.
Fantasy life. We all have one. Did my father’s fantasy life include two sons, instead of just one? Was the other son a star football player? Did he daydream of being a successful business man? (He and mom owned a neighborhood grocery store in the late forties and early fifties.) Did he dream of wealth that he could use to help his family? Did he dream of a patch of land in a beautiful South American valley?
There is much more to Wharton’s Dad than the fantasies and confusion of an old man, but that’s the one theme of the book that revisited me while contemplating my own father’s mental journeys. I suppose this is a poetic way to look at it, certainly more intriguing than the simple misfiring of synapses and the dying of brain cells.
But there is often poetry in what my father says. Last weekend, he said to my sister: “My life is just a riddle.” Perhaps Wharton’s novel has helped me to decipher a bit of that riddle.
(My dad with balloon cap and harmonica at his 97th birthday celebration.)