Rust And Stardust: Nabokov’s Lolita

What makes somebody want to tackle such a classic as Lolita? A stoic novel that unwittingly explores the darker, more abrasive side of humanity, whilst unwaveringly remaining a pillar of literature, despite all of the critical analysis and commentary proceeding it? This is a question that I should be able to answer, having recently read both Ulysses and Jude. My decision to read this great novel was based on a quote I came across: and the rest is rust and stardust. The line rounds off one of the many verses that flows through the book.

Lolita is one of the saddest novels I have ever read. It doesn’t come with a stigma of melancholy in the way that any Hardy masterpiece does; rather it creeps upon the reader slowly. When the book begins, the heroine has already died in childbirth. Humbert himself becomes deceased shortly after he finishes the manuscript, and many other deaths follow suit throughout the novel.

The story unfolds with a death – the death of Humbert Humbert’s childhood sweetheart Annabel, who succumbed to typhus. In a chilling passage where Humbert explains his attraction to what he calls ‘nymphets’ – otherwise known as underage girls (there must be an age gap of at least ten years between he and his lover), he partly excuses himself by blaming the web of young love and death that his past self was tangled in. Other deaths follow – almost like a deck of cards toppling down one after the other: first, Humbert’s wife Valeria, in childbirth, then his second wife, Charlotte, from a ‘bad accident’, which appears to have been intentional, then Lolita’s old seducer and rival of Humbert dies, from murder. From the outset, Lolita could be considered an obituary, as everyone, including Humbert himself, from coronary thrombosis, is dead on arrival.

Yet what Martin Amis dubbed ‘Nabokov’s Grand Slam’ is much more than this. Even those that have not read the novel know it to be a story of twisted paedophilia – it is one of the most talked about books in History. And yet, for those who have read it, as previously mentioned, Lolita is not only sick in its entirety, but dreadfully sad. The narcissistic, psychologically damaged Humbert is caught in the web of a disease. For that is what we all suspect paedophilia to be: a disease, because who would choose to be that way? As a lodger in the Haze household, Humbert first casts an eye upon Lolita, and comes to accept gradually, as the reader reaches the sickening dawn of realisation, that it is incumbent to him that he must be with her sexually, and that he will do whatever it takes to be in that position. This involves marrying Lolita’s Mother, Charlotte Haze, who must know that he has no interest in her, but pushes for the wedding anyway. She soon discovers Humbert’s writings about her daughter – for he is a linguist and author combined – and realises whom she has married, and what a dangerous position her daughter is in. This is a particularly gut wrenching passage, and like many others in the novel, you will want to look away, as if it were a film with an unpleasant scene, but you can’t. Nabokov reminds us how paedophilia can affect others, but also leaves the reader wondering. How does Lolita cope with the loss of innocence thrust upon her at the age of twelve? Does it usurp her psychological state? She seems coolly aware of Humbert’s intentions towards her, and although young, she is from the outset unwilling to indulge him. In any case, this is not her story. It is his.

There are parallels drawn to the feeling of a Father when his daughter first finds love, but as Nabokov will have been aware, something feels so desperately wrong about casting Humbert in a paternal role. The Freudian despair he feels as he sees Lolita with people that he considers his rivals is painful for the reader, because despite coming to loathe Humbert for all he has done, he is still the lonely protagonist who cannot become the master of his own fate, or escape the clutches of his desires. When Lolita finally settles down with a boy her age and becomes pregnant, Humbert declares himself free of his desires after all, and embarks on an affair with a woman his own age named Rita. Is it ever that easy to escape being a paedophile? Can rejection prevent it? We will never know, in Humbert’s case, because he finishes the manuscript as Nabokov finishes the tale.

Lolita, in the end, is a tragedy. It becomes a tragedy for everyone: for lonely Humbert, who dies of coronary thrombosis after finishing the manuscript; for Lolita, who dies in childbirth; for Charlotte and Valeria, for Lolita’s suitors and Charlotte’s friend, who dies of cancer. Some may argue, through all that he has done, such as murder, and attempting to seduce a twelve year old girl, that death was too good for Humbert. But Nabokov never sought to punish his creation, just to display to everyone his torturous existence.

Why do we all come and read this novel, although it disgusts us, time and time again? The feeling will never vanish. We will never cease to be sickened by the prose. It is because of the writing, Nabokov’s wonderful elegance, comparable to none. If I could describe it, I would use the author’s own quote: it is like rust and stardust. The rust is found in the elements where you wish to look away because the words burn too strongly. The stardust is everywhere else: threaded through every sentence and chapter.



The Start Of Non Fiction: In Cold Blood

Prior to In Cold Blood, my limited experience of Truman Capote had consisted of Summer Crossing, an unfinished novella that he had wanted to remain unpublished, and a segment written by Martin Amis from The Moronic Inferno. In some ways, this was the best way to tackle Capote’s magnum opus, by having as little knowledge of the author as possible. 

As every literate being is aware, In Cold Blood is the tale of the 1959 homicide of the Clutter family, carried out by Perry Smith and Dick Hicklock. It was not a conventional murder, and perhaps this is the reason that it caught Capote’s eye, and sent him travelling to Kansas with Harper Lee to discover more about the killing. The murderers, who actually begin the story as robbers, heard that the Clutter household contained thousands of pounds. Upon finding nothing of the sort, and waking the entire household, Perry Smith murdered them all. This passage is brutal, but succinct, and Perry’s words as they walk out the door are chilling: “I thought [Herbert Clutter] was a very nice man, right up until I shot him in the back of the head.” 

In Cold Blood is not a novel. It stopped being so as soon as Truman Capote took an interest in the murder and wished to document it. It crossed the line from fiction to non-fiction, and thus became the first actual non-fiction book, a martyr to its genre. Some have described it as a ‘forensic happening’, and this is exactly what it is. In Cold Blood recounts the journey of Smith and Hicklock as they go on the run to avoid being caught; navigates them through the psychology of their own strange relationship, and follows them to Death Row, where they are finally hung. The only thing that detracts from the book’s investigatory nature is Capote’s bias towards Perry Smith over Dick Hicklock. He also seems to empathise with the murderers, almost becoming melancholy when the twosome are eventually hung. 

Nothing about In Cold Blood is conventional. It stemmed from Capote’s curiosity about a homicide and ended with a camaraderie with the offenders. Yet, if you want to trace non-fiction back to its source, or even get a better understanding of the author himself, there is no better book to read.

Fluorescent Adolescent: A Review Of Boyhood

In the age of ostentatious Hollywood blockbusters, it’s rare to see the release of a small budget film that celebrates the mundane. Yet Richard Linklater’s observational masterpiece, Boyhood, does exactly that. The film itself is a wildcard, having been made over the span of twelve years, permitting the audience to watch Mason Jr (portrayed by Ellar Coltrane), age before their very eyes. 

Coming in at just under three hours, Boyhood could easily have been a boring biopic with too much unnecessary footage. Due to the unconventional method of filming (the cast would meet for one week every year, and shoot for four or five days) and the bond between Linklater and Coltrane, there were very few inessential moments. 

The film opens with Coldplay’s Yellow, whilst Patricia Arquette, who plays the Mother in the narrative, collects Mason from school. We learn that she has just been in a meeting with Mason’s teacher, and that he tried to break her pencil sharpener by filling it with rocks. Mason, far from a vacant child, with an ethereal adult presence about him, defends himself by saying that he needed some sharper rocks for his collection. 

Other details become apparent very quickly. Arquette is a single mother to two children, Mason and Samatha (as played by Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter). Their father (Ethan Hawke) is flyaway, having moved to Alaska to escape being tied down by parenthood. It is never stated why the marriage fell apart, but it becomes obvious that Mason Snr’s commitment issues played a heavy part. The juxtaposition of the biological parents is a fascinating presence in itself, as their Mum, who is responsible and represents the stability in the children’s lives, makes rather poor romantic choices. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t give the details away. It does involve moving around far more than necessary, and a constant worry for the audience that the children will become fatigued by it all, or that they’ll invariably come away in a messed up psychological state, or as incomplete humans. But they never do. Part of this has to do with Mason Snr, who becomes a far more stable and responsible Father as the film goes on. Although not always present, the fun-loving weekend Dad cares for Mason and Sam an awful lot, and the discussion he has with Mason about there being real magic in the world is undoubtedly one of the best scenes of Boyhood. 

The film, essentially, is a ‘coming of age’ tale. It sees Mason through six to eighteen, through personality development, extra curricular interests, through multiple haircuts and experiences, such as drinking, smoking, having a girlfriend, and suffering a break up for the first time. It sees Samantha from eight to twenty, from the little girl tormenting her brother with a particularly torturous rendition of Oops, I Did It Again, into a twenty year old woman who attends college. It isn’t just the children that are coming of age, though, this film follows the parents through their own tumultuous curves. Olivia (as played by Arquette) is taken through night-school, bad relationships and the final realisation that she would have been all right as a stand alone parent all along. There is a moving scene near the end where she breaks down, crying because she believes her life purpose is over now Mason is moving out and attending college, and that the only milestone that she has left is her funeral. We see Mason Snr sell his old sports car, put away the shades, obtain some facial hair, and finally grow up a bit. He gets into a new relationship with a woman who has Jesus-loving, gun-owning parents, and they have another child together. As they stand in the kitchen at Mason’s graduation party, a rather awkward encounter, Olivia says to him, speaking of his new child “you’re doing it all again.” She almost seems jealous, as if she wishes she could have the time back with her own children. 

Richard Linklater said himself that he had very little idea where the story was going, apart from the general arc, when he first sat down with Ellar. As time progressed, these annual discussions prompted Ellar to decide just how much of himself he wanted to incorporate into Mason, such as the photography obsession. The script was not written all at once, but in yearly instalments, and it worked extremely well, for the most part. The reason I say most and not all is because there were a few cliche scenes, such as when Mason was talking to a girl at a party, and towards the end there was a poorly handled restaurant scene. Overall, though, the film was fantastic, and the cinematography was an ocular delight. 

As the film unfolded, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I kept asking myself questions, such as, is Samantha being favoured over Mason? How will this affect his mental balance as he ages? Is Mason dyslexic? He never seems to do his work. But this film is not like the others that are constantly released. The scene before it fades to black sums Boyhood up perfectly. A new female Mason has met at college says to him: “You know how they say seize the moment? I think it’s the other way round. I think the moment seizes us.” And that’s exactly what Boyhood does – it shows us that it’s all the mundane moments that make a life, and it does this wonderfully.

The Acceptance Algorithm: The Cabinet’s Reshuffle

Yesterday saw the precipitate reshuffling of David Cameron’s Cabinet, and most notably, Michael Gove’s demotion. The former Education Secretary has been labelled as the most unpopular member of the Cabinet, and the main cause of resentment in the teachers’ unions. Although other ministers, such as William Hague and Owen Paterson, were used as pawns in Cameron’s desperate chess game for re-election, it is Gove’s demotion that has attracted the most attention, and those who are more politically astute have criticised the decision. 

Michael Gove, known best for the setting up of free schools and for being a stalwart of educational reform, has fallen under significant criticism over the duration of his tenure as education minister. His idea for the adaptation of the A-Levels – abandoning modules in favour of a two year course ending with just one exam, has done nothing to cause the unions to look upon him favourably. Yet, I still find myself asking the question: why Gove? Why, in a party filled with uninspiring lightweights, would any leader worth their salt wish to demote a political heavyweight, somebody with ideas and the power to carry them out? 

The answer to this question is unfortunately all too simple. The Conservatives, despite all of Cameron’s recent waffle about Gove being a “big political brain”, aren’t looking for unpopular ministers on their quest to re-election. Cameron also promised that a third of the cabinet would be female by 2015, and currently the standing is 25%. This aberrant feminism may cost Cameron the votes that he so desperately needs. Feminism, misconstrued as it often is, refers to equality of the sexes, not prioritisation of one. By openly admitting that he has selected Nicky Morgan, amongst others, based on their sexuality alone, David Cameron has displayed a remarkable ignorance about the concept of feminism, one which I am certain he shall live to regret. 

The Cabinet Re-Shuffle has been nothing more than a pathetic grasp for votes, but it has cost Cameron – and the rest of the Conservatives – arguably their best Cabinet minister. They have also lost capable Foreign and Environment Secretaries William Hague and Owen Paterson. And if there’s one thing Mr Cameron ought to have taken away from his time in the House Of Commons, it’s that his Ministers may be unpopular, but nobody likes a spineless turncoat, and his latest move may have just ensured the success of Miliband and the rest of the circus troupe in the next election. 

Once Again, The Media Misses The Path To Success In The World Cup: It’s All About Being A Team Player

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Luis Suarez, Karim Benzema, Mario Balotelli – what do all these names, uttered copious times over the past month, all have in common? They are all footballers, and each play for their country’s national team. These names have been singled out continuously throughout the past month, and the players themselves have been selected through poorly thought out elitism to represent the team for which they play. They have not been chosen as captains, or for a particular sporting achievement, but have been touted as celebrities in the sport; fawned over by media personalities and raised to the pinnacle of praise – only to be dropped, mocked, and berated when they failed to live up to the impossibly high expectation. 

And yet when the final was played, the ones left holding the trophy did not identify as an individual surrounded by shadows, but as a team. It was a result that should have been expected, because Germany, insulted and ignored as they had been throughout the tournament, remained void of any ‘hero’ that they relied on to save them from losing. In fact, as each player raised the trophy and kissed it in turn, it was clear to see just how hard they – and manager Joaquim Loew, had worked to create and maintain the team structure. 

If there’s anything that this World Cup in particular has proven, it is that a team can never consist of just one player. We saw this with Balotelli and Ronaldo failing to save their countries in the group stages, with Suarez being banned for four months due to biting his Italian opposition, with Brazil crumbling after the departure of Neymar, and finally, the much talked about ‘humiliation’ following Argentina, and thus inevitably, according to the media, Messi’s defeat in the final on Sunday night. 

The ‘Ozil vs Messi’ media treatment is something that has intrigued me throughout the cup. Mesut Ozil, the 25 year old German Midfielder, who also currently plays for Arsenal, has been constantly criticised throughout the tournament, with sports writers dubbing him as ‘lazy’, and leading some to be confused as to why Arsenal chose to spend so much money on him (the purchase from Real Madrid cost the club almost £42.5 million). Yet, statistics show that Ozil, who according to one article ‘barely registered an important kick’, was one of the most vital players in the cup. He assisted goals more than any other player, scored two goals (one of which was extremely vital for the team’s success), and had an 88% passing accuracy. For anyone who watched the matches, it was clear to see that Ozil was one of the key players, dribbling the length of the pitch with the ball and creating goal opportunities for his teammates. 

Messi, meanwhile, known for his skills at Barcelona, and also for being regularly compared to Madrid’s Ronaldo, had received the highest of praise superseding the final, where he even won the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player. However, upon closer inspection, Messi was at his finest in the group stages, where he scored the five clinching goals that pulled his team through. In the knockout stages, it was a different story. The quarter final games against Switzerland and Belgium were much closer than expected, considering the team was being led by such a maestro. The semi final against Holland was won by penalties, after Argentina failed to get a goal during the given ninety minutes and the half hour of extra time. Messi, dubbed “the Messiah” by his loyal cult following, failed to live up to the hype. But should we blame him, or feel sympathy towards him? Why does the media seem incapable of levelling the playing field – literally – and focusing on every player? What about Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano? Perhaps this is why they criticise Ozil, because he has faith in Germany as a team, as proven by the countless times he has passed the ball to another player to allow them a shot at goal. 

This is not charity on Ozil’s part. He knows, like the majority of the football-watching world knows, that Germany are at their strongest in years. Thomas Muller, coming second for the Golden Ball, scored four goals for the team. Bastian Schweinstager and captain Philip Lahm were the workhorses of the team, transporting the ball from one end to the other with relative ease. And let us not forget Manuel Neuer, the best goalkeeper to enter the world cup in years, and the rightful winner of the Golden Glove. 

Germany didn’t win in spite of not having a star player, they won because of it. None of the members of the team looked to one person to score their goals, or to lead them. They’re all star players, and perhaps more importantly, they’re also all team players. Argentina, as demonstrated by their weak attack and the way they rely so heavily on Lionel Messi, are not. 

The Puritanical Conundrum: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, set in Boston in 1642, explores the darker themes of sin, Puritanism and societal rejection. The Scarlet Letter follows the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who gave birth to a child after committing adultery. She is exhibited as a sinner on the gallows in front of a judgemental crowd, and a red ‘A’ is emblazoned on her breast. This is, of course, the scarlet letter that the novel’s title refers to, and it is a topic constantly referred to throughout the book, as a physical embodiment of the sinful action that Hester has carried out. 

There is a twisted love story that runs like a red ribbon throughout the novel – and it is worth noting that few convey regretted romance half as well as Hawthorne. Hester’s long lost husband, who has been rather inadequate due to his spending long amounts of time at sea, recognises her on the gallows. When he is told of her adultery, he instantly becomes angry, demanding to know the name of her lover. Despite being reassured that her husband has forgiven her, Hester will not reveal his name. Her husband then adopts a pseudonym, Roger Chillingworth, in order to discover the lover’s identity without Hester’s help. 

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the resident Minister, falls ill, causing Roger Chillingworth, as a physician, to move in with him. Chillingworth suspects that the mental illness could be due to inner torment, because the Reverend is hiding a dark secret. His suspicions are confirmed when he sees a scarlet letter on the Minister’s chest, revealing his shame. 

The Scarlet Letter is a novel that deals head on with the stigmas attached to sin, betrayal, and how your actions have the capability to make you an outcast. Hawthorne subtly makes the argument that perhaps the problem lies with the Puritanical society, rather than those who have sinned. The scarlet ‘A’ itself is used continually as a metaphor, as it stays with the adulterers until death – even when Hester tries to remove it, her daughter Pearl won’t acknowledge her, because she has become familiar with the letter, without understanding what it truly means. 

Pearl is used as a juxtaposition in this book, as she is born – as we all are, without sin, and this is used in contrast to Hester’s already tainted lifestyle. As Pearl grows older and inherits money from Roger after his death, she mixes with the most affluent in society, all of whom are unaware of her previous circumstances. Hawthorne demonstrates that people are too quick to judge when they themselves have not been involved in an event, using Pearl as his pawn in the metaphor. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne has been outshadowed in American Literature – by those such as Melville, who stood on his shoulders and reached for the stars. If there is a classic novel that deals brilliantly with themes such as sin and adultery, it is The Scarlet Letter.

Cards Against Humanity: Jude The Obscure

I first decided that I wanted to read Jude The Obscure during my perusal of Tom Sharpe’s first Wilt novel. A scene unfolds with some lecturers discussing a man in the cafeteria. “He gassed himself,” one man professed. “Why, was he reading Jude The Obscure?” Wilt retorted. Hardy’s final, and darkest tragedy, drew more attention than any other of his books, but it was this comment that persuaded me to attempt it. 

Jude is, in essence, a tragedy. However, Hardy intersperses it with little threads of hope – Jude believing that he’ll attend Oxford, or that Sue shall fall in love with him. It clings, as Martin Amis once said, to its own tragic curve, but the fall is not dramatic. It seems as though failure surrounds the novel, and Jude does not realise how close to the precipice he’s standing. 

Jude Fawley is an eleven year old orphan when the book begins and Hardy marks the commencement of his misfortunes by creating an unpleasant living situation with his Aunt. Whilst taking night classes at a school he can’t afford to attend, Jude is introduced to the world of classics, and, more importantly, Christminster. Christminster is Hardy’s anonymous version of Oxford, and it is where Jude spends his time longing to go. Self taught and extremely erudite, Jude would be a probable candidate for the university were he not the protagonist trapped inside the hapless bubble of a Hardy novel. Instead, Balliol College rejects him, and he becomes entranced by a girl of the name Arabella. They marry quickly, but the adrenaline filled romance ends, the flame flickering out just as quickly as it was lit. Jude trains as a stone mason and moves to Christminster, longing to be near the University even if he cannot attend it. There he meets his cousin, Sue Bridehead, who is arguably one of the most salient heroines in literature, and certainly one of Thomas Hardy’s finest creations along with Far From The Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba Everdeen. 

For love is another thread that runs through Jude; tied with the black thread of misfortune. Jude confuses love with infatuation and marries Arabella, a youthful mistake that anchors him throughout his life. When he falls for Sue Bridehead, she is already in a relationship with a lecturer, Mr Philliston, but she desperately wants Jude to love her, even if she cannot return his feelings, as explained later in the book. Sue marries her lover just as she realises she is in love with Jude, and ends things with him just a few months later to be with Jude. Jude divorces Arabella, and marries Sue. They take Arabella’s child along with children of their own, and move to a church in Christminster which is in need of repair. 

Each tragic event in Jude leads up to one singular circumstance: the murder which occurs at the hands of the eldest child, who has already seen how desperate his life will be. He kills his siblings before hanging himself behind a wardrobe. Just a few days later, Sue gives birth to another already dead child. If any few pages in Jude are inclined to make you agree with Tom Sharpe, it will be these. This event is the pinnacle of tragedy; more than Shakespeare could ever have inflicted with Hamlet or Macbeth. It leaves the family in a state of disarray, with Sue running back to her ex husband, from whom it is revealed that she never truly divorced, and Jude remarries Arabella, living the rest of his life in relative discontent. 

There has been much said about Jude: what persuaded Hardy to write it, and why it was written in such a way. It is seen as a plea for freedom and rationality between men and women, and enlightenment from religious oppression. It is a novel about breaking societal norms, and the perils of the way Jude and Sue live their lives. The main characters are on the periphery of a changing world, one that is leaving the ages of darkness behind and embracing modernist culture. Jude and Sue are on the cusp of the alteration, causing them to be forced back into loveless marriages and survive the death of their children. 

Jude The Obscure is one of the heavyweight classics, and it must be read. If you can survive reading it without desiring to gas yourself, then it’s surely a bonus. If not, the Wilt series contains four books.