Wordplay

I  love giving books as gifts. But I must bear in mind that not everyone enjoys reading as much  and also even if the person reads, my  gift  may weigh on his  or her conscience as they feel obliged to  read the book I have given them. It may seem like you are imposing your likes on others or that it is a matter of convenience because I love books and I hope you love reading as much as I do.The pleasure is absolutely mine to present a book  to a friend. I imagine having a bookshop where I can introduce reads to people who come browsing but then if I were to run a business in selling books, I would have to carry a wide array of books that will sell so as to sustain such a bookselling business. I also love fashion and designs that are avant-garde and innovative but then if  I were to be in charge of purchasing clothes and shoes for selling in a shop, I would have to be more savvy about the populace tastes even if they are not up my street. I reckon it will challenge me to think in a broader perspective and that can be fun too.

I definitely love receiving books as presents so long as they are not about vampires or some self-help manuals. Lolita is one fiction that I received way back from the time when I was  to start living as a grown-up.  It took me decades to finally read it though there had been some false starts. I remember reading Amy Tan’s musings in Opposite of Fate entitled ‘ my love affair with vladimir nabokov’ whereby she writes that if she is ever stranded on a desert island, she would choose Lolita by Vladmir Nabokovto provide her with endless entertainment and literary puzzles’. But then Amy Tan has also written that  ‘Thanks to my mother, I  was raised to have a morbid imagination. When I was a child, she often talked about death as warning, as an unavoidable matter of fact.’

Apparently  anyone  who reads Lolita  will be besotted with its prose as it is stylish and brilliant so I know I have to read it ( Nope  it is not the FOMO me talking).  You will be awed by its fluidity and wordplay if you can get past the icky and hideous idea about Humbert Humbert’s fixation on a twelve-year-old girl as a  thirty-seven year old man and his insane  and delusional behaviour partly because he might have been pining for Annabel, the girlfriend he had when he was thirteen years of age. Annabel who was  a few months his junior died of typhus in Corfu. They had a tryst and were going to meet again but she died. He has been haunted by how he feels for Annabel and thus when he meets Lolita, in his what we would commonly regard as pervert and cunning mind, he loves his little Lo. He claims, ‘until at last,  twenty- four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.’

Nabokov writes,

I LEAF again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity? When I try to analyse my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which cause each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past. I am convinced, however, that in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel.

If you know that the unreliable narrator is writing the apologia from his cell awaiting his trial for murder, you may get past whatever  misgivings you have about the subject matter that is unsavoury and that the narrator is sick, deranged and comical, you will enjoy its astounding prose despite its appalling subject.  If you find it acceptable that  Humbert Humbert is suffering from unrequited love and mentally unstable,  you might put aside your horror and begin to pity the character who is otherwise really creepy. Here are some of Humbert’s verbose entries.

This daily headache in the opague air of this tombal jail is disturbing, but I must persevere, Have written more than a hundred pages and not got anywhere yet. My calendar is getting confused. That must have been around August 15,1947.Don’t think I can go on. Heart, head – everything. Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, . Repeat till the page is full, printer.

As greater authors than I have put it : Let readers imagine,’ etc. On second thought, I may as well give those imaginations a kick in the pants. I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita for ever; but I also knew she would not be for ever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a ‘young girl’, and then, into a ‘college girl – that horror of horrors The words ‘for ever’ referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood.

My lawyer has suggested I give a clear, frank account of the itinerary we followed, and I suppose I have reached here a point where I cannot avoid that chore. ‘ – Excerpts from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

From the foreword in the fiction , we know from the beginning of the story that the narrator died of coronary thrombosis, a few days before his trial for murder was scheduled to start in November 1952. The foreword is part of the fiction. The fictional foreword writer is Dr John Ray who has been given the manuscript by Humbert’s lawyer to edit by reason of a clause in his client’s will which empowered the lawyer to prepare ‘Lolita’ for print. Dr John Ray who is as fictional as the rest of the characters is treating the subject a psycho- pathological study and in his foreword writes ‘ and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader.’

The manuscript begins with his defence for his evil mind, Lolita had a precursor.

In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.’ – part one of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Despite its disturbing and controversial subject matter, Lolita has been hailed as a classic. Amy Tan is very impressed with Nabokov and you have to agree with her if you are passionate about words. I am.

When I was a law student in Sydney , I answered an ad stating  that  a Chinese interpreter was required. It had turned out that a barrister was going to visit his client of Chinese descent at the gaol and he needed a  translator. The man had engaged himself in some fights that broke out in Chinatown one late night  and someone was killed during the incident. The barrister asked him why he did not leave the scene when the fight started. He explained that he could not possibly leave because of comradeship and loyalty.  He said the words ‘ yi qi ‘ 義氣. Did he say it in Mandarin or Cantonese?  I  can no longer remember but I know that was the answer he gave and when the two words are together it means brotherhood. The  barrister then said to him ‘ But why?  You would be running against the law! ’.  I knew then that I could not be a criminal lawyer.

In April I received Idiopathy by Sam Byers, a belated birthday gift from a client. A pleasant surprise indeed.  I had just been quite caught up with  some work the previous month  and I could well take a breather and resume reading whatever I preferred. I started reading Idiopathy almost immediately.

Idiopathy is Sam Byers’s first novel. There is no enthralling storyline but there are compelling characters. Excellent prose and narratives. Though the main characters namely Katherine, Nathan and Daniel are flawed and far from likeable, they feel real as they each have their idiosyncrasies, absolutely self-centred, self-obsessed and have issues with intimacy. They are  known to each other and had been close  at some point of their lifetime but they are unable to figure out how they feel about one another now.  Katherine and Daniel used to be a couple and Nathan was their friend.

They are damaged individuals and have unresolved pent-up issues with their respective families.

Katherine is self-destructive and a cynic.

Byers  writes,

Katherine didn’t like to think of herself as sad. It had a defeatist ring about it . It lacked the pizzazz of, say, rage or mania. But she had to admit that these days she was waking up sad a lot more often than she was waking up happy. What she didn’t admit, and what she would never admit, was that this had anything whatsoever to do with Daniel.’

The story begins with a scene from a family gathering where Katherine attends while her sister has somehow avoided due to being tied up with some terrible cow business. Katherine has moved from London to Norwich and she had moved together with Daniel ostensibly for his job. Now they have broken up.  Daniel is in a relationship with Angelica who  is completely different from Katherine. Angelica is sweet, obliging, caring and has travelled to’ give the impression of nomadic flux, of freedom – a concept Angelica and he friends seemed to hold dear.

Katherine is the facilities manager at a local telecommunications company. She is paid to be obsessive compulsive as she ‘monitored chairs for ongoing ergonomic acceptability and suitable height in relation to desks and workstations, which  she checked in turn to ensure compliance with both company guidelines and national standards for safe and healthy working environments. She performed weekly fire alarm checks and logged the results. Each morning she inspected the building for general standards of hygiene, presentation and safety. She fired at least one cleaner per month. She was widely resented and almost constantly berated.’

Her father has left them ‘with a woman he‘d met at the doctor’s surgery while waiting to have his cholesterol levels checked. He sends two cards a year, for Christmas and her birthday.

Katherine’s mother is quite dysfunctional and as Katherine was growing up, her mother was  found drunk on Pernod at ungodly hours of the day. Somehow Katherine and her sister have turned out reasonably OK.

Katherine hates the idea that ‘she might be the sort of person who had mummy issues. She was, or so she liked to think, much too alternative and free a person to find herself constrained by an unimaginative inability to slough off all those childhood hurts.

She is  full of contradictions and  a rather morbid character. ‘As a child,  Katherine had almost always imagined her death to be the result of suicide.’ Now , older as she is, she is ‘aware of the utter lack or romanticism in killing herself.

Daniel also has his own insecurities to work with. He comes across  a self-indulgent character and he prefers genuine quantifiable achievement such as the yearly bonus. Like any liberal he wants less to change the world than simply to be around people who wants the world to be different in all the same ways. So he is thrilled when Angelica  voices her opinions on global responsibility and has a sense of the wider world, everything Katherine is not.

When Daniel was six years old, his father took him to the office for the morning as he had an earache and could not go to school. His father could not leave him at home alone as his mother was away visiting her sister. Since the age of four, he had developed a morbid fear of solitude. Some years later, his mother left to live with a man she’d known for four months and two weeks. He would wake in the night even more often and always suffered a sense of loss that would, over time,  infect his daily sense of being.

Katherine and Daniel argue a great deal.

 ‘A typical argument between Daniel and Katherine, during the phase of their relationship in which they’d become adept at disagreement, began with Daniel passing Katherine a book he’d read and urging her to read it, telling her the ending in particular was fantastic. Katherine became angry, saying the book was now ruined. Daniel pointed out that he hadn’t told her anything about the ending, he’d just said he liked it.

‘Now there was a burden, she thought: loving someone; being loved. Dreams of houses. All that crap about forever. The conversation about kids that never quite happens. And what a weight to be loved, too; to know that another person had invested their future happiness in your weak self. The walking on eggshells; the daily effort not to hurt, and when you did, as of course you always would, all that effort was erased, the memory of all that you’d done to spare them pain simply obliterated by pain itself.”

Nathan has just come out of rehab and he contacts Katherine whom he once had a crush on. Katherine then contacts Daniel and counts on him to make the arrangement for their get-together. Nathan has moved back to live with his parents.

Nathan has been an awkward and problem child. To Nathan’s aghast, his  mother, Helen Coverley,  is MotherCourage who has founded the internet support Mothers Who Survive and she has also published a book entitled Mother Courage : One woman’s Battle Against Maternal Blame. In her book, she calls him Harry.  Nathan watches his mother  appear on television to talk about her journey as a mother and makes herself a martyr dealing with her guilt and shame for having  Nathan, their only child behaving the way he did. Nathan was doing drugs, tattoos, organising raves etc.To his parents, Nathan and his generation do not understand the most basic fact of life and they are perpetual adolescents.

Nathan is so upset about his mother’s publication and television appearance that he walks into the bookshop and buys all the remaining copies of the book in the shop. He then carries the books across town to the river and hurl them all one by one ‘into the grey depths‘, rip out pages. Byers writes,

He saw paragraphs of his past as they caught the wind and were gone.’

Idiopathy features a mysterious cattle epidemic that lands the title of the book. Sam Byers‘s first novel is peppered with wit and dark humour. It is a meditation on zones of discomfort, love and loneliness. He is insightful and indeed a talented writer.

2 thoughts on “Wordplay

  1. Lolita is one of the most well-written books in literature despite its controversial subject matter. Reading it was a rather surreal experience for me: equal parts enthralling and disturbing. Not many works of literature have that quality. Recently read that the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was inspired by Nabokov in writing her judgments. He really was a masterful writer. How did you feel when you read Lolita, Lifan? Was it emotionally perturbing or were you able to move pass that on account of the prose?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Parveen Thank you for dropping by my blog. With such detailed narration of all that hideous intent lurking in a demented mind of the narrator, Lolita was initially a rather disturbing read for me as there is nothing poetic about the subject matter. As I read on, some of the descriptions can be comical, far out and unreal.The narration is unreliable, often it feels like the narrator is making everything up and he really lives in his head, suffers for his unrequited love .He is hideous but the plot is dark and funny. I would like to re-read it Lolita for its amazing prose and how the sentences are so well crafted. It definitely helps one to write better. Interesting to know that the late Justice Ruth Baden Ginsburg was inspired by Nabokov in writing her judgments. Thanks for the fun fact.

    Liked by 1 person

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