I Feel Famous

And I will continue to feel famous for at least the next couple hours, which is why I’m writing this now, before my giddiness wears off.

About a month ago, I mentioned that I had recently joined a new writing website called Inkitt (original post here). It’s a slow-moving community, and at this point my presence there is irregular. I’ll stop on, leave a couple reviews, check the forums to see if any friends are there, and then go about my life. Today I remembered that I had received a couple of emails from Inkitt’s notification system, so I logged in to check. I’m so glad I did.

I received the following review on my short story “Swimming in the Rhone”:

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Holy wow. I’ve received praise before, but nothing remotely close to this. This is a comprehensive breakdown of my writing, and shockingly, it doesn’t find the story wanting. Granted, there’s another review on the same story which gives a couple of stylistic pointers. I know that my writing doesn’t suit everyone, that something can always be tweaked and improved. A review like this, though, is a huge boost. It’s a good reason to keep on writing on the days when nothing seems to come out right.

But wait. It gets better.

I read this review and I smiled a lot and texted a few friends about it. Then, when I went to check the forums, I saw a new group had been published:

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Do you see what I see? Dr. Joshua Grasso. That’s the guy who left my review. Apparently, he’s a big shot on the website.

So, I started digging into him a little bit. He has an English Ph.D. He’s a professor at a university in Oklahoma. He also runs what appears to be a successful blog– it’s not in quite the same style as what I’m doing here, but I’m sure I could learn from his example.

The review means so much more once the reviewer is definitively credible. Any thorough and thoughtful review makes me happy, but now I know that I have the good opinion of someone whose opinion is more broadly recognised as valuable.

I’ve already thanked Dr. Grasso for his review. He also shared “Swimming in the Rhone” on his Twitter feed, and he added it to his “Favourite Stories” reading list, which has a total of only ten stories on it. As a rookie blogger with a tiny Internet presence, I greatly appreciate his promotion, and I’d like to reciprocate in the small way that I can. For anyone interested, Dr. Grasso’s blog can be found here.

I’ll also be posting “Swimming in the Rhone” in a post here on Ampersandras later this week, but if you’d like to check it out on Inkitt, you can find it here.

Okay, rant over. I’m famous.

Book Review: Lolita

It’s been a week since I posted anything (update: I just posted “Dear Chicago”), and it’s been three or four days since I finished Lolita. I freely admit that I’ve been putting off writing this review.

I didn’t want to finish Lolita. It’s one of those books that are difficult to pick back up once put down, because you know that it can’t possibly end well. I took a break from Lolita hoping that the girl would die and that Humbert Humbert would end up castrated. That seemed like the best possible conclusion. It wasn’t until I had put down the novel and felt a huge rush of relief that I realised how nauseating I found Humbert’s narrative of his sexual experiences with an adolescent girl.

I’ve done little additional research on this novel and its reception, but it has quite the reputation. It’s controversial, obviously, because of the topics it considers. It was originally received, as I understand, with Lolita cast as a villain, a twelve-year-old seductress to whom Humbert Humbert could not help but succumb. It’s supposed to be erotic.

I’ve been pondering for days how I might write my reaction to Lolita without becoming overly moralising, raging against the academic community’s reflection of a victim-blaming mentality in this novel. It’s a story about pedophilia and we already know that. What I want to focus on instead is the power of perspective that Nabokov utilises masterfully, to the point where the reader is tempted to sympathise with Humbert Humbert despite the rational knowledge of the pain he inflicts on an adolescent. From Humbert Humbert’s perspective, Lolita is a love story. He falls in love with a nymphet, possesses her, loses her, finds her, and loves her still.

“Nymphet” is the crucial word. It’s such a small detail, the use of the term “nymphet” instead of “girl,” but it makes all the difference. Humbert Humbert describes nymphets as a virtually separate species that appear as adolescent girls, but he ascribes to them a sexuality and maturity far beyond any twelve-year-old. The nymphet can be as young as nine and as old as approximately fourteen, and she has an aura about her that a normal little girl could never hope to capture. Humbert’s description of Lolita as a nymphet means that, according to him, she can’t be harmed by his eroticisation like other girls her age. Essentially, she’s asking for it. She is the temptress and he falls under her spell. In case his reader has a difficult time imagining a little girl with such a powerful allure, Humbert Humbert assures us that this is no ordinary little girl, but a nymphet, who exists outside of social norms and expectations.

The power of the novel is the degree to which Nabokov digs his heels into Humbert Humbert and his personality, wrapping a web around the reader until we can’t help but sympathise. We want Humbert to find Lolita, to live in contentment with her. When Charlotte finds a diary of Humbert’s fantasies, we panic because he’s found out. We’re loyal to his secret, complicit in his crime without realising it. Nabokov puts into the hands of the reader as much power of interpretation as he possibly can– he never slips out of Humbert’s voice, never fumbles and reveals him overtly as a villain. Instead, we sink further and further into Humbert Humbert’s account, marking points of justification and conjuring up a tangible, realistic human voice that takes the place of a faceless and unnamed pedophile.

Through Lolita, Nabokov reveals himself as a master of erotic language. None of the scenes are explicit, all sexual activity hides under a thin veil of euphemism, but sensuality pervades every moment, transition, and moment of musing. Humbert Humbert is obsessed with the smallest of details, the glimmer of bared skin between a shirt and shorts, the shape of lips biting into an apple, the shower in the next room creaking on. Even with the companionship of Lolita, he remains aware of the presence of other “nymphets” and the sexual satisfaction their proximity provides. The attention to sensual detail turns the entire novel into an engagement and satisfaction of the senses, and Humbert Humbert’s underlying obsession with sexual stimulation bleeds through even when he takes the time to describe the most mundane of situations, be it breakfast or a car ride.

Finishing Lolita was a relief. Spending a week in Humbert Humbert’s mind made me want to take a mental bath and try to scrub myself clean of his perversion of every possible scene. My emotional reaction made it hard to analyse, hence the time I’ve taken to write this review. In terms of technical skill, Nabokov has me dazzled. I can’t imagine a more convincing insight into Humbert Humbert’s mind, although admittedly I’m not sure I would want one.

I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to the big “why” question: why would anyone want to write this, and why would anyone want to read it? My first semester at Loyola, I took an introductory poetry course. One of the poems we read and discussed in class was written from the perspective of a serial rapist, with indications of mental disability and some limited insight into the rapist’s childhood and the satisfaction he achieved through his actions. Several of my classmates couldn’t push past how disgusting the content of the poem was, and we moved into a discussion about when or whether art can go too far. I asserted, and I still maintain, that art has no limits, in subject or style. In writing, the artist has no responsibility beyond telling a story and revealing some species of truth. The artist doesn’t have to provide a moral solution or judgment; that’s for the reader to conjure, if they choose. I have no idea what drove Nabokov to write a novel from the perspective of a pedophile, but I respect that this is a story that has just much right to be told as any other. Perhaps Nabokov wanted to point out that it might be easy for us to condemn people like Humbert Humbert when they remain faceless and nameless, but they still equal everyone else in complexity. Perhaps he simply found the notion of writing from this niche perspective an attractive project. It’s the way that his work resonates in us, the emotions and thoughts that he stirs up and the clear water that he obscures with the muck of uncertainty that has the power to change both art and life.

On the back cover of my copy of Lolita, there’s a quote from Vanity Fair that calls this novel “the only convincing love story of our century.” That quote sums up both the emotional problems I have with the story and the intellectual interest it piques in me. A love story? Is that what this is? My disgust at Humbert Humbert overwhelmingly screams no. It depends, however, on what definition of love is at play. From Humbert Humbert’s perspective, he might very well tell a story of love. What if the novel were retold from Lomita’s perspective? Then it might be a story of corruption, or abuse, or destruction. And then there’s my perspective, as the reader. I don’t call this love, but I suppose someone else might. I do wonder what Nabokov might have intended. Did he know he was writing a love story– or did he have a very different tale in mind?

Cited: Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Random House Inc., 1955. Print.

Dear Chicago

Dear Chicago,

My dad doesn’t like you very much. He’s happy that Lakeshore Drive exists so that he can, for the most part, avoid you, and he says you’re a cesspool, which I find rather funny. I want you to know, though, that I’ve grown extraordinarily fond of you. I’m sorry that for now I can’t stay, but I’m sure I’ll be back soon. You have a lot of my friends.

Yesterday my dad and I made the drive for me to say goodbye, and the fog obscured the skyline, but I could feel it anyway. There’s a rush that I feel coming into the city, like I manage to connect to the millions of lives going on around me, busy busy busy, compact and glowing. Once I’m past 95th I can imagine the Red Line, and while Dad and I ease into traffic my mind is spiralling up the tracks to my campus, to my apartment and my two goofy roommates. I like knowing that we’re all in the same place, tied into the web of energy that stretches across the sky.

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Chicago, you should know that I’ve come to consider you home. I hope you don’t mind that you’ll have to share the title with Detroit; it came first, after all. But over the last year and a half, a year and a half of growth and exploration and imaginings, I’ve come to love my life in view of the skyline, with Lady Lake and her sass and the wind shoving its way between buildings. I’m comfortable and confident and happy on campus, with a constant awareness of the people I love close by and the almost tangible notion of opportunity peeking its head around the corner. I’ve even grown fond of the instant mac and cheese, late night soda runs, constantly refilling the toilet paper roll, and communicating primarily in grunts, groans, and hisses early in the morning. I like letting the days roll by in this bizarre space of pretended adulthood and admitted youth, where in the morning I’m drafting emails to professors at my most formal and in the afternoon my roommate and I are getting Happy Meals at McDonald’s for lunch, because Pokémon toys are the bomb.

Chicago, I think it would be fair to say that this epoch of my life belongs to you. Maybe as far as measured time goes we didn’t stay together for long, but it feels like an age, in the best way possible. This isn’t really goodbye– it’s just a rain check. Take care of my friends while I’m gone, please. They’re special.

Yours,

Madeleine

P.S. I’ve decided to forgive you for that time I fell in the lake. I know you were just messing around ~M

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