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Can You Love the Writing and Loathe the Book?

Updated: Jun 26

Image: An extract from the movie poster for Lolita, by Stanley Kubrick (Source: IMDb)


Writing has the power to challenge every sense. It also has the power to challenge what is culturally acceptable. The current phenomenon of banning books (see my previous blog ‘Burning Books’, December 2022) has thrown literature and morality into the arena again.


Some books manage to captivate us with their exquisite prose, but simultaneously repel us with their subject matter. This paradox is particularly evident in works such as Vladimir Nabokov's 'Lolita', Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 'Dangerous Liaisons', and the anonymously written 'The Romance of Lust'. Among the literary establishment these novels (and many others) elicit a complex mix of admiration and revulsion, raising an intriguing question: can you love the writing and loathe the book?


Image: The book cover of folio's publication of Lolita. (Source: Goodreads)


Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" is perhaps the quintessential example of this literary dichotomy. The novel, narrated by the seemingly sophisticated but morally bankrupt Humbert Humbert, details his obsessive and illegal relationship with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, whom he nicknames Lolita. Nabokov's command of language is nothing short of masterful. His prose is lyrical, rich, and beautifully crafted, often described by some as some of the finest in the English language.


Even if you only read the opening passage of Lolita, it is masterful writing. “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. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” One reviewer in the New York Times was astounded that Nabokov had managed to get inside his head but wrote in such a way that he was instructed in what he did with his mouth!


In his 2005 article, Stephen Metcalf asks the question ‘Lolita at 50 – Is Nabokov’s masterpiece still shocking?’ His conclusion is that "unlike James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ two other novels once deemed obscene by the tribunes of moral upkeep— Lolita is a disgusting book."


Nabokov’s mastery of the language he adopted (his mother tongue was Russian) serves as a stark contrast to the horrifying nature of Humbert's actions and thoughts. Readers find themselves mesmerized by Nabokov's writing, even as they are repulsed by the content. Nabokov doesn't just tell a story; he immerses readers in the twisted mind of Humbert Humbert, forcing them to confront their discomfort and moral outrage. The brilliance of Nabokov's prose makes the story all the more disturbing, creating a tension that leaves readers balancing on the knife edge of what is one moment enchanting and appalling the next.


Image: Penguin Classic's cover of Dangerous Liaisons. (Source: Goodreads)


"Dangerous Liaisons," written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, is another novel that evokes mixed feelings. Presented through a series of letters, the book reveals the manipulative schemes of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, who use seduction as a weapon to control and destroy those around them. The format allows readers to delve deeply into the characters' deceitful minds, offering glimpses into their manipulative strategies.


Image: A promotional image for the movie Dangerous Liaisons with Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich (Image: IMDb).


Laclos's writing is sharp and incisive, capturing the wit and cunning of his characters. Don’t be misled by the sanitised story portrayed in 1988 movie with Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and the ingenue Uma Thurman. The young woman in the book is disturbingly years younger than that portrayed by Thurman. The elegance of Laclos’s prose stands in stark contrast to the cruelty of his character’s actions. As readers, we are drawn into the sophistication of the writing (translated from the French original) and the twists of the plot, even as we are horrified by the moral decay depicted. The tension between the beauty of the writing and the ugliness of the characters' deeds creates a compelling yet unsettling reading experience.


Image: Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, book cover (Source: Goodreads)


The work of Henry Miller has been criticised in a similar way. Miller in his day, rebelled against those that questioned the morality of his works. 'The Tropic of Cancer' was for example, an essay against the establishment. His work 'The Immorality of Morality' delves into the concept of censorship. Miller challenges the conventional notions of morality imposed by society, arguing that they are often restrictive, superficial, and inherently flawed. Miller sees art and literature as means to explore and understand human nature in its entirety, beyond the constraints of conventional morality. Through art, individuals can confront and make sense of their instincts, emotions, and desires, fostering a more authentic sense of morality.


Miller’s 'Tropic of Cancer' was shocking in the way that he ignored numerous taboos and blurred fiction with his raw autobiography. He challenged the literary norms of his time, sparking widespread outrage, censorship, and legal battles, while ultimately paving the way for greater freedom of expression in literature. Personally, I find that Miller’s controversial works have overshadowed his talent as a writer. I use several of his quotes in ‘Darwin’s Wake’. Who could argue with his "the one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough of is love."


With significantly less literary merit 'The Romance of Lust,' is a Victorian novel, that pushes the boundaries of content. Unlike 'Lolita' and 'Dangerous Liaisons,' it is a book lacks literary finesse but still holds a place in the history of literature. The novel explores a wide range of sexual fantasies and taboos, often delving into controversial territory. At the same time, it chronicles history of the Victorian era.


Image: Book cover for The Romance of Lust, author unknown (Source: Goodreads)

 

The writing in 'The Romance of Lust' is almost documentary in style, lacking the poetic elegance of Nabokov, Miller or Laclos. However, it captures the raw and unfiltered nature of human sexuality in a way that is both candid and provocative. Readers may question the content, as it undeniably challenges societal norms and exposes the hidden desires of its time. The discomfort it evokes is part of its impact, forcing readers to confront their own perspectives.


The common thread in each of the works I have cited is their ability to catalyse a strong emotional response. The beauty of the writing draws readers in, while the controversial content pushes them away. This paradox is central to the power of these works. They force us to grapple with our own moral and aesthetic judgments, blurring the lines between art and ethics. Afterall one of the things that all writers should aspire to is making their reader think.



References:

1.       Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov (1955). Penguin

2.       Ulysses. James Joyce (1922). Vintage

3.       Lady Chatterley’s Lover. D. H. Lawrence (1928). Modern Library

4.       Dangerous Liaisons. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782). Penguin Classics

5.       The Tropic of Cancer. Henry Miller (1934). Grove

6.       The Romance of Lust. Anonymous (1873-1876). Lazenby




 

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