I recently decided to burden my Kindle with some “fine literature.” A perusal of the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels showed I had only read a paltry 10% of the board’s list, which I find sadly biased against genre fiction, and only 17% of the reader’s list. So I looked over the top entries on the board’s list and decided to take on #4: Lolita and #11: Under the Volcano.
I selected Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, despite my doubts about its prurience, for several reasons. First, my admiration of Stanley Kubrick’s other films led me many years ago to rent his 1962 cinematic version and I found it, like most of Kubrick’s films, a memorable if unsettling experience. Also, I had noted the furor when Nabokov’s unfinished The Original of Laura was finally released in 2008, reflecting his unorthodox manner of writing novels via index cards. Finally, I had recently read about synesthesia and the article had noted how Nabokov made use of that unusual neurological condition, perceiving certain letters and numbers as colors, in his work.
Reviews had noted that Lolita is full of wordplay, and I was again reminded of the inadequacy of the Kindle’s built-in dictionary, which often as not had no entry for obscure English terms the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, uses in his first-person narrative. I could readily infer most unfamiliar terms from context, but the frequent use of French had me typing define: recueillement into Google and “Prenez donc une de ces poires. La bonne dame d’en face m’en offre plus que je n’en peux savourer.” and the like into Google Translate.
I can see why many critics would love the book, for it is full of symbolism, literary jokes and allusions, and has an entertaining devilish streak. And despite its negative portrayal of pedophilia, there is little surprise that it has been challenged by censors over the years. Thankfully Lolita isn’t terribly long and has a strong narrative drive, unlike some other lauded works such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Wallace’s Infinite Jest, both of which I started and gave up on after several turgid chapters: too obscure, too many footnotes, too many more pages to go without much hope for lyrical relief. And while I have a deep regard and affection for Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer and have enjoyed most of his output, including his most recent Anathem, I waded only partway into the first of eight books in the three volumes of his Baroque Cycle of books before giving up in exasperation at how slowly the plot developed.
My reading of Lolita was enhanced by, of all things, SparkNotes. At the end of each chapter I would stop to read the SparkNotes summary and discussion and, although it and the movie spoiled the mystery of Humbert’s rival, it pointed out some symbols and wordplay which had eluded my initial perusal. I never used Cliff Notes or SparkNotes to cheat in school, but I did find them helpful when I took on The Sound and the Fury one summer and they again served me well.
After the rich read of Lolita I was suffering from eyeburn. So I followed it up with a non-fiction polemic written by a journalist in straightforward prose. That left me refreshed and ready to go Under the Volcano with Malcolm Lowry. Again I was a bit dubious about the subject matter. The story centers on an alcoholic Englishman living in Mexico on the Day of the Dead in the late 1930s, and I am effectively a teetotaler. But I love the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who produced much more than Lowry but also drank himself to death, so I forged ahead.
Oh my. These pages were rough. There is much to love about this book, but it is slam-bam full of obscure literary and cultural references. I knew I was missing some of the jokes and allusions in Lolita, but I could sail merrily along without worrying about it too much. Under the Volcano begged explanation, and not merely for the many Spanish phrases. Sadly, there was no brief SparkNotes entry I could consult. I did find an immense site on the book, but its deluge of detail threatened to swamp me. I finally found a rhythm where I would read the book and only stop to consult the hypertext site for lengthy Spanish quotations or when context and guesswork still left a paragraph indecipherable.
The ending is horrific, but powerful. I shall always remember it, just as I can always visualize Scottie standing at the edge of the bell tower at the end of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, leaving me to wonder whether or not he will do what the movie’s logic makes all too plausible and even forgivable: take one more step into the void.
But Under the Volcano is more than a tragedy, being quite lyrical and beautiful at times describing how “the sun poured molten glass on the fields” or a “savage scribble of lightning” – such lines might adorn one of Ray Bradbury’s lovely short stories. Yet consider this heartbreaking letter, written by an adulterous woman still drawn to her alcoholic ex-husband:
Surely you must have thought a great deal of us, of what we built together, of how mindlessly we destroyed the structure and the beauty but yet could not destroy the memory of that beauty. It has been this which has haunted me day and night. Turning I see us in a hundred places with a hundred smiles. I come into a street, and you are there. I creep at night to bed and you are waiting for me. What is there in life besides the person whom one adores and the life one can build with that person? For the first time I understand the meaning of suicide … God, how pointless and empty the world is! Days filled with cheap and tarnished moments succeed each other, restless and haunted nights follow in bitter routine: the sun shines without brightness, and the moon rises without light. My heart has the taste of ashes, and my throat is tight and weary with weeping. What is a lost soul? It is one that has turned from its true path and is groping in the darkness of remembered ways—
How alarming, given how much of the book is autobiographical, and how unsurprising that Lowry would kill himself with an overdose of sleeping pills in a “death by misadventure” a decade after Under the Volcano was published. The line Lowry lifted for the book is a haunting admonition: No se puede vivir sin amar. One cannot live without loving.
The wonders and horrors of this book led me to watch the depressing documentary Volcano: An Inquiry Into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry. And I’ve placed John Huston’s 1984 film of it in my Netflix queue. I’m not through with seeking out more summer lit, but I’m also not yet out from under the volcano.