Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Writing that knocks you off your feet

Today is Gabriel García Márquez's birthday and I read this tidbit about him. He started to write short stories after reading Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which famously begins: “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.” This sentence, García Márquez claimed, “almost knocked [him] off the bed...When I read the line, I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone who was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.” Article here.

This got me thinking about novels that have knocked me off a chair, the bed, my feet, etc., and the first, the one that always comes to mind, is Lolita. It too has a famous first line: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” And the novel remains one of my favorites, vying for first place with Anna Karenina, depending usually on which I’ve most recently read (Lolita in 2007 and AK in 2010). I have an old Vintage copy of Lolita, with one my favorite covers ever. Since 1994, I’ve read it four times.

Lolita and its author, Vladimir Nabokov, have been in the news this week as well. A stage production in Russia has been plagued with controversy. The play survived Soviet censorship and postponement, the producer was attacked on the street, and activists have started a petition to ban the play and everything Nabokovian. Article here. The situation reflects the current clime in Russia as much as anything else, but Lolita’s reception has always been tumultuous. I always feel it’s a shame when any discussions of the novel center on pedophilia, because in a strange way, that’s such a small part of what it’s about, at least to me.

From its first stunning chapter, Lolita knocked me off my feet in the same way Kafka affected García Márquez. I could not believe someone could write that way. The writing is like a stream-of-consciousness prose poem, Proust with modern sensibilities, informed by post-war America—film, capitalism, the immigrant’s perspective and yes, burgeoning sexual liberations. But it’s also an affecting personal story, a story of weakness, obsession and failed hopes. Nabokov immerses us in Humbert Humbert’s mind so thoroughly that we soon forget any other vantage point. The novel is daring and important, funny and bleak, and as I type this, I realize I’m long overdue for a re-read. What novels have made you look at the world in a new way? Whose writing has had a lasting effect on you as a writer?

1 comment:

  1. I would have to mention my favourite book, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, an emotional roller coaster of a book.

    Recently, I read The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski. It's only a short book, but I was gripped at every page turn, and was left in shock. The opening line: "Will you give me your word of honour," said Melanie, "that I am not going to die?" A story about a time-travelling Victorian.

    The last book, American Desert by Percival Everett, again a death theme. Opening line: That Theodore Street was dead was not a matter to debate. This story is about Ted, who is dead, but not quite gone. It's very funny.

    I love to search for books that are 'different,' with a psychological, macabre slant.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka