Mary Roach, Vladimir Nabokov, Georgette Heyer

I continue to struggle to find the time to review all the books I read. However, I decided to start over again with a blank slate.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach: I’m not a forensics enthusiast so I hadn’t read Roach’s Stiff despite it being highly recommended to me by several people. However, my curiosity was piqued when I heard that Roach and her husband volunteered to be the first individuals recorded having sexual intercourse by MRI. One always admires a writer for going the full length to do her research—even if the publicity helps her too—and that impression was certainly not diminished as I read the book. Roach adopts a casual, first-person tone: this nonfiction book, while full of interesting trivia as well as valuable information about the physiology of sex, is really a narrative. It’s a story about her investigation into the challenges surrounding the scientific research into sex, as well as the characters of the researchers themselves; she draws compelling portraits of the people she meets. I admit that I’m not used to reading popular nonfiction, so perhaps Roach’s style has become the norm, but I found it very engaging. Similar in approach, although completely different in style from Victoria Finlay’s Color, which I enjoyed for its narrative form. Roach is of course much more chatty and prone to tangents—she uses footnotes enthusisatically—but she never fails to treat her subject seriously, despite her lighthearted tone. I wish I’d made a list of all the “fun facts” I learned while reading the book (am still strangely fascinated, for example, by the account of a woman who can reach orgasm without any physical stimulation but merely by breathing).

The Annotated Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (annot. Alfred Appel): I make a particular point of describing this book as The Annotated Lolita because reading an annotated text is different from reading the text in isolation. And I did make the choice (or was it a mistake?) to read the annotations as I read the story. I doubt that it would have been possible to do that if Nabokov weren’t so obviously a master of his craft; despite my constant mental interruptions, I never felt that I lost the flow of the story. On the other hand, my reading experience was spoiled because the annotations were meant for a reader who had already finished the book. I didn’t realize, for example, that it would have come as a surprise to most readers who Humbert Humbert actually killed; though in retrospect I can appreciate how Nabokov manipulated reader expectations throughout the story. Yet I didn’t directly experience that manipulation, and I wonder if the impact of the story was somehow lessened because of that. I also realized while reading the novel that many paragraphs in it sounded quite familiar—in high school, I had edited a classmate’s rough draft of a term paper on Lolita, and I’ve of course seen quotes and excerpts almost everywhere—and I had the decidedly odd feeling of déjà vu, as if rereading a book that I had not actually read before.

All that being said, the book was completely different than anything I expected. I suppose I was already prepared for the aesthetic pleasure of Nabokov’s prose style (though it’s clear that The Defense, the only other Nabokov novel I’ve read, was one of his earlier ones and didn’t show the same level of mastery that Lolita does). I was not so prepared though for the fact that it doesn’t read at all like a psychological novel; I’ve always assumed that it would somehow feel claustrophobic to read from Humbert Humbert’s “confessional” perspective, but in fact he keeps us at a distance with his wordplay and seemingly flippant tone. The lack of any titillating scenes also made me wonder why it’s so often condemned as a “dirty” book. True, its subject matter is probably as controversial as it gets, but the sexual content is minimal and almost never described explicitly. (I had an amusing conversation with my mother, where she tentatively asked me what Lolita was about—”Isn’t it about a stepfather…with his daughter?”—and why I was reading it. I had to laugh because she had recommended André Gide’s books to me—Gide, who celebrated homosexual pederasty—and I find the implicit sexual relations in The Counterfeiters much more likely to offend my mother’s morals than anything in Lolita.

In any case, I do suspect that reading the annotations made me a little emotionally detached from the novel; much of the pleasure was academic, in following the numerous allusions to Poe, the puns hidden in character names, the sheer control of language that Nabokov exhibits. I think the only moment that really gave me pause was when Humbert Humbert begs Lolita to return with him. Though I do think it isn’t meant to be an emotional novel; there’s too much self-mockery and hidden contempt for the reader in Humbert’s memoir that jerks you away from any attempts at pitying sympathy for the narrator.

What really impresses me over and over is the artifice—in all its nuances—of Nabokov’s writing. He makes no pretense at realism, even when he draws the most incisive portrait of motels in Midwest America. He presents his art as art, not as an imitation of life. Now there are writers who emphasize their writing to the point where they stop engaging the reader and merely indulge in the equivalent of artistic masturbation (I am harsh only because I recognize this failing in myself), but Nabokov makes his writing the centerpiece that communicates with the reader. It’s as if…he makes no attempt to hide the puppet strings, but instead of it being an ugly intrusion on the reader’s consciousness, those very strings are incorporated into the show. Rather like (to use a similarly theatrical example) having visible stagehands change sets during a play as part of the performance. It seems immensely difficult to me, and I am all the more blown away by how Nabokov does it faultlessly. I am watching a virtuoso perform.

Arabella, by Georgette Heyer: I never did get around to logging that Heyer reading spree in which I indulged last fall. I burned out after a while and decided to hold off on reading the last two Heyer novels I had obtained. I finally got around to reading them, and perhaps my dissatisfaction with Heyer’s male romantic interests (with the exception of Freddy from Cotillion, who may never be equaled) has mellowed because I didn’t dislike Mr. Beaumaris at all. I suppose it helped that although he was perilously close to being yet another rake (I dislike rakes immensely, and so many of Heyer’s versions happen to be misogynists at the same time), he managed to show some self-awareness. A cynic, but one with a sense of humor. Also, while his “prank” was irresponsible and could have seriously ruined Arabella’s life, he did his best to make up for it. I guess what also helped the dynamic was that Arabella remained self-possessed and calmly encouraged his meaningless flirtations for her own ends while mostly assuredly not falling in love with him. Actually, I think I mostly liked Arabella, especially with her social justice crusades.

Sylvester, by Georgette Heyer: Well, I didn’t like Sylvester at all, but he didn’t actively annoy me. It took me a while to start liking Phoebe; I still can’t understand how such an unconventional girl could be such a doormat to her stepmother. I mean, I do understand the fear of invoking displeasure or disapproval, but in my experience, those sorts of girls actively try to remain as conventional as possible. I mean, I’m not saying that those personality characteristics are mutually exclusive, but I do wish Heyer had put a little more effort into completing her characterization of Phoebe. She felt like two characters mashed into one. That being said, how delightful is it that Phoebe published a novel parodying the ton! That was what made me like her in the end.

Comments (5)

  1. Sergey wrote::

    Can you tell us what new science did they discover about the intercourse using MRI? Sounds more like a modernist art project.

    Friday, January 16, 2009 at 17:48 #
  2. Sergey wrote::

    I wouldn’t say The Defense is less masterful. It’s just that, as all his other novels written in Russian while he was living in Europe, it is more raw, more suffused with the undercurrents of Russian psyche.

    Lolita is good, but I think Nabokov is at his best in “Invitation to a beheading” written just before he moved to the US. And “Transparent things”, one of his last novels.

    Friday, January 16, 2009 at 17:57 #
  3. troisroyaumes wrote::

    Well, I don’t know if they necessarily got a paper out of it, but it was the first time someone had done this sort of imaging. According to Roach, the physician in charge had pioneered the real-time imaging of male genitals, which allowed better knowledge about how to treat medical conditions such as “Peyronie’s disease, in which scar tissue in the erectile chamber on one side of the penis causes painful, crooked erections”. Apparently, he hoped to gain similar insight into how to treat other sexual disorders from imaging intercourse. Disorders in the strictly physiological sense, I mean. The example Roach gives is dyspareunia or painful intercourse.

    May I ask how you found this blog?

    Friday, January 16, 2009 at 18:06 #
  4. troisroyaumes wrote::

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply it was less masterful. What I meant was that to me (in English translation, obviously) it sounded less experimental and like an earlier novel, though I was making vast assumptions about Nabokov’s development as a writer, without much knowledge of his work.

    A friend actually just reviewed “Invitation to a Beheading,” so it’s on my to-read list. Thank you for the recommendations though! The other major Nabokov novel that everyone seems to have read is Pale Fire; may I ask what your opinion of it was?

    Friday, January 16, 2009 at 18:09 #
  5. Sergey wrote::

    No no, you are actually right, his earlier novels are certainly less sophisticated technically. But this is more than made up for by their emotional force. The storm, the barely contained chaos in your soul, loneliness — the very things that make us the hopeless humans that we are.

    His later works are more like perfectly devised chess problems. Pale Fire is one of his more abstract novels. You may enjoy it if you like artificial but beautifully constructed literary worlds. There is less of a raw human tragedy there. I actually tried to learn this poem by heart once (don’t ask me why).

    By the way, I enjoy your posts. You a very well read and have a keen eye.

    Friday, January 16, 2009 at 20:57 #