Get the Sunday Star newspaper tomorrow (Feb 4) for a 20% discount coupon on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov at Kinokuniya Bookstores at Suria KLCC.
It was about 10 years ago that I read what I still believe to be one of the most well-crafted, absorbing, and beautifully-written books I’ve ever read: Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov. Simultaneously, it was also one of the most conflicted and sickening reading experiences I’ve had.
Lolita chronicles the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged literature professor who is obsessed with prepubescent girls. And in lyrical, humorous, masterful prose, the book takes us through the story of how Humbert becomes infatuated with his 12-year-old stepdaughter Lolita.
Told from the perspective of Humbert himself, the story is perhaps one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator. Nabokov’s genius lies in the way he uses this technique to evoke in the reader both a sense of disgust and, yes, empathy.
This is what makes Lolita such a disturbing read: that at some point while reading it, without realising when it happened, you begin feeling for Humbert. And as soon as you become aware of this, you react with revulsion not just at the character, but at yourself.
In my opinion, these are precisely the boundaries Nabokov intended to transgress. It isn’t that he wishes to vindicate Humbert, but rather to expose how the intense beauty of literature – and its power to ensnare the reader – can be put to the service of something utterly ugly.
Sixty-three years after it was published to great controversy, Lolita remains a near-perfect read – and still as stomach-churning. I recall getting goosebumps at the beauty of Nabokov’s writing, being transported by his way with words. Yet, it is a book I couldn’t read again – the toll it takes on my emotions is just too heavy.
Similarly, there are several other books that, despite giving me a superlative reading experience, I will never read again:
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver – There is a perpetual darkness at the heart of this powerful novel about a shooting at an American school, told from the point of view of the teenage shooter’s mother. Moving between the present – after the massacre – to the past when the titular murderer is growing up, the novel captures his mother Eva’s confusion and eventual comprehension of her son.
It is a painful, difficult book to read, made all the more so by how relatable Eva is. While I’ve revisited this book a few times, I realised that it actually gets more difficult to read each time as the reader becomes weighted with the knowledge of what is to come.
A Fine Balance (1995) by Rohinton Mistry – This novel, set in India during its Emergency period (a 21-month period from 1975 to 1977), is sensitively written and peopled with beautifully realised characters. It tells the story of four people from very different backgrounds who form an unlikely connection, against the backdrop of a country plagued by systemic corruption and inequalities.
Mistry excels in capturing lovely moments of happiness and humanity, but ultimately, it is a story of relentless despair. It is a testament to the book that I emerged from reading it completely heartbroken, but that is also why I don’t think I could read it again.
Cujo (1981) by Stephen King – There are probably several of King’s books that I could list here, including Misery and It, but if I’m being honest with myself, I enjoy his work so much that I am more than likely to revisit those books when I’m in a masochistic mood. Cujo, however, is the one book by King I know I will never re-read.
The setup – a woman trapped with her young son in a slowly overheating car while a giant, rabid St Bernard dog waits to kill them outside – is pure psychological horror. I recall reading the book feeling breathless, claustrophobic, and irrationally terrified of being mauled to death. I actually had to stop reading altogether at several points, and it was only needing to know if the woman escapes that kept me going.
The Enchanted (2014) by Rene Denfeld – Narrated by an unnamed death row inmate, this novel is both beautiful and painful to read. The inmate conjures up magical visions and fantasies to cope with his imprisonment, turning the prison into a place filled with weird wonders. Through his eyes, we slowly get to know the other prisoners and the darkness within them; we also learn of the brutality of prison life.
The story also looks at two regular visitors – a priest, and a female death row investigator – who reveal their own vulnerabilities while adding to the stories of the inmates. There are no black and white answers here, and even the redemption offered is in shades of grey – I’m so glad I read the book, but it isn’t a journey I could undertake again.