The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Banned books

BEFORE

1532–64 François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel is condemned for obscenity by the College of Sorbonne, Paris.

1759 Although banned by government and Church authorities for its satirical content, Voltaire’s Candide becomes a bestseller.

1934 Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller’s account of life as a writer in Paris, is banned in the USA for sexual content.

AFTER

1959 Narrated by a junkie, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch is banned in Boston in 1962; the decision is overturned in 1966.

1988 Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is banned in more than 10 countries for perceived blasphemy against Islam.

Literary history is punctuated with books that were either banned or censored because they were thought to corrupt public morals or cause political or religious offence. In the first half of the 20th century, literary experimention pushed the boundaries of taste and shocked a conservative audience. In response to this, censors trawled through works such as Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses to identify obscenities, and removed sexual references from English author D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But after the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley was tried on grounds of obscenity in 1960 and acquitted, restrictions on the publication of pornographic literature in the UK were effectively abandoned. Across the world, book censorship eased, but it never disappeared entirely.

Accepting the unacceptable

Few now would be offended by books that were censored in the past, and yet Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita retains its power to disturb as well as enchant. Banned after its 1955 publication in France and republished in London in 1959, the novel is founded on narrator Humbert Humbert’s obsession with a certain type of underage seductress: the “nymphet”, a slender, silky-skinned pubescent girl, aged between 9 and 14 years. The title of the novel has become part of the English language as a reference to a young temptress.

Reading Lolita creates a state of mental confusion as the reader warms to a narrator who subverts all normal reactions to his appalling story. In Humbert’s claustrophobic fantasy, readers lose perspective, seduced by an urbane European professor, with a well-prepared defence peppered with apologies, literary allusions, wordplay, and treacherous wit.

The spell of obsession

As an adolescent on the French Riviera, Humbert fell in love with the young Annabel – the template for his obsession. Years later, in the USA, he “broke her spell by incarnating her in another”: Dolores Haze, dubbed Lolita, the 12-year-old daughter of his landlady. The devastating consequences are played out after Humbert marries the mother to gain access to the girl, the object of his fantasy. A vague plan to murder his new wife becomes unnecessary after she is mown down by a car; the bereaved stepfather then collects Dolores from summer camp and begins his attempt to live out his dream.

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Literature is often perceived as a threat by authorities because of its ability to convey ideas that have the potential to change minds and challenge prevailing ideologies. Some surprising titles have been banned over the years by nations, states, or libraries for their political content, sexual explicitness, and offensiveness to religion.

In love with language

In an “erotic novel” that offers almost nothing salacious, part two is a continuation of the author’s real love affair – with language. In his highly wrought, ornate, and lyrical prose, Humbert pieces together his year-long road trip with Dolores across the continent, “putting the geography of the United States into motion”. The details of his despotic infatuation (the quarrels, close calls, and bribes) intermittently surface in a surreal, cinematic account that spools across page after page of wry observation on US culture. Arriving back on the East Coast after a year, Humbert enrols Dolores at school, and the fabric of his fantasy begins to fall apart.

Style, structure, and imagery are not found in pornographic books, as Nabokov reminds us in a defensive afterword to a novel that excels on all three counts. Humbert Humbert is the ultimate unreliable narrator, shielded by a fictional foreword writer who wraps up the loose ends before the story has even begun. There are no alternative accounts, only the posthumous voice of Humbert, defending the indefensible to his readers.

VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Born into an aristocratic family in St Petersburg, in April 1899, Vladimir Nabokov spent his childhood in Russia and grew up trilingual in English, French, and Russian. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the family was exiled to England in 1919, where Nabokov studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. Following a further move to Berlin, Nabokov’s father, a journalist and politician, was assassinated at a political rally. Living in Berlin and in Paris, Nabokov wrote novels, short stories, and poems in Russian, while working as a tennis coach and tutor. He married Véra Slonim in 1925; they had one son, Dmitri. After fleeing to the USA during World War II, Nabokov wrote Lolita in English. He taught at Wellesley College and Cornell University and, as an authority on butterflies, held a position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

Other key works

1937 The Gift

1962 Pale Fire

See also: Gargantua and Pantagruel • Madame Bovary • Ulysses • Nineteen Eighty-Four • The Tin Drum • Howl and Other Poems • American Psycho • The Satanic Verses