Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Five top books that have anxiety at their heart

Steven Amsterdam is the author of Things We Didn’t See Coming, which was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and won The Age Book of the Year Award, among other honors. A native New Yorker and a nurse, he lives in Melbourne, Australia.

He discussed five notable books on worry with Daisy Banks for The Browser, including:
by Vladimir Nabokov

Your next choice is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, which leads me to think women aren’t faring too well on your list.

My shelves are equally occupied by women writers, my books populated by strong and diverse characters but they didn’t come to mind for this assignment. Naturally, I worried. I contacted a friend, a professor, and one of her specialties is rape. Did she have any female writers who were anxious, or at least addressed anxiety through their work? She made a compelling case for Beatrix Potter as well as Rebecca Skloot but I had read neither. She briefly postulated that writing by women, the writing that floats to the top, may be more redemptive than the writing by men. She wasn’t sure and didn’t want to be quoted.

In any case, Lolita.

Do I need to outline the plot? There’s this guy Humbert, see, and he falls for this underage girl, Lolita. He knows it’s not OK, but that doesn’t slow him down. Hence, the worry, here in the form of obsession. He flirts with the girl’s mother just so he can linger in her tender young presence. Then, when the mother gets conveniently run over, he drives the girl around the US, pretending to be her father, so they can share motel rooms as they go. She gets away and marries and he chases her around the US some more. It’s all because of some unresolved issue he had with a childhood sweetheart that blossomed into a feverish sort of paedophaelia, as if that’s an excuse. His desire to manipulate her never stops and, maybe because his efforts are not all that successful, you stay with him even as his creepy hand inches ever further up her thigh.

(Lolita’s motivations, her actions, and her ability to survive are another thing entirely. In fact, this might be an area for a grand feminist work, in the vein of Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea. Who wouldn’t read the book called Humbert? Would it be speared through by anxiety, though? I don’t think so.)

Why does this book make it on to so many lists?

What’s spectacular for me is the triumph of the humour over his loathsomeness. You can almost sympathise with his compulsive stream of thought, and if you can’t, you can at least admit to being entertained. Nabokov’s wry reading of America and of Humbert manages to overcome much of what’s repellent in the book. (For me, not my professor friend.)
Read about another novel Amsterdam tagged at The Browser.

Lolita appears on John Banville's five best list of books on early love and infatuation, Kathryn Harrison's list of favorite books with parentless protagonists, Emily Temple's list of ten of the greatest kisses in literature, John Mullan's list of ten of the best lakes in literature, Dan Vyleta's top ten list of books in second languages, Rowan Somerville's top ten list of books of good sex in fiction, Henry Sutton's top ten list of unreliable narrators, Adam Leith Gollner's top ten list of fruit scenes in literature, Laura Hird's literary top ten list, Monica Ali's ten favorite books list, Laura Lippman's 5 most important books list, Mohsin Hamid's 10 favorite books list, and Dani Shapiro's 10 favorite books list.

--Marshal Zeringue