Native Son Lolita
By Richard Wright By Vladimir Nabokov
Narrated by Peter Francis James Narrated by Jeremy Irons
The review of these books is combined because they are disturbing classics about the nature of man and society. They are alike in regard to their genius but their stories are difficult to write in one review; let alone two.
Native Son was published in the 1940s and Lolita in the 1950s but either could have been written earlier or later because their stories are not of the past but of today and tomorrow.
Story lines have many origins but Wright and Nabokov have tapped into some of the darkest parts of human nature with themes of mayhem, murder, misogyny, and misanthropy. They created characters that reflect human nature; inherent in mankind and effected (or infected) by society.
The main character in Native Son is Bigger Thomas, an impoverished, unemployed, African American, 20 year old living in a 1930’s Chicago ghetto. He lives with his mother, sister, and brother in a rat infested one room tenement, owned by a wealthy family that is about to offer him a job.
Bigger Thomas is rich if he has 50 cents in his pocket. However, he does not want to work for a living because he sees it as a dead end street, controlled by rich white people that will never let him follow any road beyond a choice or limit set by a white man. Bigger Thomas’s understanding is shaped by 20 years of living in substandard housing, ghettoized isolation from white society, and an education that did not go beyond the 8th Grade.
Thomas is ironically given an opportunity to work for the owner of the tenement in which he lives. The offer is $35 per week ($10 more than average) to be a chauffer for the family. Bigger takes the job but on the same night of the day he is hired, he murders his new employer’s daughter. It shocks the listener because the listener’s anticipation is that Bigger Thomas is on his way to breaking the cycle of poverty and becoming a part of the American Dream. But no, he chooses to kill his employer’s daughter.
The shock of the murder is so overwhelming that there is an inclination to stop listening. The shock becomes a Richter scale earth quake when Bigger rapes, bludgeons, and throws his black girl friend down an elevator shaft (while still alive) because she can finger him for the crime. Bigger Thomas is a rapist and a double murderer. What redemption can there be? What is Wright’s point?
The answer is difficult and not entirely comprehensible to a privileged majority. But Wright’s story explains that a person who lives a minorities’ life, isolated from a majority population that controls most of life’s opportunities, creates an environment that breeds anger, frustration, and violent action; violent action directed at an ignorant majority. The creditability of Wright’s observation is visited in America’s future (25 years later) by the Watts’ riots of 1965. Bigger Thomas is convicted and sentenced to death. Thomas is defended by a technically persuasive and intellectual lawyer but prosecuted by a rebel rousing, emotionally righteous, prosecuting attorney that inflames public fear and anger that dictates a judge’s decision.
Native Son is mostly written and spoken in one and two syllable words (the only exception is Bigger Thomas’ intellectualized legal defense) that prick a listener’s conscious to feel some sympathy for this terrible criminal.
Peter Francis James’ bass voice brings Richard Wright’s characters to life but this is not a story to listen to for pleasure; it is a story that improves understanding of discrimination, isolation, and poverty (social ills still evident in the world) and their unintended consequences.
An equally reprehensible story is told in Nabokov’s book, Lolita. Lolita burns in your mind like Native Son, with a kindred repulsiveness. Lolita sears your conscience because it speaks like an apology for pedophilia.
Jeremy Irons’ spoken interpretation of Lolita is breath taking. His voice captures the licentious nature of the main character, Humbert Humbert. He reads Nabokov’s lines with a beautiful alliteration that reveals the poetry in Nabokov’s prose.
The subject is inherently repulsive. The rationalizations of a confessed pedophile, that admits his guilt, is difficult, if not impossible, to understand. As with Bigger Thomas’ murder of two women, Humbert Humbert’s seduction of a 12 year old girl makes the listener want to quit listening. Iron’s skillful narration seductively draws the listener into an intimate appreciation of Nabokov’s prose and a life of a truly despicable and tragic human being.
There is no justification for pedophilia though Humbert Humbert makes his plea. Humbert’s observation that pedophilia has been present since time began is not a plausible justification for its continuation. The argument that some psychological trauma in one’s youth takes control of one’s libido is “psycho-babble”. The argument that some 12 year olds are what Humbert Humbert classifies as “nymphet’s” that seduce their aged mates is an ignorance of the difference between being a child and an adult. The argument that Humbert Humbert truly loved Lolita, even after she is 31 years old and married to a person of her own age, is preposterous based on the character’s own explanation of his child fixation.
So, what is the point of the book? The best face is that Nabokov reveals the depth of a pedophile’s sickness, some of its causes and consequences, and the utter futility of psychological examination; the worst face is that Nabokov justifies pedophilia based on human nature. For my own conscience, and for respect to a literary genius, I pick the first rather than the second reason for his decision to write this book.
The story is enlightening as well as repulsive. It tells the story of the length that a pedophile will go to satisfy an abhorrent sexual desire. It suggests that a psychiatric examination of an intelligent psychopath is a waste of time. It gives a face to pedophilia and evidence of how it penetrates human culture, from advertising, to magazines, to movies. And, it shows, with a character like “Q” (a movie producer) how salacious and jaded a human being can become.
Both of these books are brilliantly written. Native Son is a masterpiece of simple and direct prose that is a literary lesson for aspiring writers. Richard Wright is an efficient user of words to tell a story with brutal clarity.
Nabokov, in contrast to Wright, violates a writer’s taboo according to William Strunk in The Elements of Style, (considered by many to be a writer’s bible) regarding the use of foreign words because Lolita includes many French comments and phrases. Strunk admits that there are some exceptions. This is true in Nabokov’s story; in part because of Jeremy Irons wonderful presentation, but also because their use evokes the erudition, sophistication, and intelligence Nabokov ascribes to Humbert Humbert.
Both of these books are horrific stories of human nature. Listening to them is enlightening but only our future will demonstrate whether enlightenment leads to improvement in human nature or a repeat of the bestiality we have shown so many times before and after the 20th century. [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]