Nabokov - Webb Debate Heats Up
Compare and contrast.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in
one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Our esteemed yet oftimes perplexing commenter Zimzo has snagged me again, pointing out the harm my puritanical instincts might have wrought on one of the brightest lights in modern literature. But is he overreaching?
Does Jim Webb's Lost Soldiers merit the same obeisance we give Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita?
There are a couple tests we can apply.
One, would you mind if your 8-year old heard it read over the radio?
Lolita: No, because the writing is exquisite and the risque bits would go right over their heads.
Lost Soldiers: Well, NOT THAT ONE PASSAGE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY!
Two, would a literate reader admire the wordsmithing to the point of repeating passages over and over in the mind?
Lost Soldiers: Hard to say, but certainly NOT THAT ONE PASSAGE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY!
I know, I know: One is literature and the other is cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology excuses a LOT. If Jim Webb had been more artful in conveying that scene ("....turned him upside down, and said 'hello, Sonny' in the only way he knew how...") the narrative might have lost some of its impact and strayed too far from the hard-as-nails tone of the rest of the book. But Webb could have given it a try.
I bet any 15 of today's AP English students could take a good stab at rewriting that passage in a more allusionary manner - if not for the fact we could be thrown in jail for showing it to them in most U.S. jurisdictions.
I mean, I imagine you can find illustrated books on how to roast a cat in various foreign countries, but if you tried to sell such books here you'd find the process a little prickly. Same principle.
But, hey, that's culture. Jim Webb's seen things none of us want to see and HE probably didn't want to see, and he's come back to tell us what it's like.
The question for Virginians is: Since he ain't Nabokov, should he at least have been more sensitive to the good-taste-o-meter?
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