Nabokov - Webb Debate Heats Up

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Compare and contrast.

vladimir_nabokov.jpg
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

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.

jim_webb.jpg
A shirtless man walked toward them along a mud pathway. His muscles were young and hard, but his face was devastated with wrinkles. His eyes were so red that they appeared to be burned by fire. A naked boy ran happily toward him from a little plot of dirt. The man grabbed his young son in his arms, turned him upside down, and put the boy’s ---- in his mouth.

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?

Lolita: Undoubtedly.

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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9 Comments

Kevin said:

And the spinning wheel continues to turn, Joe. I like how you redefine for Virginians what the NEW question is.

It's the wrong one by the way. . .

I didn't bring Nabokov into this, you know. Anyway, it should perhaps have said "ONE of" the questions... Good catch.

A Moderate Voice said:


Joe,

Have you ever read witness books about the Holocaust?

Descriptive passage in some of these books are almost painful to read, however, it is the clear and detailed descriptions that make the books so powerful and takes the reader to the Holocaust concentration camps and ghettos.

What defines good taste (I say it again) is not one passage taken out of a book but rather the book in its entirety.

zimzo said:

Personally, I think sending troops into Iraq without adequate body armor, without enough armored vehicles and without a plan for victory is in bad taste and I don't really care about passages from books or even whole books that are in bad taste. But I guess Republicans have different priorities these days.

Zimzo, I'm sensing a deep anger here and I fear the bitterness might be detrimental to your ability to fully enjoy life. Would you like to discuss it?

Mod, I didn't say this in the post but the context of all the other stuff he wrote (in that Drudge page) shows a tendency toward explicitness that seems to border on gratuitous. You're right: Just writing what one sees is not necessarily in bad taste. One can get the impression in Webb's case that he pushes the envelope a bit. Could be a wrong impression, but it's there. That's why, I think, this story had such an impact.

zimzo said:

As someone who goes on rants about illegal immigrants because you read about one Latino, who may or may not have been illegal, committing a crime, or who attacks the entire gay community because someone, who may are may not have been gay, leaves a distasteful message on your blog, you certainly know a little something about anger yourself.

I'm not opposed to sleazy campaign tactics, per se, but it does make me a little hot under the collar when supposedly intelligent people like yourself, fall for it. It does make me a little choleric when you try to peddle the idea that something in a novel is more important than the fact that more than 3,000 of soldiers died in Iraq sent there by an incompetent administration because of WMDs that didn't exist.

So, yeah, I am a little angry and I think alot of voters are. But I'm not bitter. Not yet.

Well remind me to keep a safe distance if you ever DO get bitter. I don't want any part of it.

I suppose I do get angry once in a while. Touche, sir.

John Grigsby said:

Elect me, and I'll put Nabokov in jail. That's my pledge to you, voters of Virginia.

Showing a bit of moderation myself, I will, however, allow visitation, should Jim Webb want to compare notes.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man said:

oh, can't we all just get along?

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