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Reggie's Book Club
You get some strange looks, and some strange responses, when you tell people that the book you are currently reading is Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It helps when you say that it wasn't actually your choice; it just happens to be this month's selection for Reggie's Book Club. But even so. The looks, and sometimes the comments, imply: What are you, an apparently decent retired old gentleman, doing reading such filth? Do you really get off on this stuff? Can we ever again leave you alone in a room with our twelve-year old daughter? Further inquiry teases out the admission that no, your interlocutor has never actually read Lolita, but hey, everyone knows that it is a sick book about a sick individual, by a sick individual, which plays to men's worst fantasies, and has publicized, if not exactly legitimized, the now-recognized sexual deviance known as The Lolita Complex.
Well, I've read Lolita now. And I think it is a wonderful book. Erotic, certainly, in the sense that it deals with sexual desire and love – perverted love and perverted sexual desire as it happens – but it is not a pornographic book. On the contrary, it's a very moral book. Nabokov, as author, makes no explicit commentary on the rightness or wrongness of Humbert Humbert's seduction of Lolita. His commentary is, however, implicit, because Humbert, as narrator, condemns himself. His defense, that the fact of being in love with someone gives you the right to treat that person any way you like, is manifestly wrong, even laughable. What he does with Lolita has nothing to do with love: it is, on the contrary, all to do with power and exploitation, psychological and sexual. This is quite clear to me, now that I have read Lolita , but will it be clear to my fellows at Reggie's Book Club?
Well, it will depend on who's there. I have been to a few meetings of Reggie's Book Club, and it's not like a normal book group where the same people turn up every fortnight or every month – friends of yours perhaps or like-minded individuals with whom you've formed some sort of bond. No, Reggie's Book Club people are pretty much transients, people like me who blow in and blow out; if there's a core group of regulars I seem to have missed it. The one and only constant in this shifting landscape is Reggie himself, and it's time to introduce him.
Reggie Anthony – and I'm quoting from an official website – “is an American English teacher and music journalist. He grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Rochester in New York.” That's what it says about him on the web page of Carl-Schurz-Haus. (I think, by the way, that it should be ‘upstate New York’ but let's not quibble.) What it does not say is how passionate Reggie is about good books and how stimulating, how lively, how informative and how much fun his Book Club meetings are. I know, because I have been to half-a-dozen of them. The books we discussed have included The Pearl and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The Film Club by David Gilmour, Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Many others books have featured at meetings of the club which I have not attended: a good mix of old classics and new books, with one thing in common. Reggie takes care to select books which are not not too daunting or difficult for non-native speakers of English to read in the original text. It is a peculiarity of Reggie's Book Club, because it is run under the umbrella of Carl-Schurz-Haus, that most of its members are Germans, for whom English is a foreign language. And Reggie is boss so there's no democratic nonsense about members getting to choose the books: Reggie chooses the books, like it or lump it. It's his club. Nor, thank God, do we drift around in and out of people's private homes. We always meet in the neutral territory of the library, or the conference room, or a classroom, at Carl-Schurz-Haus.
Carl-Schurz-Haus is the name of the German-American Institute (Deutsch Amerikanisches Institut) in Freiburg, founded in 1952 and originally known as Amerika-Haus. It does for U.S. culture here pretty much what the Goethe Institute does for German culture, and The British Institute does for British, wherever they occur on foreign soil. (And they occur in some unlikely places. I was astonished to learn recently that there is a Goethe Institute in Kabul, Afghanistan. I know this from my local news vendor, an Afghan, whose fiancée is learning German there, before she sets out to meet and marry him in Freiburg). Carl-Schurz-Haus occupies the top floor of a three-story office block in the center of the city. The library has more than 6,000 books in English, hundreds of DVDs and CDs; there are several classrooms for the teaching of English, and the Institute runs a busy programme of lectures, readings, films, discussion groups, concerts and sundry other events, all – or nearly all – with an American connection. Just recently, the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony were here to give a concert, and July 4th was celebrated with a special party (of course) and soccer fans were invited to a public viewing of the World Cup match between Germany and the U.S. (which the U.S. lost 0 – 1, which was no disgrace, considering that a few days later Brazil, the Uber-Soccer nation of the world, lost to Germany 1 - 7).
So things happen at Carl-Schurz-Haus. Maybe some clandestine things too that only the NSA knows about. Bugs behind the blackboards? Cameras in the kitchen? Relations are a little strained between Germany and the U.S. just now ever since Angela Merkel discovered that her American friends and allies have been tapping her phone for years, and that the CIA and the NSA, in the cause of freedom, but without consultation with the German government, are operating a whole surveillance program in Germany which targets pretty much everyone. Germany and the U.S.A. are partners in many things but just at the moment they are not exactly friends.
So who was this Carl Schurz, who gets to have his name up in lights in the middle of Freiburg? I'll wager that not one Freiburger in ten thousand could tell you. I certainly couldn't before I got stuck into Wikipedia. But then I'm not American. How about you? Any ideas? Probably the most memorable thing about Carl Schurz is this quotation: “My country, right or wrong.” He didn't actually coin it, it seems, but he glossed it, and when the context is clear it appears in an entirely new light. It happened in the U.S. Senate in 1875 and this is what Carl Schurz is reported to have said:
“The senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming: ‘My country right or wrong’. In one sense I say so too: My country is the great American Republic. My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
This gives you an idea of the man. Born in northern Germany (Prussia) in 1829, he studied law at the University of Bonn. In 1848, he was active in the Revolution and (like Wagner) fled to Switzerland to escape reprisals (i.e. death) at the hands of the Prussian government. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1852, stayed awhile in Philadelphia, joined the Republican Party, and in 1861, aged only 32, was appointed by President Lincoln to be Minister for Spain. A year later – presumably on the strength of his military exploits in Germany – he was created Brigadier-General in the army of the Union. In 1868 he became the first German-American to be elected to the U.S. Senate. He later founded the Liberal Republican Party. “During his later years Schurz was perhaps the most prominent independent in American politics, noted for his high principles, his avoidance of political partisanship and his moral conscience. His wife Margarethe was instrumental in establishing the kindergarten system in the U.S.” So now we know. He died in 1907. A man worth honoring, one of those who clearly asked what he could do for his country, and then did it.
On the evening of the Book Club meeting, I arrive at Carl-Schurz-Haus at exactly 6.25pm. Germans are punctual people, and so is Reggie. Besides him, nine people have turned up by the time we get started promptly at 6.30pm. There's a nice asymmetry about us book-clubbers tonight: there are five men, four women; four are relatively young, five relatively old; four have English as their mother tongue, five do not. (Bela, for instance, is Hungarian. Of course. Aren't all Hungarian men are called Bela? Bela Bartok, Bela Lugosi, Bela Tarr, King Bela I &c.).
Reggie begins by saying that, even fifty years on, Lolita is still a controversial book. He was not even sure that Carl-Schurz- Haus would approve it, but there was no veto, not even a breath of one. Some people have clearly moved on. And Reggie's Book Club has moved on too. Except for Klaus, a retired surgeon who has not read the book and therefore declines to comment, we are pretty much agreed that Lolita is a masterpiece, which handles a tricky subject with skill, subtlety and great artistry. Ursula, who is 86 and who lives in a village in the Black Forest stuns us (or me at least) by saying that she has read Lolita twice: first in English and then, because she felt she was missing the beauty of some of the writing, in a German translation. All of us are astonished that Nabokov, whose native tongue was Russian, could write such vigorous, poetic and enchanting English.
In any case, the discussion is a lively one. Reggie keeps things going nicely. Somehow I never get a chance to air some of my thoughts: it would be interesting to compare Lolita with Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, for instance. Aschenbach's sexual fantasies remain fantasies, while Humbert's do not. Or to compare Lolita with Disgrace by J.M Coetzee. In Disgrace, the protagonist is David, a fifty-two year old university teacher who goes to bed (not very often) with Melanie, one of his students, aged 20. But NB “Her hips are as slim as a twelve-year-olds” and “A child! he thinks. No more than a child! What am I doing?” What he is doing is thinking about Lolita, probably. And he is about to get into hot water too, because in South Africa, as in most English-speaking countries, there is a strict taboo against teacher and student having sex together, even when the student is an adult. Melanie soon blows the whistle on David and, as a result, he loses his job. Germans, I think, are puzzled by this. There is, it seems, no such taboo in Germany: if a student is eighteen or more, and therefore legally an adult, then he or she may sleep with whomever he or she likes, including a teacher at school or university. Autres pays, autres moeurs.
The absolute taboo against sex between adults and twelve-year-olds is not likely to change any time soon, not in Germany and not in most other parts of the civilised world, either. Nor is it at all what Nabokov, in Lolita, is advocating. What he is advocating, perhaps, is a measure of understanding and even compassion for a man who is possessed by such deviant sexual obsession. In this sense, Lolita breaks new ground, which is what great novels do. I can imagine that a great novel could be written about a priest, committed to celibacy, who sexually abuses pubescent boys. The topic is certainly like that of Lolita, one which most people would prefer to keep safely buried. But is not one of the jobs of literature to shake us up, take us out of our comfort zone, and confront us with realities which we would rather ignore? And get us to look at things from a different perspective?
Without Reggie's Book Club, I doubt I would ever got around to reading Lolita. I am glad I did. It has provoked me into thinking and talking about a difficult topic. I wonder, for instance, whether anyone has written a novel, giving Lolita's side of the story? Nabokov hints that Humbert has an inkling of her suffering, when he makes Humbert imagine how she feels when they meet, long after she has left him and married someone else: “I broke your heart, but you broke my life.” It is perhaps the only time that Humbert shows the faintest sympathy for, or empathy with, his nymphet victim. Is he therefore a complete monster? Or do we have a nagging feeling that this man is a victim too, someone to be pitied as well as condemned?
Reading Lolita has also made me want to read more books by Nabokov. And to seek out Reading ‘Lolita’ in Teheran by Azar Nafisi, which someone at the book club recommended. An intriguing, provocative and probably dangerous book, at least in the author's home country, Iran. I look forward to it. I like dangerous books. Dangerous films too. Desert Dancer (set in Iran) and Wadja (set in Saudi Arabia) are two such films, recent releases, which I can strongly recommend.
The suppression of all books, not just dangerous books, is the topic of Reggies's next book club choice: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. This is yet another classic which I ought to have read, but have not. Thanks, Reggie, for challenging me to read – finally – this and other literary highlights and for providing a stimulating forum in which to think and talk about them.
I never participated in a book club or a book group before, so I can't compare Reggie's book club with any other. But it seems to me to be a very special one. If ever you are in Freiburg, take a look at the program at Carl-Schurz-Haus and see if Reggie is ‘on’. If he is, come along; and be delighted.
Anthony Marshall, is a retired secondhand bookseller now living in Germany. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, a past member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association in England, where for ten years he ran the County Bookshop in Oakham, Rutland, and former owner of Alice's Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia. Mr. Marshall has contributed many articles to book magazines, all of which with the exception of “Book Source Magazine” are now defunct. Some of these articles reappear in his two books: “Trafficking in Old Books” (Lost Domain, Melbourne 1998) and "Fossicking for Old Books” (Bread Street Press, Melbourne 2004).