Saturday 20 April 2019

Washington Square: Catherine’s triumph

As I reread Tom’s posts at Wuthering Expectations, I found this line
“The aesthetics of Henry James in essence, isn’t it?  Non-visual, non-sensual.  Just mental, minds on their own, minds engaged with other minds.” 
That is the art of Washington Square—there isn’t much description, it’s all about the battle of minds, 4 minds. 
I’m near the end of the book. A lot of the mental battle in Washington Square is in resistance—Dr Austin Sloper, once he makes a judgment, clings to it and refuses to be persuaded; Catherine too holds her ground and doesn’t budge an inch; Morris Townsend tries different tactics and persists for some time, but loses the game because he can’t last longer. I can’t help noting that the doctor doesn’t seem to realise how similar he and his daughter are—he calls Catherine obstinate, but so is he. 
Morris is, without doubt, a fortune hunter—he’s after big money, not just money but big money. The question is whether he cares about Catherine at all or is only after the money. It does show though, that in a way he seems to know Catherine better than her father, when he says that she isn’t a weak woman. Morris’s main weapon is his charm and power of manipulation—it is lost on Dr Sloper, and over time, he gives up because he’s not content with only a part of the fortune. 
Austin Sloper’s main weapon is his money. He wins in the battle with Morris, because of Morris’s greed and, I suppose, wounded pride; but loses in the war with Catherine, because she doesn’t care. Of the 4 minds in Washington Square, hers is the only one that changes, expands, and develops over time—she comes to see all the other people for what they are, and resists, or takes revenge on, each of them in her own way. Throughout the story, everyone including the readers misunderstand her and underestimate her, but because Catherine is dull and inexperienced doesn’t mean that she has no power of perception. People think that because she is dutiful and doesn’t openly object to her father, she must be subservient, but Catherine has self-respect and a sense of dignity. Because of dignity, she doesn’t yield.
Her reservation and silence becomes her weapon, and her revenge. 
“We know that she had been deeply and incurably wounded, but the Doctor had no means of knowing it.  He was certainly curious about it, and would have given a good deal to discover the exact truth; but it was his punishment that he never knew—his punishment, I mean, for the abuse of sarcasm in his relations with his daughter.  There was a good deal of effective sarcasm in her keeping him in the dark, and the rest of the world conspired with her, in this sense, to be sarcastic.” (Ch.32) 
As she is silent and betrays nothing, he has no means to know how she feels, and he can’t be sure that Morris isn’t hiding somewhere and waiting for him to die. 
“Mrs. Penniman told him nothing, partly because he never questioned her—he made too light of Mrs. Penniman for that—and partly because she flattered herself that a tormenting reserve, and a serene profession of ignorance, would avenge her for his theory that she had meddled in the matter.  He went two or three times to see Mrs. Montgomery, but Mrs. Montgomery had nothing to impart.  She simply knew that her brother’s engagement was broken off, and now that Miss Sloper was out of danger she preferred not to bear witness in any way against Morris. […] Mrs. Almond had, in her sister’s phrase, “taken up” Catherine violently since the recent catastrophe; but though the girl was very grateful to her for her kindness, she revealed no secrets, and the good lady could give the Doctor no satisfaction.  Even, however, had she been able to narrate to him the private history of his daughter’s unhappy love affair, it would have given her a certain comfort to leave him in ignorance; for Mrs. Almond was at this time not altogether in sympathy with her brother.” (ibid.)  
(Mrs Almond is Dr Sloper’s other sister, someone who should be Catherine’s mother figure, instead of Mrs Penniman). 
Catherine is also silent to Mrs Penniman. Since she starts to see through aunt Lavinia, she doesn’t confide in her but still has a certain respect, but it’s all gone when she discovers that the aunt has been even more involved than she realised. She keeps everything to herself, and never satisfies the meddlesome woman’s curiosity. 
On the other side, the aunt too is silent: 
“… she remained quite the same officious and imaginative Mrs. Penniman, and the odd mixture of impetuosity and circumspection, that we have hitherto known.  As regards one point, however, her circumspection prevailed, and she must be given due credit for it.  For upwards of seventeen years she never mentioned Morris Townsend’s name to her niece.  Catherine was grateful to her, but this consistent silence, so little in accord with her aunt’s character, gave her a certain alarm, and she could never wholly rid herself of a suspicion that Mrs. Penniman sometimes had news of him.” (ibid.) 
I have written about the silences in The Portrait of a Lady. Henry James writes about things people say, as well as things people leave unsaid. However, if the silences in The Portrait of a Lady show either calculation, or the inability to express oneself, a lot of the silences at the beginning of Washington Square show Catherine’s inarticulateness and reservation*, but later on, silence is a means of resistance, and a proof of mental strength. 
Azar Nafisi wrote a nice analysis of the book in Reading Lolita in Tehran
“Only Catherine has the capacity to change and mature, although here, as in so many of James’s novels, our heroine pays a dear price for this change. And she does take a form of revenge on both her father and her suitor: she refuses to give in to them. In the end, she has her triumph. 
If we can call it that. One can believe James’s claim to an “imagination of disaster”; so many of his protagonists are unhappy in the end, and yet he gives them an aura of victory. It is because these characters depend to such a high degree on their own sense of integrity that for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness. It has more to do with a settling within oneself, a movement inward that makes them whole. Their reward is not happiness—a word that is central in Austen’s novels but is seldom used in James’s universe. What James’s characters gain is self-respect…” 
Washington Square is a great book. 
I prefer it to The Portrait of a Lady, or maybe I’m just more used to Henry James.

*: Note all the moments the characters pause before they speak, or think something without speaking. 
The best moment of silence in Washington Square is this one, at the end of the European trip, when Dr Sloper and Catherine are on the way back to New York: 
““Three days before will do,” he went on, “if you are in a position to be positive then.  [Morris] ought to be very thankful to me, do you know.  I have done a mighty good thing for him in taking you abroad; your value is twice as great, with all the knowledge and taste that you have acquired.  A year ago, you were perhaps a little limited—a little rustic; but now you have seen everything, and appreciated everything, and you will be a most entertaining companion.  We have fattened the sheep for him before he kills it!Catherine turned away, and stood staring at the blank door.  “Go to bed,” said her father; “and, as we don’t go aboard till noon, you may sleep late.  We shall probably have a most uncomfortable voyage.”” 
(my emphasis) 
Just like that, the chapter ends. This is the turning point for Catherine—when she realises that her father has always despised her and never loved her. James doesn’t need to say how she feels. His style is always economical, but he says enough. 

Friday 19 April 2019

Washington Square: Lavinia Penniman’s tenderness

A year later, Dr Austin Sloper hasn’t “budged a hair’s-breadth from the position [he] took up a year ago” and “Catherine appears not to have budged an inch either; she is equally fresh; so we are about where we were before.” (Ch.27) 
Washington Square starts with a mind game between Dr Sloper and Morris Townsend, and turns into a battle between the doctor and his daughter Catherine. This is something everyone knows about, and we also know that later Catherine matures and gradually sees through everyone and resists to all of them in her own way. 
What interests me at the moment is the aunt, Lavinia Penniman. She is sentimental, irritatingly meddlesome, tactless, stupid and shallow—so far in the book, she is some kind of comic relief. But now I’m starting to notice something else. 
Look at this conversation, which takes place when Catherine comes back after a year in Europe.
““I have seen a great deal of him,” said Mrs. Penniman.  “He is not very easy to know.  I suppose you think you know him; but you don’t, my dear.  You will some day; but it will only be after you have lived with him.  I may almost say I have lived with him,” Mrs. Penniman proceeded, while Catherine stared.  “I think I know him now; I have had such remarkable opportunities.  You will have the same—or rather, you will have better!” and Aunt Lavinia smiled.  “Then you will see what I mean.  It’s a wonderful character, full of passion and energy, and just as true!”” (Ch.25) 
Isn’t that just ridiculous and very inappropriate? 
The narrator assures us that it’s not what we think it is. 
“Mrs. Penniman had not a particle of jealousy of her niece.  For herself, she felt as if she were Morris’s mother or sister—a mother or sister of an emotional temperament—and she had an absorbing desire to make him comfortable and happy.  […]  She had never had a child of her own, and Catherine, whom she had done her best to invest with the importance that would naturally belong to a youthful Penniman, had only partly rewarded her zeal.  Catherine, as an object of affection and solicitude, had never had that picturesque charm which (as it seemed to her) would have been a natural attribute of her own progeny.  […]  Sentimentally speaking, therefore, she had (though she had not disinherited her niece) adopted Morris Townsend, who gave her opportunity in abundance.  She would have been very happy to have a handsome and tyrannical son, and would have taken an extreme interest in his love affairs.” (Ch.27) 
Mrs Penniman prioritises Morris’s interest like he’s her son, the narrator says, but I’m not so sure.  
Look at the letter she sends to Morris Townsend: 
“…I miss you dreadfully; the house seems so empty without you.  What is the news down town?  Is the business extending?  That dear little business—I think it’s so brave of you!  Couldn’t I come to your office?—just for three minutes?...” (Ch.28) 
Does she not sound like a lover? 
As I go back, I find more interesting details: 
“… in the bottom of her heart she permitted herself the observation: “That’s the sort of husband I should have had!”  He was certainly much more imperious—she ended by calling it imperial—than Mr. Penniman.” (Ch.6) 
“Mrs. Penniman rose with considerable majesty.  “My poor child, are you jealous of me?” she inquired.” (Ch.17) 
Note that people at this time and Henry James himself had a distinction between being jealous and being envious. 
What exactly, then, is Lavinia Penniman’s interest in the whole Sloper vs Sloper vs Townsend conflict? 
Slowly she takes Morris’s side, and doesn’t object when he decides to give Catherine up.

Thursday 18 April 2019

A personal reflection on Catherine Sloper

Henry James seems to like to skip and jump in time. I twice wrote about that in The Portrait of a Lady
In Washington Square, Dr Sloper brings Catherine to Europe. Then Henry James skips 6 months. They have a talk. Then he skips another 6 months. 
Don’t you feel a bit cheated? 
But let’s talk about something else. Look at the conversation between Catherine and Morris before the trip: 
““Should you like to see all those celebrated things over there?”
“Oh no, Morris!” said Catherine, quite deprecatingly.
“Gracious Heaven, what a dull woman!” Morris exclaimed to himself.” (Ch.23) 
What a dull woman indeed. Maybe I’m biased because I like Europe and travel, and like “those celebrated things”. After all, I’m already biased against Catherine Sloper because “She confessed that she was not particularly fond of literature” (Ch.6). 
On the trip: 
“It was idle to attempt to ascertain the state of her affections without direct inquiry, because, if she had not had an expressive manner among the familiar influences of home, she failed to gather animation from the mountains of Switzerland or the monuments of Italy.  She was always her father’s docile and reasonable associate—going through their sight-seeing in deferential silence, never complaining of fatigue, always ready to start at the hour he had appointed over-night, making no foolish criticisms and indulging in no refinements of appreciation.  “She is about as intelligent as the bundle of shawls,” the Doctor said; her main superiority being that while the bundle of shawls sometimes got lost, or tumbled out of the carriage, Catherine was always at her post, and had a firm and ample seat.” (Ch.24) 
I suspect I will change when the characters are revealed or when Catherine changes later in the book, but at the moment, if you look at the matter from Dr Sloper’s point of view, isn’t it disappointing that a brilliant parent has such an unexceptional, dull, commonplace child? Goodness is good, but a bore is still a bore, no? 
Not only so, this is when Catherine starts to become frustrating: 
“He stopped in front of her and stood looking at her, with eyes that had kept the light of the flushing snow-summits on which they had just been fixed.  Then, abruptly, in a low tone, he asked her an unexpected question:
“Have you given him up?”
The question was unexpected, but Catherine was only superficially unprepared.
“No, father!” she answered.
He looked at her again for some moments, without speaking.
“Does he write to you?” he asked.
“Yes—about twice a month.” 
The Doctor looked up and down the valley, swinging his stick; then he said to her, in the same low tone:
“I am very angry.”
She wondered what he meant—whether he wished to frighten her.” (ibid.) 
And then: 
“She could not think why he told her these things.  Had he brought her there on purpose, and was it part of a plan?” (ibid.) 
Is she dumb? 
The problem now (which is my problem rather than the problem of the book) is that I can’t help seeing Catherine as similar to an ex-friend of mine—let’s call her Rosy for convenience. Rosy is honest and hardworking but very dull, unambitious, not very knowledgeable, interested in very few things, and not passionate about anything; she can neither talk about any subject in depth, nor do small talk. Because she is quiet, some people think she’s introverted and deep, but she’s partly shy and reserved, partly inarticulate and dull. Also because she is quiet and never openly objects to people or disagrees with people, some people think she’s meek and obedient, but she can be extremely obstinate, obstinate to the point of madness. She doesn’t argue because she lacks the eloquence to express herself, but once she has set her mind on something, she’s impossible to reason with. Her way of rebellion is quietly doing whatever she likes, the way she likes it, behind people’s back. 
All that intolerable tediousness and maddening obstinacy of Rosy, I can now see in Catherine. 
The difference between the 2 is that Catherine is compassionate, or so I’m told. I was friends with Rosy not for conversation, not for common interests, as there were none. Other than circumstances, I was friends with her because of her honesty, good nature, hard work, self-respect, and sense of dignity, and that she’s good at her job. It took me some time to see her unreasonable obstinacy. It took me longer, but at last I realised that she had no depth of feeling—she harms nobody, and makes sure that she doesn’t owe anyone in terms of money, but beyond that, she doesn’t particularly care about people or do anything for others, and has little sense of gratitude. 
When I’m starting to see Catherine as Rosy, I also see Washington Square in a different light.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Sense and sensibility in Washington Square

I’m on chapter 15 of Washington Square
Dr Sloper has expressed his disapproval of Morris Townsend, refusing to give his consent, and Catherine is bearing it in silence, not throwing any tantrums. Not knowing how she feels nor why she acts the way she does, he concludes that she’s not “a woman of great spirit”. 
Now look at this line: 
“I know not whether he had hoped for a little more resistance for the sake of a little more entertainment; but he said to himself, as he had said before, that though it might have its momentary alarms, paternity was, after all, not an exciting vocation.” 
Her father doesn’t seem to care how she feels. He’s busy taking pride in reading people, figuring Morris out, playing mind game, and doing “detective” work (meeting Morris’s sister), and now he’s surprised and disappointed that Catherine doesn’t play the role of a lovelorn woman. 
Now look at the aunt: 
“Mrs. Penniman took too much satisfaction in the sentimental shadows of this little drama to have, for the moment, any great interest in dissipating them.  She wished the plot to thicken, and the advice that she gave her niece tended, in her own imagination, to produce this result.  It was rather incoherent counsel, and from one day to another it contradicted itself; but it was pervaded by an earnest desire that Catherine should do something striking.  […] Mrs. Penniman’s real hope was that the girl would make a secret marriage, at which she should officiate as brideswoman or duenna.  She had a vision of this ceremony being performed in some subterranean chapel—subterranean chapels in New York were not frequent, but Mrs. Penniman’s imagination was not chilled by trifles—and of the guilty couple—she liked to think of poor Catherine and her suitor as the guilty couple—being shuffled away in a fast-whirling vehicle to some obscure lodging in the suburbs, where she would pay them (in a thick veil) clandestine visits, where they would endure a period of romantic privation, and where ultimately, after she should have been their earthly providence, their intercessor, their advocate, and their medium of communication with the world, they should be reconciled to her brother in an artistic tableau, in which she herself should be somehow the central figure.” 
I know enough about Washington Square to know Catherine will defy everyone’s expectations, but this is the moment I have so much pity for her, because the people who are supposed to care for her and do the most for her only see her as a pawn, a plaything, and her whole courtship as a drama, or a game. The father has no sensibility, the aunt has no sense, nobody cares about how she feels and nobody offers her real guidance. 
Mrs Penniman is like an Austenian figure (not in the sense that she’s like any Jane Austen character in particular, nobody comes to mind, but in the sense she can fit right in a Jane Austen novel). 
“[Morris] kept her waiting for half an hour—he had almost the whole width of the city to traverse—but she liked to wait, it seemed to intensify the situation.  She ordered a cup of tea, which proved excessively bad, and this gave her a sense that she was suffering in a romantic cause.” 
Such a goose.  
“This interview could take place only on neutral ground, and she bethought herself greatly before selecting a place of meeting.  She had an inclination for Greenwood Cemetery, but she gave it up as too distant; she could not absent herself for so long, as she said, without exciting suspicion.  Then she thought of the Battery, but that was rather cold and windy, besides one’s being exposed to intrusion from the Irish emigrants who at this point alight, with large appetites, in the New World and at last she fixed upon an oyster saloon in the Seventh Avenue, kept by a negro—an establishment of which she knew nothing save that she had noticed it in passing.  She made an appointment with Morris Townsend to meet him there, and she went to the tryst at dusk, enveloped in an impenetrable veil.  […] When Morris at last arrived, they sat together for half an hour in the duskiest corner of a back shop…” 
This is an interesting contrast with Catherine—earlier, as written in the previous post, Morris Townsend suggests meeting in the square in the dark, where nobody can see them, and Catherine refuses, and in the end he has to come to the house and meet her there. 
Catherine is underestimated.
Dr Sloper isn’t as wise and clever as the narrator and other people think he is. How can he give someone like Mrs Penniman the job of making Catherine a clever woman, when she doesn’t have an ounce of sense in her? I think he already gives up on his daughter from the start, because he sees the female sex as inferior, with the only exception of his poor wife, whose death he blames on Catherine.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

The heroine in Washington Square

Washington Square makes me think of Jane Austen. In this novella, Henry James tackles the Jane Austen themes, like sense vs sensibility, love vs money, courtship, marriage, inheritance, pride, prejudice, moral development, self-realisation, and so on. 
We have a heroine, of course, by the name of Catherine Sloper: “A dull, plain girl she was called by rigorous critics—a quiet, ladylike girl by those of the more imaginative sort; but by neither class was she very elaborately discussed.” (Ch.3) 
Catherine Sloper is definitely not Elizabeth Bennet. 
“She was a healthy well-grown child, without a trace of her mother’s beauty.  She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance.  The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a “nice” face, and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle.  Her father’s opinion of her moral purity was abundantly justified; she was excellently, imperturbably good; affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth. […] Catherine was decidedly not clever; she was not quick with her book, nor, indeed, with anything else.  […] Catherine, who was extremely modest, had no desire to shine, and on most social occasions, as they are called, you would have found her lurking in the background.” (Ch.2) 
Plain, in every sense of the word. 
It appears that Catherine is not simply quiet and introverted like Fanny Price and Anne Elliot, but she’s also not quick or eloquent—the narrator keeps alluding to her inarticulateness and inability to express herself. 
For example: 
“Her great indulgence of it was really the desire of a rather inarticulate nature to manifest itself; she sought to be eloquent in her garments, and to make up for her diffidence of speech by a fine frankness of costume.” (Ch.3) 
She’s good, though, the narrator says. 
“At this time she seemed not only incapable of giving surprises; it was almost a question whether she could have received one—she was so quiet and irresponsive.  People who expressed themselves roughly called her stolid.  But she was irresponsive because she was shy, uncomfortably, painfully shy.  This was not always understood, and she sometimes produced an impression of insensibility.  In reality she was the softest creature in the world.” (Ch.2) 
Softest creature in the world. 
The main conflict of Washington Square is that Morris Townsend, a handsome and penniless jerk, wants to marry her, and her father, the brilliant but cold Dr Sloper, disapproves. The conflict of the novella forms a square, as we’ve got these 2 characters, with Catherine stuck in between, and we also have the sentimental and meddling aunt Mrs Penniman, who tries to put Morris and Catherine together and imagines being in some kind of drama. 
Look at this passage from Reading Lolita in Tehran
“One by one, James strips away from Catherine the qualities that make a heroine attractive; what he takes away from her he distributes among the other 3 characters. To Morris Townsend he bestows “beauty” and brilliance; to Mrs Penniman, a Machiavellian love of intrigue; and to Dr Sloper, he gives irony and judgment. But at the same time he deprives them of the single quality that distinguishes his heroine: compassion.” 
Azar Nafisi’s making an interesting observation there. 
I don’t know what Catherine thinks or how she feels, because, unlike Jane Austen, Henry James doesn’t come close to his heroine. The book at the moment is more about the mind game between Dr Sloper and Morris Townsend, and their tactics.
However, look at this line from chapter 10: 
“Catherine received the young man the next day on the ground she had chosen—amid the chaste upholstery of a New York drawing-room furnished in the fashion of fifty years ago.  Morris had swallowed his pride and made the effort necessary to cross the threshold of her too derisive parent—an act of magnanimity which could not fail to render him doubly interesting.”  

(emphasis mine) 
I know the story, having seen The Heiress, but this is a hint that she is not as simple and subservient as people think she is.

Monday 15 April 2019

Starting Washington Square

I’m reading Washington Square, an obvious choice after Reading Lolita in Tehran
At the moment, I don’t have much to say, except to point out that the narrator is hilarious. I mean: 
“He had no particular theory on the subject; it had scarcely as yet become a necessity of self-defence to have a collection of theories.  It simply appeared to him proper and reasonable that a well-bred young woman should not carry half her fortune on her back.  Catherine’s back was a broad one, and would have carried a good deal; but to the weight of the paternal displeasure she never ventured to expose it…” (Ch.3) 
“On this basis an understanding was easily arrived at, and for several years Catherine fraternised with her young kinsmen.  I say young kinsmen, because seven of the little Almonds were boys, and Catherine had a preference for those games which are most conveniently played in trousers.  By degrees, however, the little Almonds’ trousers began to lengthen, and the wearers to disperse and settle themselves in life.” (ibid.) 
Or this line: 
“The Doctor’s wine was admirable, and it may be communicated to the reader that while he sipped it Morris reflected that a cellar-full of good liquor—there was evidently a cellar-full here—would be a most attractive idiosyncrasy in a father-in-law.” (Ch.7) 
I might find something to write about later. It’s enjoyable, and easy to read. People say Henry James is unreadable, that could be true, but not true for Washington Square
Meanwhile, check out these posts from Tom at Wuthering Expectations about how rich Catherine Sloper is.
I didn’t realise she’s that rich. That affects your whole reading of the book.

Thursday 11 April 2019

Why I don’t use the star rating

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I don’t write reviews. I write about a subject—my thoughts, observations, reactions, and if lucky, sometimes I point out something that most people haven’t noticed or haven’t talked about. Like the silences in The Portrait of a Lady, for example. Or the dog motif in Lolita. Or the different kinds of smiles in War and Peace. Or the tortoises in Melville’s “The Encantadas”. And so on. 
I definitely don’t write book summary. There are lots of book bloggers out there who spend almost an entire post summarising a book and add about 3 lines of their thoughts, which I don’t understand. I don’t do that—after all, what’s the point of another blogger/amateur reader introducing the plot of something like Anna Karenina or Moby Dick or Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Everyone knows the basic plot. 
I don’t use the star rating either. Just now, I came across a blog, in which the author rates Lolita as 4 out of 5 stars, but gives The Great Gatsby 5 stars, Never Let Me Go 5 stars, Villette 5 stars, etc. What? 
I mean, the whole star rating thing just confuses me. If I go by my aesthetics, Emma would get 5 stars because it is perfect and skilfully written, with a masterful use of the free indirect speech, and Middlemarch would get 4 stars because it is baggy and the moralistic author is intrusive, but at the same time, Middlemarch is a much more ambitious and expansive work, and could be said to be greater.
Even if I mean it so Middlemarch is not compared to Emma, because they are incomparable, how do I tell people that I mean Middlemarch gets 4 stars when placed next to other works of large scope such as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Moby Dick, all of which I give 5 stars? If I give all of these 5 stars, how do I give Madame Bovary 5 stars, which it well deserves, but at the same time I argue that in many ways, scope as well as depth, I rank Anna Karenina much above Madame Bovary? I can’t give Madame Bovary 4 stars, because if I do, how do I rate the other works of similar small scopes (focusing on a handful of characters), such as works by Jane Austen or the Brontes? 
Or if I place Jane Austen’s novels next to each other, suppose I give 5 stars to Emma and Mansfield Park, what do I give Pride and Prejudice? It doesn’t have any obvious deficiency to get a 4, and do I give Sense and Sensibility 4 and Northanger Abbey 3? Or what? Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey are both very good, they are just thin and don’t have the depth of her later works. 
All of it is confusing. 
Then comes the question of importance. Crime and Punishment is a deeply flawed book, and Frankenstein doesn’t have very good prose or great writing either, but they stand the test of time because of their philosophy and influence. I don’t want to give them 5 stars because of the imperfections (and conflicts with my aesthetics), but wouldn’t it be insulting (and not very humble on my part) to give them 4 or 3? Rating feels almost like giving a mark—who am I to give such literary works a mark? 
Or if we see the rating as an evaluation of what a book is, against what it could be, for example, Emma deserves 5 stars because Jane Austen uses the free indirect speech to depict Emma’s character, describe events through her perspective, and at the same time fool the readers, i.e. she succeeds in what she apparently sets out to do, then how do we know such a thing about books in general? Or are we just guessing? Crime and Punishment is imperfect, but what could it be? I have no idea.
Even if we judge books by such standards and it somehow works, I don’t like the idea that works of remarkable scope, depth, and importance like Anna Karenina and Moby Dick get 5 stars, and a well-written but much less ambitious work like Emma also has 5 stars. There’s something wrong there. 
Maybe somebody will explain to me this whole rating business.

Wednesday 10 April 2019

From The Enchanter to Lolita

Enough of octopuses, I’m now going back to writing about literature. 
I’ve read The Enchanter, which I’ve called the proto-Lolita. Comparison is unavoidable, so let’s look at how Humbert Humbert describes the 1st time he meets Lolita: 
“I was still walking behind Mrs. Haze through the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery — “the piazza,” sang out my leader, and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses. 
It was the same child — the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. A polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest hid from my aging ape eyes, but not from the gaze of young memory, the juvenile breasts I had fondled one immortal day. And, as if I were the fairy-tale nurse of some little princess (lost, kidnaped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the king and his hounds), I recognized the tiny dark-brown mole on her side. With awe and delight (the king crying for joy, the trumpets blaring, the nurse drunk) I saw again her lovely indrawn abdomen where my southbound mouth had briefly paused; and those puerile hips on which I had kissed the crenulated imprint left by the band of her shorts— that last triad immortal day behind the “Roches Roses.” The twenty-five years I had lived since then tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished. 
I find it most difficult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition. In the course of the sun-shot moment that my glance slithered over the kneeling child (her eyes blinking over those stem dark spectacles— the little Herr Doktor who was to cure me of all my aches) while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these checked against the features of my dead bride. A little later, of course, she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype.”   
Humbert Humbert, in case you don’t know the story, is looking for an apartment, and has no interest in this place, until he sees Lolita. The situation in The Enchanter is completely different—the unnamed paedophile sees the little girl, also unnamed, in a park, and finds ways to get closer to her. He approaches the woman who accompanies the girl, then gets to the ailing mother, purchases furniture from her and then seduces her. 
Another thing to note is that Nabokov writes in the 1st person in Lolita; for The Enchanter, he chooses the 3rd-person narrator but employs free indirect speech.
Now let’s look at the way the 1st meeting is described in The Enchanter
“A violet-clad girl of 12 (he never erred), was treading rapidly and firmly on skates that did not roll but crunched on the gravel as she raised and lowered them with little Japanese steps and approached his bench through the variable luck of the sunlight. Subsequently (for as long as the sequel lasted), it seemed to him that right away, at that very moment, he had appreciated all of her from tip to toe: the liveliness of her russet curls (recently trimmed); the radiance of her large, slightly vacuous eyes, somehow suggesting translucent gooseberries; her merry, warm complexion; her pink mouth, slightly open so that 2 large front teeth barely rested on the protuberance of the lower lip; the summery tint of her bare arms with the sleek little fox-like hairs running along the forearms; the indistinct tenderness of her still narrow but already not quite flat chest; the way the folds of her skirt moved; their succinctness and soft concavities; the slenderness and glow of her uncaring legs; the coarse straps of the skates.” 
The difference is obvious: the writing in The Enchanter is more explicit, and a lot cruder. 
Another passage from The Enchanter
“The girl’s arrival, her breathing, her legs, her hair, everything that she did, whether it was scratching a shin and leaving white marks on it, or throwing a small black ball high in the air, or brushing against him with a bare elbow as she seated herself on the bench—all of it (while he appeared engrossed in pleasant conversation) evoked an intolerable sensation of sanguine, dermal, multivascular communion with her, as if the monstrous bisector pumping all the juices from the depths of his being extended into her like a pulsating dotted line, as if this girl were growing out of him, as if, with every carefree movement she tugged and shook her vital roots implanted in the bowels of his being, so that, when she abruptly changed position or rushed off, he felt a yank, a barbarous pluck, a momentary loss of equilibrium: suddenly you are traveling through the dust on your back, banging the back of your head, on your way to being strung up by your insides.” 
It is very crude, indeed, vulgar, and gross. 
“She might be a little introverted, livelier of movement than of conversation, neither bashful nor forward, with a soul that seemed submerged, but in a radiant moistness.” 
Notice the choice of words. I shall not type out the hotel scene. 
The narrative voice of The Enchanter has none of the beauty and elegance of Lolita, but of course, that is the trap of Lolita—Humbert Humbert is much worse than the character of this book, he abducts and rapes Lolita, and manipulates everyone. As Nabokov came back to the idea, reused the basic plot, and developed the story, he went further and created a work that is a lot more complicated—I don’t mean in terms of technique, which is needless to say, I mean the novel becomes a lot trickier and full of traps. Humbert Humbert is much wittier and more interesting than his unnamed equivalent—he has charm and writes to manipulate, to ask for empathy. He tries to justify, romanticise, and mythicise his obsession with little girls, and because he doesn’t describe things as explicitly as in The Enchanter, he easily fools unsuspecting readers. 
There are 2 main misinterpretations of Lolita. The 1st is to believe that the author condones paedophilia, or worse, he himself is a paedophile (because why else would the book feel so true and convincing?). The 2nd is to treat it as a love story and not see Humbert Humbert as a villain, rapist, and criminal. 
The 1st kind of misunderstanding is the fault of a bad reader, who either sees only the surface or doesn’t understand literature and literary criticism.  
The 2nd kind of misunderstanding comes from bad reading and the failure to notice Lolita’s suffering, but it has more to do with moral values. How can you justify the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl? Not 16. Not 15. 12. How can you put the blame on her? 
As Nabokov went from The Enchanter to Lolita, he made the matter trickier and more complex by making the girl sexually precocious. The girl in the Russian novella is a pure, innocent child—“sexually unawakened and physically immature”, in Dmitri Nabokov’s words. It is plain and clear: a paedophile and an innocent child. Lolita is much more subtle and nuanced, and not so black and white. 
The moral stance is the same, though: it doesn’t matter that Lolita is sexually precocious and sexually experienced, it doesn’t matter even if Lolita seduces Humbert Humbert—nothing justifies his actions, and he himself knows it.  


A motif in The Enchanter
“… he would lie supine and evoke the one and only image, entwine his smiling victim with 8 hands, which turned into 8 tentacles affixed to every detail of her nudity, and at last he would dissolve in a black mist and lose her in the blackness, and the blackness spread everywhere, and was but the blackness of the night in his solitary bedroom.” 
That’s an octopus. 
Didn’t I say I stopped writing about octopuses? But there it is.  
The octopus appears once before in the book: 
“He had forgotten the rest of his sentence, but improvised most adroitly, as he was beginning to feel at home with the artificial style of the still not fully comprehensible, many-ringed dream with which he was already so indistinctly but so firmly entwined that, for instance, he no longer knew what this thing was, and whose: part of his own leg or part of an octopus.”

Monday 8 April 2019


It has been exactly 1 year since I lost my grandma, one of the 2 women I love and admire the most. 

Sunday 7 April 2019

Cephalopod facts

Himadri has just said my blog is becoming more esoteric by day. 
I suppose it is. 
The thing with me is, if I’m fascinated by something, I want to know more and more about it. I love Moby Dick for example, so I read Philip Hoare’s book about whales, watched Blue Planet about whales, and went whale-watching in Whitby, and I read other works by Melville. Or I discovered Ingmar Bergman, so now I’ve seen 17 films by him, read his biography The Magic Lantern, and read multiple books about his works. 
Certain things wear off after some time, like with whales, but it was fun whilst it lasted (my love for Melville remains, though). 
So, back to cephalopods—this class includes octopuses, cuttlefish, squids, and nautiluses. 

17 The orange back squid Sthenoteuthis pteropus. Photo: S. Zankl.  

2 tentacles and 8 arms 
Have ink 
In Vietnamese, squids are called mực, which means ink 
Blue-green blood
Can change colours but not as well as cuttlefish
3 hearts  


2 tentacles and 8 arms 
The most colourful of cephalopods
W-shaped eyes 
Have a cuttlebone 
Have ink 
In Vietnamese, also called mực (like squids), which means ink 
Blue-green blood
3 hearts
Unlike octopuses, cuttlefish don’t tend their eggs but glue them to rocks and leave them


8 arms (though some scientists say 6 arms and 2 legs) 
Can smell and taste with their arms 
3 hearts 
Have ink 
Blue-green blood
Less colourful than cuttlefish but have no bone, can take almost any shape and can change texture of their skin
Master of camouflage  
Horizontal pupils 
Highly complex nervous system (500 million neurons) 
Females tend their eggs for their remaining days and die 
Smartest of cephalopods: can solve puzzles, recognise individual humans, open a jar from inside, fit through anything as long as the beak fits, use tools, manipulate objects, and so on.  
Also, I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but this is a very beautiful octopus:

The octopus is called Freya and this was at New England Aquarium, the one mentioned in The Soul of an Octopus.



I know absolutely nothing about them except that they have shells and have remained relatively unchanged for millions of years (the closest to the 1st cephalopods that appeared, compared to octopuses or cuttlefish). 
Compared to other cephalopods, they’re not particularly smart, and therefore not really interesting.  


Look at this sad passage from Other Minds, chapter 7, “Experience Compressed”: 

“A strange-looking rock-dwelling fish that inhabits the same patch of sea as my cephalopod is from a group that includes fish who live to 200 years of age. 200! This seemed extraordinarily unfair. A dull-looking fish lives for centuries while the cuttlefish, in their splendor, and the octopus, in their curious intelligence, are dead before they are 2?” 
What is the point of such a complex nervous system when they have a lifespan of 2-3 years? Their intelligence just goes to waste. 
Peter Godfrey-Smith goes on: 
“Nautiluses, the elegant but psychologically unimpressive cephalopods who steer their shells like submarines around the Pacific, can live for more than 20 years. That is several drawn-out decades of life for what biologists, unflatteringly, have called a “smell-and-grope scavenger”. These animals are relatives of octopuses and cuttlefish, and they are not rushing through their lives at all.” 
This is ridiculous.

Saturday 6 April 2019

The indifference of cuttlefish

I’m reading chapter 5 “Making Colors” of Other Minds
Peter Godfrey-Smith now focuses on cuttlefish, because among cephalopods, they are the pinnacle of colour-changing, or at least, the most colourful. 

The book, as you can see in the excerpts in my previous blog post, is written in a formal, academic style, unlike Sy Montgomery’s or Philip Hoare’s (author of Leviathan, the book about whales I read a few years ago). Godfrey-Smith seemingly tries to be as clear, objective, and factual as possible. 
But now and then something takes over. 
Take this passage about a hostile cuttlefish (which is rare, by the way): 
“On these cases he produced the most murderous-looking displays I have ever seen: burning orange colors, arms like horns and sickles, and skin-folds resembling bent iron armors. Sometimes his inner arms were held high, contorted. At 1 point he held nearly all his arms aloft and twisted together, with just 1 set of arms below and his face between. I thought: he looks like the jaws of hell. It was as if he in his molluscan way had a sense of what is frightening for a human, and was trying to produce a vision of damnation, something intended to strike at our hearts.” 
The tone and style are different. It’s like, I don’t know, he’s under some Melville influence.  
Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher of science, and also a scuba diver, so he goes on to write more about his interaction with cuttlefish in the wild: 
“Touring cuttlefish can sometimes be friendly or at least curious, stopping to peer at you before swimming on. But some are able to ignore you no matter how close you swim—even if you are right alongside their eye. Once I was being ignored so perfectly that I planted myself directly in the animal’s path, just to see what he would do. What followed felt like an existentialist game of “chicken”. He came closer and closer, refusing to acknowledge my presence, until he was just a foot or so away. Then he looked up at me, with an expression that I cannot describe at all except to say that he seemed deeply unimpressed, edged past and swam on. 
What role do we have then? What are we to them? Surely we are registered as large, mobile creatures. Surely, then, we might be potentially dangerous, or at least something of interest? Other cuttlefish do see us that way—as visitors to study, or to chase off with a wild display. But sometimes it appears that we do not come across as living beings at all. Being ignored so deeply makes you wonder if you are entirely real in their watery world, as if you are one of those ghosts who does not realize they are a ghost.” 
That is thought-provoking indeed. 


From what Godfrey-Smith has written, I gather that cuttlefish are not as smart as octopuses, or at least, do not show hints of intelligence such as using tools or solving puzzles. They don’t seem to be as curious and interesting either. 
He also writes, “When it comes to camouflage, octopuses are unsurpassed”, because “unlike cuttlefish, octopuses have almost no hard parts in their bodies, and can assume just about any shape at all”. 
My fascination is with octopuses. But Godfrey-Smith seems to be more interested in the enigmatic and little-studied cuttlefish, and I’m now more curious about them. They change colours not only for signalling or camouflage. The colours are their expressiveness, even if their eyes can’t see the colours themselves. 
Read my blog post about octopuses and colours.

Friday 5 April 2019

Octopuses’ strange way of being

Why do I seem to be “obsessed” with octopuses? Because they are cool animals—they are masters of camouflage and escape, they have eyes similar to ours but can’t see colours, they are smart and so strange in many ways, and above all, if you read The Soul of an Octopus, they are curious and adventurous creatures that like play and get bored easily and can recognise human individuals, and they also have personalities. That’s my short answer. 
Now look at this: 
“The octopus is sometimes said to be a good illustration of the importance of a theoretical movement in psychology known as embodied cognition. […] 1 central idea is that our body itself, rather than our brain, is responsible for some of the “smartness” with which we handle the world.”
That is interesting, because an octopus has about 500 million neurons (look at this table for comparison with other animals), most of which are not in the brain but in the 8 arms. Each of the arms has some independence.
“But the doctrines of the embodied cognition movement do not really fit well with the strangeness of the octopus’s way of being. Defenders of embodied cognition often say that the body’s shape and organization encodes information. But that requires that there be a shape to the body, and an octopus has less of a fixed shape than other animals. The same animal can stand tall on its arm, squeeze through a hole little bigger than its eye, become a streamlined missile, or fold itself to fit into a jar. When advocates of embodied cognition such as Chiel and Beer give examples of how bodies provide resources for intelligent action, they mention the distances between parts of a body (which aid perception) and the locations and angles of joints. The octopus body has none of those things—no fixed distances between parts, no joints, no natural angles. […] In an octopus, the nervous system as a whole is a more relevant object than the brain: it’s not clear where the brain itself begins and ends, and the nervous system runs all through the body. The octopus is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system. 
The octopus, indeed, has a “different embodiment”, but one so unusual that it does not fit any of the standard views in this area. The usual debate is between those who see the brain as an all-powerful CEO and those who emphasize the intelligence stored in the body itself. Both views rely on a distinction between brain-based and body-based knowledge. The octopus lives outside both the usual pictures…” 
Isn’t that so interesting? 
That is from chapter 3 of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith. 
Whilst The Soul of an Octopus is more personal and poetic, in which Sy Montgomery mentions facts about the species but focuses more on her personal encounters with several octopuses, Other Minds is more scientific and study-based. The books have different approaches: The Soul of an Octopus is about octopuses as individuals, with different personalities and temperaments, memories and feelings, Other Minds focuses on consciousness, subjective experience, and the origins of it all. A lot of the book therefore deals with evolution, the ancestors of today’s animals (especially cephalopods), and theories and studies about the brain, neurons, and animals’ intelligence.  
Other Minds is more neutral (and academic), it doesn’t have the sense of wonder and infectious curiosity that you can find in The Soul of an Octopus. I’m not sure it can be enjoyable to someone who has no interest in octopuses and other cephalopods. But if you like them or have an interest in consciousness in animals, check it out.

Thursday 4 April 2019

Starting The Enchanter, with thoughts on all the Lolitas

1/ Officially I’m reading Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, but I was at Waterstones yesterday and also started reading Vladimir Nabokov’s The Enchanter
It has a handless watch (there’s a handless clock in my film), and the word “octopus”, so that must be a sign. 

2/ The Enchanter is the proto-Lolita. It was written in Russian in 1938, assumed lost, then found, but not translated into English and published until 1986, after Nabokov’s death. 
Here is the plot: “The unnamed protagonists of The Enchanter are a French jeweler of about 40, an almost faceless girl of 12 with whom he falls in love when he sees her roller-skating in a park, and her unpleasant, hypochondriac mother, whom the jeweler marries in the hope of getting his hands on the daughter.” 
Lolita was published in 1955. 

3/ The Enchanter, however, is not where it began. It was The Gift.  
I don’t understand why I forgot to write about it on my blog, so it took me some time to find it. 
From chapter 3 of The Gift—we are hearing Boris Ivanovich (Zina’s stepfather): 
“Ah, if only I had a tick or 2, what a novel I’d whip off! From real life. Imagine this kind of thing: an old dog—but still in his prime, fiery, thirsting for happiness—gets to know a widow, and she has a daughter, still quite a little girl—you know what I mean—when nothing is formed yet, but already she has a way of walking that drives you out of your mind—A slip of a girl, very fair, pale, with blue under the eyes—and of course she doesn’t even look at the old goat. What to do? Well, not long thinking, he ups and marries the widow. Okay. They settle down the 3 of them. Here you can go on indefinitely—the temptation, the eternal torment, the itch, the mad hopes. And the upshot—a miscalculation. Time flies, he gets older, she blossoms out—and not a sausage. Just walks by and scorches you with a look of contempt. Eh? D’you feel here a kind of Dostoevskian tragedy? That story, you see, happened to a friend of mine, once upon a time in fairyland when old King Cole was a merry old soul.” 
Isn’t that so familiar? 
(Except that it didn’t happen to a friend of his—Boris Ivanovich is talking about himself, he married his wife to get access to her daughter Zina). 
The Gift was Nabokov’s last published novel in Russian, and written between 1935 and 1937, hence before The Enchanter
That plot goes a long way, showing that Nabokov was obsessed with it and wanted to write it for a long time. 

4/ You might have heard of The Two Lolitas, in which Michael Marr argues that Nabokov might have plagiarised from Heinz von Lichberg’s 1916 short story “Lolita”, or suffered from cryptomnesia. 
As I have written before, I have read the short story, and it’s nothing like Nabokov’s novel, except a few similarities that are incidental. Any comparison is forced and ridiculous. There is no resemblance thematically or stylistically—even the plot and genre are different. 

5/ However, it is very likely that the inspiration for Lolita was the real-life kidnap of Florence Sally Horner by Frank La Salle in 1948. 
The case is explicitly referenced in Nabokov’s book: 
“Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” 
This was the subject of a book published last year, The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman. 
Personally I think that the story of a paedophile who marries some poor woman in order to get access to her prepubescent daughter is a subject that interested Nabokov for a long time, but it was only when he knew about the case of Sally Horner that he got the inspiration for an abduction, and created his masterpiece Lolita
I wanted to read The Real Lolita, and once read an excerpt. However, after reading some reviews, I’ve changed my mind.
“Part of Weinman’s project is also to substantiate the charge that Nabokov “pilfered” more from the Horner tragedy than he’d care to admit. This is apparently a sting worthy of “To Catch a Predator.” She believes that Nabokov, the verbal seducer, wronged Horner with the publication of “Lolita,” his most famous novel, in 1955. He obscured the extent to which he “strip-mined” her story; he flattened her into a temptress. In reclaiming the biography of Sally Horner, giving her “precedence” and centrality, Weinman writes, she will “reveal the truth behind the curtain of fiction” and allow the captive to emerge “like the butterflies that Vladimir Nabokov so loved . . . ready to fly free.” Put more prosaically, “The Real Lolita”—which has won a flurry of advance praise—hopes to transcend its essential salaciousness and its warmed-over genre clichés by appealing to something resembling restorative justice. But the nets are empty, and the butterflies are already dead.
[…] There’s something alluring, and maybe too neat, about concretizing the novel’s “crimes” against taste and decency with a literal true-crime story. It’s as if the insolent loveliness of the writing—and, by extension, all writing—obscures the truth of Sally’s pain and trauma, and thereby is a betrayal of Sally and all victims of sexual abuse. But Weinman’s stance also seems fundamentally anti-fiction. She appears to resent “Lolita” for depicting cruelty with charm, allusive style, and psychological acuity—for being beautiful, when its subject matter is not. This is an unsophisticated criticism, and Weinman tries to disguise it, by making the act of novel-writing an actual crime, and Nabokov a villain who trapped a girl in a book.” 
This is utter nonsense. Humbert Humbert and Frank La Salle have nothing in common except their paedophilia. La Salle has none of the character’s intellect and wit. Lolita is a work of art, a trap, and a test. Nabokov might have taken inspiration from the real case, and chosen an approach that make (certain) readers uncomfortable—not only narrating from the perspective of a cruel and manipulative but intellectual and charming paedophile, but also describing the child as sexually precocious, but his stance is absolutely clear—Dolly (Lolita) is a poor victim, and Humbert Humbert is a manipulator, criminal, and rapist. He by no means glorifies nor defends Humbert Humbert’s crimes, even whilst the narrator tries to get some sympathy. The prose is beautiful indeed, but the ugliness is still there, and Dolly’s pain is in the text, if people just read carefully. 
When I call Lolita a trap, and a test, I mean just that—Lolita is a trap because careless readers easily fall for Humbert Humbert’s charm and not read between the lines to notice Dolly’s pain and trauma; it is a test because someone’s response to the book says a lot about them as a reader, and in some way, as a person. 
Katy Waldman of The New Yorker ends her article: 
“The phrase “The Real Lolita” implies its opposite: a sham “Lolita,” a prop, a lie, a fiction. But this book presents no evidence that Nabokov exploited Sally Horner to breathe life into his imaginings. What it insinuates, powerfully, is that Weinman has exploited both Sally and Nabokov to justify her prurient interest in yet another sad, dead girl.” 

6/ Speaking of real cases, I watched Abducted in Plain Sight a few months ago. 
“It chronicles the peculiar kidnapping case of Jan Broberg, an Idaho teenager who was abducted by her decades-older neighbor Robert Berchtold in the 1970s. But Berchtold—known as “B”—did not just kidnap Broberg once; he entrapped Jan’s religious parents in such a web of trust, shame, and complicity that he managed to convince the family to drop the most serious kidnapping charges against him, continue letting him spend disturbing amounts of time with their young daughter, and—in the most shocking twist of all—he eventually kidnapped her a second time.” 
I will not go into details of the case, because I could talk about it for 4 hours. Abducted in Plain Sight is the most frustrating documentary I have ever watched, and that is the common response of everyone who has seen it, as you can easily see on the internet. 
The reason I bring it up in this blog post is because: a, Robert Berchtold was a paedophile and a master manipulator; b, there was abduction (Jan was 12 when she was kidnapped the 1st time, and 14 the 2nd time); and c, for whatever reasons, he called her Dolly even though her name was Jan. 
I can’t find anything, but is there any chance Robert Berchtold might have read Nabokov’s novel and got some ideas? 

7/ Now, to go back to The Enchanter, Simon Karlinsky writes:  
“… any comparison of The Enchanter with Lolita is bound to be invidious. Humbert Humbert, Charlotte Haze and Lolita herself were delineated in vivid, unforgettable detail. Their earlier French counterparts were barely traced and not particularly interesting to begin with. The enjoyment of reading The Enchanter is comparable to the one afforded by studying Beethoven's published sketchbooks: seeing the murky and unpromising material out of which the writer and the composer were later able to fashion an incandescent masterpiece.” 
I suppose I should keep that in mind. 
My impression right now is that the story doesn’t work so well when it has a 3rd-person narrator, and the unnamed man in The Enchanter doesn’t have Humbert Humbert’s sophistication. All the descriptions, from his point of view as he watches the girl, seem rather crude, revoltingly crude.