Psychodrama Books

Not Lolita: Aditya Sudarshan reviews Kate Elizabeth Russell’s ‘My Dark Vanessa’

All through this book, from the dedication at the beginning to the acknowledgements at the end, and again and again in between, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is referenced. Evidently, Lolita is that upstanding member of the community of books whose existence ‘validates’ what Kate Elizabeth Russell is doing in My Dark Vanessa. But the recourse to Lolita is a deception, like almost everything in Russell’s book. In actuality, it is the dangling thread by which Vanessa unravels.

Let me explain what I mean. My Dark Vanessa is a fictional account of a sexual relationship between a 15-year-old schoolgirl and her 45-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane. The eponymous Vanessa, now in her 30s, is poring over all that happened to her in the wake of later sexual abuse allegations made against Strane by other girls. But Vanessa doesn’t consider herself a victim; she regards Strane as her first love. She had lied to protect him when their relationship was first discovered in her school-days, and she never cut off contact with him since. So is she sadly deluded? Or is she right in maintaining that she simply matured early, with a (superior) preference for a literary man over callow boys?

Distressing experience

This is an interesting premise, and it is drawn out for close to 400 pages, with certain details of Strane’s selfish behaviour raising red flags of abuse in the reader’s mind, while Vanessa’s stubborn insistence on having wanted the relationship continuously complicates the issue. The quandary seems believable enough, especially in light of Lolita, which both Strane and Vanessa keep talking about.

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But the reader who buys this premise is in for a purely confusing and distressing experience. Given a weakness for mere sensations, such a reader might praise and thank Russell for the ordeal (as is happening in many quarters).

Even someone more critical, like the reviewer in The Atlantic, who revisited Lolita and then wondered: “How could any of this ever have been understood — by Vanessa or by Russell — to be a love story?” will remain ambivalent (“[Vanessa] is an immensely difficult person to spend time with. Is she a valuable one, in the end? I still can’t decide.”), if unable to assess the size of the lie.

It’s abusive

For My Dark Vanessa is indeed a lie, one that involves such a meretricious use of fiction that it calls for a fuller exposure than is possible here. The clue to the lie is how flagrantly Russell mischaracterises Lolita. To begin with, Nabokov is hardly renowned for his empathy. Lolita is something of a self-conscious exercise in seeing how far the lyricism of sentences (in which matter Nabokov has few peers) can obscure essential ugliness. No serious thinker would go to Lolita, in the first instance,for a psychological understanding of child sexual abuse. Yet even so, Nabokov had enough psychological sense to avoid depicting Dolores Haze in love with his narrator, Humbert.

Not Lolita: Aditya Sudarshan reviews Kate Elizabeth Russell’s ‘My Dark Vanessa’

Humbert romanticises Dolores, but she merely endures him, being also dependent on him. The person for whom Dolores does fall head over heels and risks everything is not the well-spoken, well-mannered Humbert (on whom her mother, contrariwise, had a crush), but the flagrant pornogapher and paedophile, Clare Quilty. Thereby, one thing is made clear: Dolores Haze really was 12 years old.

But Vanessa Wye is not 15, or to put it in another way, she is purely fictitiously 15. It is obvious that, in terms of the actual psychology of this character, we are reading about a much older woman. Let us recall that fiction does not invent its own truth; it must answer to reality. A world of reality separates an adolescent, including an adolescent who is “old for her years”, from an older woman role-playing an adolescent, which is what Russell’s literary creation is. Once this is grasped, the banality of this portentous book also springs into view. Vanessa’s knowingness (which is synchronous, and not in hindsight) of every intimate nuance and strand of power play ongoing between her and Strane is seen to be commonplace, as is their whole relationship and the course of it. To wit, a powerful psycho-sensual attraction, a period of lust and mushiness, a perverse episode or two, signalling the absence of real understanding, and the fact that both parties have been living within their own heads all along, followed by a potentially indefinite time of recrimination, pride and possessiveness.

That all this, though commonplace, really is damaging, and at any age, is the ironic basis of My Dark Vanessa’s emotional valence. But it is not edifying to be sucked into the whirl of an ordinary toxic relationship, now role-played as child abuse, demanding from readers the role-playing of horror-struck therapists. It is abusive, and like all abuse, should be called out as firmly as possible.

There is more to be said about My Dark Vanessa and all that is linked with it — the curiously twisted fiction coming out of MFA programmes; the compulsive associations of modern classrooms with power play; the compulsively pathological imagination of sex. But those are longer discussions.

My Dark Vanessa; Kate Elizabeth Russell, Fourth Estate, ₹499

The writer is the author, most recently, of The Outraged: Times of Strife.

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 6:20:43 PM |

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