Sometimes I like to think about the kind of books that I admire, trying to find patterns in my likes and dislikes. It reveals some truth about my own personality to myself and muddles up some other parts but it's always a fun exercise in the end. A great book, to me, is also often a simple book, but it's the simple ones which are the most difficult to write. They are books about normal people who are trying to survive in what is essentially an unsympathetic world. They live lives of the everyman with unfulfilled desires and suffocated passions while trying to make the best they can of the hard hand that they have been dealt. Being humans they fumble and make mistakes and weaken and break down. And being humans they scheme in little ways and betray those who love them. Theirs is a gray world with muddled up moral boundaries and vague rationality. There is nothing special about the dark side of their nature as they are compassionate and loving in the same useless kind of way in which they are devious and cruel. They all want to be someone else and be somewhere else just like the rest of us and they have all the insecurities that we all have. Those special characters which appear so different from us in the pages of the greatest literature are actually the ones which are closest to all of us. What elevates such books to greatness is the explicit presentation of this unity of human emotions - a rare talent which only the greatest minds possess. As we see the world from our myopic visions, what we miss the most are the things closest to us. It takes a special mind to make us aware of those truths again.
Let's take the example of a book I often like to think about: Lolita. Only an idiot would actually think that the sinful charm of the book lies in its subject matter. Yes the book talks about the eloquent Humbert Humbert who happens to have a thing for young girls but that's not the point really. The towering achievement of the book is the fact that it manages to evoke an immense sympathy for its 'debauched' protagonist. And it manages to do that in the face of all the received wisdom that has been injected into our veins over the last half century. Nabokov didn't go for the low hanging fruit. It's easy to feel repulsed by such a man because that's precisely what we have been conditioned to do. Nabokov managed for us to feel sorry at his loss. And he managed it by appealing to some of our deepest hidden and purest of feelings. The feelings of intense romantic passion and the unqualified capacity for care that it engenders. The myriad explosion of complex emotions that come in its wake, including the willingness to flaunt the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior and the readiness to be insensitive and hurtful to others. The book is really about how cruel the business of love can be and Lolita, in the form of the 13 year old girl, is the cruelest of them all. The thing that disturbs me the most about the book is that it succeeds too well as a work of art. A good work of art must not have an automatic moral agenda and Nabokov's Lolita has none either. But in his absolute genius Nabokov ends up completely polarizing my sympathies towards the adult 'transgressor'. Lolita's story and her sufferings, which must surely exist, are completely forgotten. It's a sad fallout of the book. The young 13 year old who might have begun her escapades in sinful curiosities must surely have grown older with emotional scars aplenty. It's not even a hypothetical and a purely fictional situation either. I do not know how else to put it but it's a little sad that in Nabokov's resplendent and erudite prose, the simple voice of Lolita's pain and happiness could not find a place - just like it must happen time and again in our real adult world. And perhaps that's Nabokov's final masterstroke and a meta sort of interpretation of my theory of great books. Lolita presents a faithful and sad-eyed reproduction of reality in the mute sufferings of the 13 year old!