The recent outbreak of Reform Party boobery on Parliament Hill can perhaps be seen as Ottawa's first salute to the Vladimir Nabokov centennial. Nabokov, one of the great novelists, was born on April 22, 1899. In the 1950s he wrote Lolita, a comic masterpiece about an adult male's love affair with a girl who is 12 years old when the story begins. It appeared first in Paris, issued by a firm known mainly for pornography, and many believed the theme would keep it off the open shelves forever. Then literary barriers began collapsing, and in 1958 Lolita was published in the ordinary way. It attracted criticism as well as praise, and so did both movie versions of it, but for generations its place of honour in literature has been acknowledged--until last week, when Reform MPs said it should be banished from the Parliamentary Library.
To be fair, the Reformers were drawn into this spectacular boneheadedness by a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, Glen McGregor. He was interviewing Art Hanger (Calgary Northeast) on an unrelated matter, not long after Reform had made loud noises about a British Columbia judge's decision that the ownership of child pornography is not illegal under the Charter of Rights. McGregor wondered whether Reform's position would include Lolita, and asked Hanger about its presence in the Parliamentary Library. Hanger had not heard of the novel or its author, so McGregor described the theme. To which Hanger replied (an assistant of Hanger's tells me that the quotes are correct, not McGregor's malicious invention): "Is that a norm in our society? A sexual relationship between an adult male and a 12-year-old? I don't think it is. I think they should basically remove it. I don't find it a work of literature."
Now, there are effete snobs who assume the Reform Party is a home for the incurably dim, but must the MPs work so hard to prove it? Hanger's comments are rich in implications. He assumes the Parliamentary Library should contain only books that describe normal relationships, an interesting if impractical approach to information management. He also believes that an assessment of literary value can be made on the basis of a one-sentence summary from a newspaper reporter.
McGregor says he then spoke to four more Reform MPs. None had heard of Lolita, none of Nabokov. One of them, Ken Epp (Elk Island, Alberta) opposed removing Lolita, on free-speech grounds. The rest sided with Hanger--most remarkably Inky Mark (Dauphin--Swan River, Manitoba), who is Reform's official critic of culture and the other subjects covered by Heritage Canada. I called him, too, just to be sure, and he said that, without reading it, and without having previously heard of it, he knows Lolita violates the Criminal Code. Therefore--he said this with credible earnestness--it would be hypocritical of him not to call for its removal. I asked if he were, as the Ottawa Citizen claimed, a former high-school English teacher. (If untrue, that would be an outrageous libel.) He saw what I was getting at and said that English wasn't actually his main subject. He's a Special Ed teacher, really, but at the Dauphin Regional Comprehensive High School they sometimes slot you into teaching what you might not necessarily have chosen to teach. So yes, for five or six years of the 1990s, he taught English.
Of course, no law demands that MPs know anything about great writers, even MPs who taught English. But there is a rule that most people in politics accept as reasonable: that of which you do not know, you should not speak. Violating that rule argues a severe lack of shrewdness. In this connection, it should be noted that both Hanger and Mark will attend the United Alternative conference in Ottawa February 19-21. So they are among the slender reeds on which my friends among the intellectual conservatives have rested their hopes for an effective new political alliance.
As for Lolita, there's no record of anyone developing pedophilia as a result of reading it. Humbert Humbert, the central figure, is obsessed in a way that no one could find enviable. On the other hand, anyone who reads it stands in danger of being enthralled forever by Nabokov's sensuous prose and delicate satire. Moreover, readers can develop a heightened sense of the absurd and possibly experience certain difficulty in taking the pieties of North American life seriously. It is also possible that Lolita will push its readers toward a larger view of the mysteries of human desire, and perhaps even evoke a degree of sympathy for those whose instincts are not, as Art Hanger would say, normal.