Primo Levi Meets Berryz Koubo, Lolita Turns 50

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

I’m currently finishing up a freelance assignment on Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. When I agreed to the job, I hadn’t considered that the close proximity of the deadline to Christmas would bring up a strange rush of feelings. As it is, people around me have had to deal with the occassional observation about the Holocaust in the midst of their usual holiday chatter. I find myself thinking of the six million dead, of the horrific details in the book, of Levi committing suicide down a flight of stairs, forty years after surviving the camps… It certainly puts things in perspective.

Anyway, as with most of my writing, I find it easier to concentrate with some familiar music playing over earphones. So as I dove into my latest session of keyboard-tapping and idea-scrounging this afternoon, I put on a disc of Berryz Koubo PVs…

But as I worked, simple facts about the Holocaust were bringing tears to my eyes – I’d been steeped in it for a couple weeks now, after all, and looking at other accounts beyond Levi’s. Even the most bare-faced statistics about Birkenau or Operation Reinhardt are troubling, objective "facts" hinting at the horror beneath. That made me listen more intently to the Berryz, because I couldn’t sink into the depression that comes with this topic. I had work to do and I wanted to make sure the work I did was properly informative, would carry across how serious this all was…

Anyway, that anchor to a tangible happiness – Momoko and Chinami and Risako and the rest, the cutesy harmonizing and bubbly melodies – may not be most people’s ideas of a proper response to the depths of the Holocaust. The oddness of this juxtaposition struck me especially hard today, too, for some reason. But it did make sense, if only because it brought a simple, unabashed happiness – a sense of rightness in the world, especially useful when facing such a huge injustice. So in a way, Berryz put things in perspective, as well.

I do recommend Survival in Auschwitz, for those who’ve yet to read it. It’s bleak, but bleak should have some place in one’s life, as should pure ebullient joy. The two complement each other, as Levi himself pointed out.

Shifting gears a little, I hadn’t realized it’s been fifty years since Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was first published, but a wonderful article at Slate reminds everyone: it’s a disgusting book, whose shock value hasn’t aged in half a century. Thank God for that, you know? Here’s my favorite part of the review, which itself is pretty hit-and-miss in its appreciation:

Lolita turns 50 this year, and having stayed so perverse, it remains fresh as ever. To fully appreciate its perversity, though, one must first appreciate that it is not obscene. Your run-of-the-mill obscene masterwork—Tropic of Cancer, say—demands that you, enlightened reader, work your way past the sex and excrement to recognize how beautiful it is. But with Lolita, you must work past its beauty to recognize how shocking it is. And for all its beauty, for all its immense ingenuity and humor, one easily forgets how shocking Lolita is.

It’s the beauty that first strikes the sensitive reader, the power of the words of a man so utterly in love; from there, the utter wrongness of that love must be rooted out from the beauty, and held to judgment in light of its amoral ruthlessness. (Of course, that’s for the sensitive reader – those who know the novel’s premise and immediately turn Away from the book’s considerable charms, they’re lost causes from the beginning and not worth considering. I’m sure VN himself didn’t give them a second thought.)

But that is all a moral reading. I daresay that a part of VN’s soul – a part not even conceded by his narrator Humbert Humbert, a tightassed romantic if ever there was one – actually revels in the amorality of the whole shebang, the playing of unspeakably vile possibilities, the ping-pong of victimhood and predation between characters. VN had a real knack for exploring the hidden desires of the human soul in a way that was poetic and even funny – trust me, Lolita is a hilarious read – and there must be a certain glee in the exploration, a love of willful perversity for its own sake… It’s not the same kind of glee as a De Sade, by any means, or of a more obvious eroticist such as Henry Miller; if anything, it’s cockeyed optimism posing as moralistic judgment, in the same manner of kids playing cowboys and Indians.

That’s what I see in Lolita, as well. The glee of being naughty, the unapolgetic chutzpah of Oscar Wilde’s amoral storyteller. As for the relationship of all this to Jpop… well, that should be obvious, I think. Or at least can be teased out and guessed at, like the wink from a fetching twelve-year-old that leaves one in a dolorous haze.

And I’ve recommended VN’s masterpiece before, but I’ll do so again. As wonderful as U15 Jpop can be, it doesn’t compare to the sheer beauty of this novel’s twisted romance. 

Well, maybe Momoko can compete. But I won’t get into that right now.

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3 Responses to “Primo Levi Meets Berryz Koubo, Lolita Turns 50”
  1. Japonaliya says:

    Lolita is considered by many (inc. a “Final Jepoardy” answer) to be the greatest 20th c. Am. novel, just as Melville’s Moby Dick is the best Am. 19th c. novel.
    Besides the prose, the beauty of the book is how VN was able to write such a darkly humourous book side by side with real pathos…. VN himself though not being overly moralistic per se, did reprouch the pedophilia theme in his book, and made references in his notes about other writers like Charles Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll who DID have a facination with young girls…Ironically, the first published work VN did was a Russian trans. of Alice in Wonderland Berlin, 1923.
    Also, the book is widely known to be a thinly veiled metaphor about the seduction of the “old” by the “new”, in this case Humbert symbolizes the “old” world, Europe, and Lolita, the “new” world, America.
    Another irony is that it is not Humbert, but Lolita that finally seduces, and she, even at 12, is not a virgin to boot (having lost her virginity to a camp conselor the previous summer)
    I really think the Hello Project’s next musical should be based on “Lolita” with Momoko of course in the lead role…

    I can see Tsunku arranging new versons of H!P songs for the musical… “Do it Now!,” “Love Machine”, “Osaka Love Song”, “Morning Coffee”, and of course, “Impatient Sex”!!!!

  2. As much as I love Lolita, I’ve always felt that Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Gaddis’ J R were better contenders for greatest American novel of the 20th century… but that’s an obvious bias showing.

    As for Lo seducing Hum… I’d brought that up in two different classes I’d taken (one as an undergrad, one in grad school). Both times, I was firmly reminded that Hum is the quintessential unreliable narrator, so he may have been making that up. Personally, I don’t see the point in questioning that part of HH’s story, but apparently it makes some people feel better to assume that Lo was an innocent deflowered by HH. (Again, as if teen sexuality did not exist.) Go figure.

    I like the idea of an H!P Lolita musical. Momoko as Dolores Haze, Mikitty as Humbert Humbert, and perhaps Yossi (the seductive tomboy) as Quilty? Hm…

  3. Japonaliya says:

    I agree..somewhere I know I’ve read that too..that since Humburt is the narrator, we can’t be sure of anything. But….it would be out of character for Humburt to admit to Lolita’s pror escapades as it would diminish his own sense of importance..then again…
    Anyway, no matter what its rank in the list of 20th c great novels, Lolita defined the undefinable at the time (1955)..hence the novel’s title now being synonymous with any attactive, or seductive under-age girl.
    Hmmmm….Momoko ect..?
    About the “musical”..now that I think about it, there are just too many kawai girls in H!P.

    Maybe the musical should be “Gaius” (Caligula) with Tsunku (of course) playing the title role !!