Among the other fine texts of import that I have been ploughing my way through of late, I recently read Nabokov's Lolita, for the first - and likely last - time.
For those that don't know it, it's the story of Humbert Humbert. Humbert likes young girls. A little too much. So much so that he moves in with and then marries a woman he dislikes just so he can get close to her twelve-year-old daughter, and then plots various ways in which to get the mother out of the way so he can drug the daughter and have his way with her. Conveniently for him, the mother is killed in an accident and he runs off on a cross-American road trip with the daughter - Dolores, or Lolita.
The way he tells it, while he admits wanting to make the moves, she seduces him, and is a willing and active participant - albeit later seemingly rather weary - in their very non-father-daughter relationship.
It's a very uncomfortable read - apparently it's a comedy, but I didn't particularly find Humbert funny so much as creepy and disturbing. I also couldn't tell whether I was supposed to feel sorry for him, because I couldn't do that. He struck me as a cruel and selfish man who seemed to have no interest in the way his desires were affecting those around him.
I guess the main thing this book got me thinking was this: Is it possible to like a book if you feel so strongly negative about its protagonist?
It's not something I've come across too often. Having a look over my bookshelf there's not a lot there where the protagonist is a horrible person. Sometimes they do horrible things, and as a reader I disagree with their choices, but I can't think of any examples where they are just bad people.
My most recent point of reference, if I have to find one, is The Corrections, which I loved. Franzen's characters were all deeply flawed and, in some ways, very unlikeable people, and yet their story really drew me in and I missed them when it ended.
I think the difference is that I could sympathise with those characters. I didn't like them, but through the story I could sort of see how they'd ended up where they had in life.
The other factor, I think, is that for the most part they knew they were flawed. Humbert only ever seems apologetic about his actions in order to be thought of well by the reader, not because he actually thinks he has done anything wrong, and at times he seems to be trying to present himself as the victim in the mess he has created. And I just couldn't get behind that.
In the end, it's a bit of a moot point because I didn't love Lolita for more reasons than just Humbert's awfulness. The story annoyed me and the writing style kept me from getting nicely lost in the plot. I just didn't care and I think that not caring led to a not particularly careful read, so at the end, when I was supposed to be able to 'guess' certain twists, I had no idea. And I didn't even care that I had no idea.
I do wonder though, if I could have forgiven more of the books shortcomings if Humbert hadn't been so determined to make me hate him.