Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hating Humbert Humbert

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.

Cross-posted here.


Ariel said...

Intiguing post, Chesty. And a good question. I know I have enjoyed books with main characters I've disliked (I'm SURE I have), but I'll have to go away and think about whether I can recall what they were. Maybe - at least for me - it's not that you have to like the main character to like the book, but you do have to like SOMEONE in it, unless it's particularly brilliant, I guess.

I started 'Lolita' years ago and couldn't keep going, because it was creeping me out. I think I was about 16 at the time, so the creepy old man was probably even creepier then.

Okay, actually, I think I do remember two books that fit this category. I loved Tom Perotta's 'Little Children' but didn't like anyone in it. It's set in a small neighbourhood and the main characters are an unhappily married woman having a hot fling with a spunky, equally unhappy neighbourhood dad (she's a terrible mother - why I don't like her) and a peodophile just out of jail, living with his mother in the same neighbourhood. His poor mother is the most sympathetic person in the whole book, but she's a fairly minor character. I have just wildly oversimplified what is an excellent book.

redcap said...

So in a way, Humbert is expressing his hatred of himself in making you hate him? Interesting premise - I hadn't thought of that one before.

I didn't mind the book version, but I cannot abide the film. God damn Stanley K. I just wanted to snot Shelley Winters as the mother.

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead springs to mind as a book where the characters were awful but the book a master work. The father is an egomaniac, the mother is a witch and their daughter is an awful, selfish creature who tries to kill them both with poison.

I'm sure if I browse the bookshelves and bookpiles at home, I'll come up with some others.

EmmaK said...

Is it possible to like a book if you feel so strongly negative about its protagonist?
I think it is with Lolita. This book is just sheer genius. The inventiveness of the prose style is just awe inspiring...but you are right, it is hard to get sucked into the narrative. Still, I love that book even though the subject matter is ever so dodgy.

Milly Moo said...

I'm with you, Emmak. I read the book back in 1990 after spending a couple of years 'recovering' from a BA at Adelaide Uni where I was forced to read all sorts of crap and then spent the next decade finding and reading books that I would have *preferred* to have sat through 3 hour exams for.

Anyhow, 'Lolita' was on that list and it blew me away. Humbert Humbert's narrative was written so persuasively that, despite the 100% abhorrence of his 'interests', I could actually sort of empathise with him.

Fellow Paper Drunkards, please - as a parent, a book lover and relatively intelligent person of the human race, what HH does is absolutely unacceptable, full stop. What I mean by 'empathise' is that Nabokov's writing is so damn skilful that it serves a purpose - it shows us how a myriad of explanations and excuses can be used to permit and indulge in such behaviour. Nabokov's writing completely hooked me in - I'll have to re-read it to see if my 39 year old sensibilities can handle it.

Agree with you too, RedCap re Kubrick's movie treatment. It is legally impossible (and absolutely NOT ever going to be acceptable) to film such a subject. The actress must be of a legal age and to see a girl at the 'right' age would be inhumane. There was a remake about ten years ago that also fizzled for the same (justifiably accurate) reason. That's what makes brilliant writing so powerful, the ability to hook you in and get a glimpse into many characters' backgrounds, desires, weaknesses etc that 2 hours of film will never be able to do.

As you were, Paper Drunkards.....

Rosanna said...

Humbert Humbert-like desires is a term I was introduced to during my stint in literature class. It certainly was an interesting topic of discussion. I have never read Lolita, Chesty - in fact, I had no idea there even was such a books.

Thank you for making me aware of it! Unfortunately, I too can't see past his personality.

Chesty LaRue said...

Ariel - I think I either have to like someone, or understand someone, or be amused by someone. It doesn't have to be a major character. Just SOMEONE.

Little Children sounds interesting.

Redcap - I've never seen eiter of the film versions of Lolita.

Oh, except 'Long Island Lolita' but that's a totally different kettle of fish for a way more lowbrow blog.

EmmaK - It just didn't grab me. That said, a lot of people whose opinions I respect love it, so I guess it just comes down to personal taste.

MillyMoo - an interesting perspective. Thanks.

Rosanna - I've not really heard that expression. But I've only ever studied literature in high-school. Blergh reading lists, blergh.

meva said...

I haven't read Lolita. And, Chesty, it's because I just can't get may head around a book with a paedophile as it's 'voice'. Even if it's a negative voice, I don't think I'd enjoy reading it.

Although I'm quite happy to read novels with murderers as the 'voice', so I'm obviously just stupid.

The Blakkat said...

After reading your post & the all the comments I'm in two minds whether to give Lolita another stab. I tried a few years back and abandoned it. I don't even remember why now. I do find it difficult to perservere with a book though if I'm not really into it by about page 10 - even if I can appreciate that it's well written.

Haven't read the book of 'Little Children' but did quite like the film with Kate Winslet & Jennifer Connelly. Bloody disturbing though. Does anyone know how closely it followed the book?

A Ghost's Story said...

Ahhh, H.H., the man you love to hate. I read Lolita by listening to Jeremy Irons read the whole thing... and I'm almost sure I missed great chunks of the story simply because the style wsa clunkly and the subject matter uncomfortable.

However, having said that, you've gotta give it up to Nabakov for making H.H. so damned REAL, really. I'm pretty sure if I met a pediophile in real life he'd want me to like him, to be friends with him and, ultimately, not look at him as some sort of perverted monster. H.H. is self-deceptive in a horrible but real manner that speaks highly to Nabakov's ability to craft a character.

I think Humbert's LACK of even attempting to say "I shouldn't be doing this, I'm a sick man" is what makes the book even more uncomfortable, because you can just imagine him turned loose in the back alleys of, say, some 3rd world country where child prostitution is allowable. What depths he could sink to! What filth and degredation, and STILL be able to more-or-less shrug his shoulders at our disgust.

...Hell, I'm jealous; *I* want to be able to write like that!! If not the actual SUBJECT MATTER, then to be able to craft such a character.

BTW, you knew that the book turns 52 years old on Sept. 18th?? (what do you do to celebrate that, I wonder?? have cake??)

Ariel said...

Blakkat, I think the film of 'Little Children' was a very faithful adaptation of the book, though there was a year or even two between the book and the film for me, so I could be wrong. Still, the book was far superior. I hated the character of Sarah far more on film than I did in the book.