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IPFS News Link • Political Theory

Taibbi: On Good People And Bad People

•, by Matt Taibbi

I revere the book for a hundred reasons, most having to do with its extraordinarily savage humor, but this time around, affected by depressing thoughts I've had reading news of late, I found myself asking a new question: how can I like Humbert Humbert?

Vladimir Nabokov was obsessed with puzzles, tricks, and ploys. All his novels make treasure-hunts out of his effusive wordplay ("We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop. 1001"), and his fascination with chess is such an overt theme that one starts to feel the logic of the game everywhere. When protagonist Humbert incautiously dismisses the danger of recording his pedophilic fixations in a diary by saying, "Only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script," and a short time later comes up with his too-clever-by-half plan to rape the daughter by way of marrying the mother, it hits us like revealed check when Charlotte Haze really does discover, and read, the devastating journal — the twist was sitting there all along. Humbert was a laughably clumsy criminal, but a flawless narrator whose confessional is a succession of such devious gambits and traps, in which he exults in thinking nine moves ahead of his reader-judges. Is conspiring to trick us into sympathy with the unforgivable another of his ruses?

It isn't. In a story that piles word-games atop word-games — the whole subplot involving Humbert's Dostoyevskian opposite Clare Quilty is a chess match, in which Humbert loses his queen — the most confounding plot device of all, the question of how we can not only tolerate but become fast friends with the book's demonic narrator, is no manipulation. Humbert Humbert is nearly a purely evil character, who not only kidnaps and rapes his "darling" twelve year-old Lolita but conspires to have a baby with her and rape that child. His "confession" is nothing of the sort. He's not retelling his breathless story to expiate guilt, in the Christian sense (the idea would have bored him to neuralgia). That he presents his appeal to the "winged gentlemen" of his cosmic jury as such is another of his chess-ruses, and a particularly disgusting one. He recounts the vilest scenes of his crime spree in such ecstatic slow motion that we realize he's conned us, like a serial killer who, having led police to his burial ground, pants and grabs at himself with pleasure.