Culture Wars/Current Controversies

On Good People and Bad People

By Matt Taibbi

I reread Lolita this weekend, as I do every few years or so, usually when I’m down or uninspired or feeling like I’ve forgotten why people choose the writing life. 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?

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