Sympathy for the Devil

Reading John Banville’s The Book of Evidence has got me thinking about Lolita.  Both are set up as the comic memoirs of imprisoned murderers, which sounds like an unpromising genre but works because the narrators are so urbane and witty (while at the same time being revealed as deeply nasty humans).  The humor mostly comes from the snobby narrator’s raised-eyebrow accounts of an alien culture (Lolita’s Humbert Humbert as a European among the motels and roadside attractions of ’50s America, Banville’s Freddy Montgomery as a cosmopolitan aristocrat who is techically Irish but feels like a foreigner in the provincial and impoverished Ireland of the ’80s).

Here, for example, is Freddy describing his return after years of absence from the family home:   

We went into the kitchen.  It looked like the lair of some large scavenging creature…The toes of three or four pairs of shoes peeped out from under a cupboard, an unnerving sight, as if the wearers might be huddled together in there, stubby arms clasped around each other’s hunched shoulders.

 For all their similarities, The Book of Evidence doesn’t trouble me the way Lolita does.  Freddy, for all his wit, is so horrible, so selfish, greedy, arrogant, brutal and generally not very nice, that I never find myself tempted to root for him.  His self-presentation is fun, but not very difficult, to unmask.  Humbert Humbert, on the other hand, has succeeded in charming many readers.  Stacy Schiff says, in a 50th anniversary piece for the NY Times, that male reviewers generally sympathized with HH and condemned Lolita (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/16/opinion/16iht-edschiff.html).  This seems pretty bizarre, but HH is masterful at taking the focus off the nature of his abuse, whether by mythologizing its object as a “nymphet” (rather than a defenseless 11-year-old girl)  or by mocking her cultural environment (which is certainly mockable) or by portraying himself as a victim of love.

We are given plenty of clues that we should be wary of HH: he beats his first wife, he is mean to animals (always a sign of a character Nabokov dislikes), and occasionally the mask of overpowering passion slips.  At one point, in an outpouring of longing, he writes her name over and over, then includes in brackets an instruction to the printer to continue repeating to the bottom of the page.  In other words, his supposedly spontaneous effusion is a calculated play on our emotions. 

And it is quite typical of Nabokov to place us in the hands of a narrator who turns out to be unkind or untrustworthy or just plain nutso, like Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire who hijacks his commentary on an American poem to tell us how he is the exiled king of Nova Zembla.

So I don’t think that Nabokov is endorsing the sexual abuse of children or anything like that–still, Humbert’s rhetorical power is so seductive that I’m reluctant to go back to the book (I haven’t read it in 20 years) for fear the creepiness will spoil the pleasure, or maybe that pleasure is too closely tied to the creepiness.

If any of you have read the book in recent years, I’d be very curious to know what the experience was like.

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2 Responses to Sympathy for the Devil

  1. Emily says:

    Dear Roy,
    I, too, am frightened to go back to the book (I read about half of it as a teenager, couldn’t “get into it,” but enjoyed the Jeremy Irons-helmed film version) … I was asked to lead discussion on Lolita for a book club in which I’m participating, and I balked, choosing the safety of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What a world!

    • lippenheimer says:

      The safety of Dracula…accidenti! I will say this, I would way rather have Nabby chaperoning my daughter’s field trip than Stoker. Pale Fire is safer, if you haven’t gone back to Nabby at all, or the very charming Pnin.

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