Would you Want to be Friends with a Paedophile?


I just read an article in The New Yorker called ‘Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’, which was written in 2013, some six decades after Vladimir Nabokov wrote the book, Lolita, in which the character Humbert Humbert: the fictional paedophile in question here, features.

In the article, various writers talk about the differences between real people and fictional characters with respect to whether it’s possible ever be friendly with characters that are written in such a way that they are unlikable. This is, in essence, what they say:

Clair Messud says “The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?””

Donald Antrim says that he does not read in order to identify with, like or dislike characters. The rest of what he says is filled with questions around the matter, with few answers.

Margaret Atwood says “Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters.” By this, she means that we read books for different reasons than we choose friends and companions. I would say that the former is for entertainment & vicarious thrills and the latter is for mutual support of various kinds.

Rivka Galchen says (quite optimistically) that “Writers are constantly conscious of the emotions they are eliciting in a reader.” Unfortunately, that’s one of the few intelligible statements she makes here. The rest of it reminds me of being stuck talking to an interminable bore (any bore) at a party (any party). Long-winded and empty of real substance.

Jonathan Franzen, by contrast, is brief, to the point and draw the evidence for his opinion (“You’d unfriend a lot of people if you knew them as intimately and unsparingly as a good novel would.”) from politics. American politics at that. *yawn*

Tessa Hadley’s opinion is that “… it’s so obvious to a writer that they need the grit of bad behavior, or recklessness, or sheer cruelty, or suffering in order to write something true and vivid. No one would want dreary novels full of people behaving considerately, would they?” Hmm. It klnda depends, I guess.

Personally, I think that there’s a difference between knowing someone in ‘real life’ and knowing a character in a book and that this difference is bound up in how much one is privy to that person’s thought and feelings; their private parts.

If you had as much access to the thoughts of your friends as you have with fictional character then you might well run away screaming. With a character in a story, you are safe. You can know many things about their urges, desires, observations and preferences and still not be threatened on any level. But if you had full access to these aspects of a real person, then that’s a different matter.

So, yes, I might want to be friends with Humbert Humbert; but not if I knew what he was thinking, feeling or imagining. Not if I knew him as well as I know him as a character in Lolita. Not if I knew him as well as I know myself.

What about you; BFF with Humbert? Or not.


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