H is for Humbert Humbert, the rascally narrator of Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita. Throughout the novel HH, a sardonic European, provides a running critique of conformist 1950s America, his adopted home. Pining for the haunting, ineffable feeling associated with a brief, tragic childhood love, HH engineers a series of unfortunate events in order to abscond with (and eventually seduce) twelve-year old Lolita Haze. Yep. That’s right. A child-molester made this list. But if you’ve ever read Lolita, you know how charming and funny this son-of-bitch is. Lolita is in a special class of books in the Biblioklept library; it’s one of those books that I’ve read in full at least four times, and one that I pick up and read parts of every year. The first time I read Lolita, I didn’t even realize what a monster HH was–in fact, I tended to sympathize with him, even to the point of sharing his condemnation of Lolita’s bratty, manipulative nature toward the end of the novel. Like Catcher in the Rye, I first read Lolita when I was 16; like Catcher in the Rye, Lolita was an entirely different book when I read it at 21. Somehow the book managed to change again, four or five years later. I’m sure Lolita will be completely different in a year or two when I’m thirty. In fact, I vow here and now to re-read it in full right after my 30th birthday. Who knows what will have happened to it by then? How these books change on you…
Narratological shape-shifting aside Lolita deserves to be read, and read repeatedly. Nabokov’s highly alliterative prose reverberates with lyrical gymnastics, multi-lingual puns, and allusions that will make you feel oh-so clever (if you are indeed oh-so clever enough to get them, of course). Neither Kubrick’s toothless 1962 film adaption or Adrian Lyne’s gauzy 1997 attempt do any justice at all to Nabokov’s words–this is one you simply have to read. Great stuff.
H is also for Hand, zany foil to Will, the tormented narrator of Dave Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity!. In this book, the pair embarks on a futile attempt to travel the globe giving away an enormous amount of money Will has recently received as part of an injury settlement. This scheme turns out to be much more difficult and much more complicated than they had imagined. Hand is one of my favorite characters because he’s just really damn cool–a strange combination of someone’s hip older brother mixed with someone’s annoying younger brother. My favorite part of Velocity is the fifty page section where Hand takes over the narrative, casting doubt on everything that Will has previously told the reader. Will then resumes the narrative, but at that point, the book–and Will’s status as a reliable narrator–has taken an entirely different shape. Although the story ends at a wedding, Velocity is ultimately a tragedy; the very first page announces Will’s death. But again, the whole narrative is cast in ambiguity and doubt. I loved this book so much that I bought it for a friend.
(Incidentally, Hand also tuns up in “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,” one of Eggers’s short stories collected in How We Are Hungry).