Vladimir Nabokov, Despair

DespairDespair by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despair, Nabokov’s seventh novel, written in Russian, dates from the mid-1930s. It was begun in 1932, serialized in 1934, published as a book in 1936, and translated into English by the author in 1937; Nabokov revised the translation—and, as he notes in his preface, the book itself—for its American publication in 1965. The American reader will encounter a text that, while not as complex, shares the verbal, generic, and ideological game-playing of Lolita and Pale Fire. And Despair shares another characteristic with the author’s most famous novels: an obsessive and deluded narrator who thinks of himself as a genius or artist or great man but who is gradually exposed as a squalidly selfish little monster.

Wikipedia’s spoiler-filled plot summary is so concise that for once I am going to cheat and just paste it in here before discussing the novel (while this gives away the novel’s secret, the secret is pretty obvious from the start; Despair is a parody of a thriller, not a thriller itself):

The narrator and protagonist of the story, Hermann Karlovich, a Russian of German descent and owner of a chocolate factory, meets a homeless man in the city of Prague, whom he believes is his doppelgänger. Even though Felix, the supposed doppelgänger, is seemingly unaware of their resemblance, Hermann insists that their likeness is most striking. Hermann is married to Lydia, a sometimes silly and forgetful wife (according to Hermann) who has a cousin named Ardalion. It is heavily hinted that Lydia and Ardalion are, in fact, lovers, although Hermann continually stresses how much Lydia loves him. On one occasion Hermann actually walks in on the pair, naked, but Hermann appears to be completely oblivious of the situation, perhaps deliberately so. After some time, Hermann shares with Felix a plan for both of them to profit off their shared likeness by having Felix briefly pretend to be Hermann. But after Felix is disguised as Hermann, Hermann kills Felix in order to collect the insurance money on Hermann on March 9th. Hermann considers the presumably perfect murder plot to be a work of art rather than a scheme to gain money. But as it turns out, there is no resemblance whatsoever between the two men, the murder is not ‘perfect’, and the murderer is about to be captured by the police in a small hotel in France, where he is hiding. Hermann who is writing the narrative switches to a diary mode at the very end just before his captivity, the last entry is on April 1.

Like all good summaries, this tells us everything and nothing essential about the novel. Essentially, Despair uses this story—and narrator Hermann’s unreliable conveyance thereof—to parody the thriller genre, to mock and deride Dostoevsky, to satirize the art of literary interpretation (as well as psychoanalysis and Marxism), and to indict and enact (at once) the notion of the artist as demiurge or demigod of his own private universe.

Dostoevsky is referred to by Hermann as “old Dusty,” author of “Crime and Slime.” Nabokov parodies Dostoevsky’s double motif, his interest in abnormal psychology, his jumpy scandal scenes. He hopes to replace the Dostoevskean model of the novelist as prophet and psychologist with a model of the novelist as consummate artist; to do so, he creates a false artist, an artist of sordid crime—Hermann; later Humbert—behind whom he stands as true artist. The true artist creates an artifact to be examined for its own unique and irreplaceable individuality; to train the reader to become an ideal examiner, Nabokov lays out a set of traps trying to get us to merely interpret his novel as a symptom of some other meaning. As Hermann notes:

In fancy, I visualize a new world, where all men will resemble one another as Hermann and Felix did; a world of Helixes and Fermanns; a world where the worker fallen dead at the feet of his machine will be at once replaced by his perfect double smiling the serene smile of perfect socialism. Therefore I do think that Soviet youths of today should derive considerable benefit from a study of my book under the supervision of an experienced Marxist who would help them to follow through its pages the rudimentary wriggles of the social message it contains. Aye, let other nations, too, translate it into their respective languages, so that American readers may satisfy their craving for gory glamour; the French discern mirages of sodomy in my partiality for a vagabond; and Germans relish the skittish side of a semi-Slavonic soul.

I’ll go ahead and confess that the hoax intended for Gallic readers actually had me going: I noted the novel’s homoerotics—in the key of homophobia, revolving around the Narcissus topos—as I read before I got to this passage and realized that they were all part of the author’s derisive design. The last date given in the novel, as Wiki notes above, is April 1—you weren’t taking all these doubles and perfect crimes seriously, were you? The only way to take them seriously is to treat them as the artistic game that they are—Nabokov’s, not Hermann’s.

Nabokov’s aesthetics, and their performance through his narrators’ capacity to write perfect sentences without perfect or even adequate moral comprehension, are an exemplary and understandable 20th-century response to the terroristic qualities of 20th-century ideology (fascism, communism), propaganda (including mass culture and its advertising apparatus), and elite and expert disciplines (psychology, sociology). And the perfect sentences are an enormous readerly pleasure, especially when landscapes or people are to be observed. The desolation of Prague, where Hermann first meets Felix, and the nightmarescape of a Dresden upon which Hermann superimposes memories of Russia—and which inspires a truly terrifying nested dream (“a triple ephialtes”) of Hermann’s about worm-like white dogs—are magnificent:

I went to the window and looked out: there was a dreary courtyard down there and a round-backed Tartar in an embroidered skullcap was a showing a small blue carpet to a buxom barefooted woman. Now I knew that woman and I recognized that Tartar too, and the patch of weeds in one corner of the yard, and that vortex of dust, and the Caspian wind’s soft pressure, and the pale sky sick of looking on fisheries.

All the same, I have never quite understood the assessment of Nabokov as a particularly moral novelist; great moral novelists treat very subtle moral questions (should Anne Elliot have allowed herself to be persuaded not marry Captain Wentworth? what is wrong with Dorothea Brooke’s expectations of marriage? why does Isabel Archer marry and then stay with Gilbert Osmond?), whereas once we have peered behind his narrators’ self-justifications, Nabokov often seems to be telling us, “Don’t commit murder” or “Don’t commit pedophilic rape.” Granted, people often do commit these crimes, but not, I think, for lack of being told that they’re wrong—certainly not for lack of being told that they’re wrong only after the intricate decoding of labyrinthine late-modernist novels.

Despair, being an early attempt at the Nabokovian method (despite the later authorial revision), is more crude than Nabokov’s masterworks. What, really, is at issue in Despair? That Hermann is damaged and dislocated by history (World War I and the Russian Revolution) is implied, but insufficiently; and he is too much the author’s straw man. He is, for instance, supposed to be a Marxist—but this is totally unintegrated into his personality as depicted, except for his tendency to see himself and a tramp as literally equal—a puerile jeer at Marxism, not rising to the level of criticism. Nabokov is the master of games, and I have never been good at games, so perhaps I have missed some of his moves—what, for instance, is going on with Orlovius, a character the Wiki plot summary does not even mention? But the surface of the text was not sufficiently fascinating to make me investigate its organization further.

Lydia and Ardalion (whom she calls “Ardor-lion,” or that’s what Hermann thinks he hears, anyway) play the roles of Dolores Haze and Hazel Shade, the ultimate victims of the narrator’s disregard—and Lydia’s decency and charm make it through the mesh of Hermann’s perceptions, such that we can see his quotidian mistreatment of her as the novel’s one non-melodramatic objective correlative for the evils of treating other people as means rather than ends. But Nabokov secretly shares his narrators’ evilly observant eye too much to ever fully vitiate those narrators’ contempt for their victims. This is fine with me in itself—the idea that novelists are agents of kindness neglects the powerful motivator of the writer’s objectifying impulse—but it tends to muddle the morals that seem at least partially intended by Nabokov. Nevertheless, Lydia and Ardalion are, aside from the sentences, the main reason to read this book; if I had the energy and interest, I would perform for Despair something like Michael Wood’s beautiful re-orientation of Pale Fire around the figure of Hazel Shade in his The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction:

When [Kinbote] says Hazel resembles him in certain respects, we catch a rare glimpse of Nabokov behind him, offering an unusually broad clue to something he is anxious his readers should not miss, what he would call a ‘structural’ effect: the demons of pity are at work in both realms, poem and commentary, Shade’s and Kinbote’s, a sign that love has been harried and dwarfed, rendered insufficient (for Hazel); become unavailable and even unthinkable (for our narrator). This is what I have called hell, where the demons are, at the end of the emotional world.

And a sketch of the Kinbote/Shade relation can be seen in Hermann/Lydia, with her Russian longing, her desire for “everything ‘to be echoed.'”

Aristotle writes of the tragedian that “the poet or ‘maker’ should be the maker of plots rather than of verses.” Nabokov is, as novelists go, a great “maker of verses,” perhaps the greatest after Joyce. But his novels read as if they were composed on index cards, as the later ones were—a discrete series of jewel-like moments. Where is the propulsive outward-inward motion, the furious centripetal force, of the best novels, of Crime and Punishment or Demons? Hermann toys with calling the manuscript we are reading “Crime and Pun.” This is a joke that hits closer to home than his puppet master probably intended.